“To marry sex and death together is a perfect union,” says Parma Ham about latex clothing and the goth subculture.
As a marriage that’s been entangled since the dawn of goth at the turn of the 1980s, the thrilling fascination of both sex and death is ever present. Black, goth’s color of choice, only enhances the allure: The shade of sin, it also reeks of prowess and elegance, two magnetic and essential components of the goth movement.
As a music subculture, goth spans more than 40 years and, for this purpose, will be used as an umbrella term for an array of subgenres and adjacent scenes. With its beginnings in post-punk music—which was a symbiosis of melancholy melodies, synthesizer swells, and eerie atmospheres—an affinity for darkness has always remained. Even goth’s mascot, the vampire, oozes the exciting danger of a sexually charged encounter (Dracula is forever embraced by Bauhaus’ anthemic song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”). The vampire and victim, master and slave, are common themes of power and subservience within the aesthetics of both goth and fetishism. Death or punishment: They beg for it just the same.
Goth's emphasis on fetishistic materials in terms of dress, such as leather, lace, velvet, PVC, fishnet, and latex, ties into the idea of subversion by way of sex. “Sex has always been a taboo subject, and to wear it so brazenly is shocking to most,” says Ham, a DJ, musician, and artist from London who specializes in goth and dark techno. “The shock factor is fun and maybe a little juvenile, but there is the more serious reason to unpack the taboo, as there’s nothing wrong with sex!”
The subculture’s attraction to latex has always been there. “If you sent a goth into a shop, it was just the thing they naturally moved towards,” says former Pure Sex and BOY designer Dave Edmond. While theatrics are exponential to the goth fantasy, latex adds to the visual stimulation. Latex, a material derived from rubber, is skintight and can be uncomfortable. It doesn’t breathe or forgive—but that’s the point. Everything about it is intentional; secretions slide off its shiny surface as the silhouette leaves little to hide.
While there’s no true outline to decipher the extensive relationship between latex and the goth scene (“Latex comes once you get into the [goth] world; it’s just part of it,” says American designer Michelle Uberreste), it seems to have begun with the punk movement. Punk cannibalized underground fetish culture and paraded it around to the masses in the midto late 1970s. As a hodgepodge of sordid styles meant to create shock, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren's SEX shop became a haven for punks in London. And it was a store true to its name— specializing in fetish gear and clothing that was taboo and irreverent, SEX catapulted the look of punk and, thus, the trajectory of goth aesthetics.
“I can’t think of any goth bands that didn’t flirt with that kind of imagery,” says Edmond, who specifically mentions both Siouxsie Sioux and Patricia Morrison of the Gun Club and Sisters of Mercy. “I mean, everybody fed into it.... The female thing was the goth dominatrix look.” Sioux, who got her bearings in the punk scene with all its cultural blasphemy, wore latex as armor in opposition to the sea of punk masculinity from whence she came. Latex clothing became a callous component to the assemblage of symbols with which she decorated her body: to challenge, to disturb—but never to appease the male gaze.
As the first subculture to directly appeal to the feminine, latex provided an element of strength to the gender traditionally thought of as fragile. However, it was not just women who were attracted to it: “It suited the guys because it was a kind of androgynous, feminine look,” says Edmond. Artists such as Rozz Williams of Christian Death led the vanguard of the androgynous goth aesthetic with his display of fetish attributes and religious iconography.
The first to design latex clothing for the subculture in the U.K. was Daniel James, who sold his creations in his shop, Hyper Hyper. James then started the Skin Two nightclub in Soho, London, in 1982 with his business partner, which, as Edmond claims, “was basically a place for people to wear his clothing. And initially, it was a really good club because it was kind of a mixture of full-on perverts, people who used to go to Westwood and McLaren's SEX shop, and young kids. They just wanted to dress up in something that annoyed people.” (Skin Two also became a fetish magazine in 1983 and held prominence for well over two decades.)
Latex, which had previously been restricted to the less stylistic middle-aged fetishists, was now available to a new crowd—and Edmond was in the midst of the frenzy. In the late 1970s, he landed fresh-faced in London and worked for the clothing label BOY, just as post-punk was emerging from punk’s ashes. Designing for Adam Ant, Edmond coupled goth aesthetics with latex early on. He was inspired by drawings from John Willie’s illustrative works, The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, which depicted the damsel in distress suited in shiny corseted dresses and skyhigh heels, bound and gagged in subservient situations. The appropriated designs dripped with sex and danger, which appealed to Ant and his fans.
Edmunds received instructions from the BOY label, which aimed to be at the forefront of goth fashion at the time, to visit London’s Batcave, which opened in 1982, for design ideas. He was drawn to Specimen, the house band, who were the impetus for style at the club with their fixation on extremes. As a decoupage of fetish and androgyny, Jonny Slut and his bandmates took B-movie horror camp and elevated its spooky visual codes. It was here, within the walls of the strawberry-scented fog and spiderwebbed corners of the club, that goth took shape. The clubs were a sanctuary, a fashion show—they were of the utmost importance to the scene at the time.
Johanna Constantine, an American artist who first visited London in the mid-’80s, recalls that influence: “There was no internet to draw from when this hybrid style started happening. I think our dark heroines of the cinema were guides and indicators of what was possible. The Great Tyrant in Barbarella. The endless parade of Hammer Horror murderesses in their black corseted gowns, The Lair of the White Worm. Getting ready to go out was a pleasurable competition of extremes in my social group.” The act of getting ready became just as paramount as going to the club itself. Latex’s ritualistic transformation (the necessity of a clean and powdered body, the act of lubricating) was an agreeable accompaniment to the time-consuming and extravagant look that included back-combed hair and corpse-inspired makeup displayed on all genders.
“It really hit home for me that fetish imagery and modern counterculture were deeply intertwined,” says Constantine. “These ‘private’ looks made public were just the subversive stand against the norm we were all looking for.” Their confrontational outfits mirrored the demeanor of the goth community, and often found their way on stage. The material was suitable to both tantalize and intimidate crowds—for example, paired with Diamanda Galas' haunting voice or to counteract Gitane Dimone’s vulnerable stage presence, their latex outfits cast spells over the submissive concert attendees. Additionally, goth-adjacent bands such as Chris & Cosey and the Nuns focused on the performative aspect of fetish elements as they paraded their sexual fervor in front of their fans. Sleep Chamber toured with the dance group the Barbitchuettes, who engaged in fetishistic and S&M acts during the band’s live shows throughout the 1990s.
Fred Berger, the founder of the goth magazine Propaganda, first noticed latex fashion at New York City’s Danceteria, the club for artists, musicians, and designers, in 1985. Berger had attended a latex fashion show there and, because of his love for the high-fashion fetish photos of Helmut Newton, the shiny material was attractive to him. However, it was not common to see latex at the club: “The fetish influence on goth wasn’t really significant until the mid-’90s,” Berger observes, though he still hesitates to believe it was widespread among the subculture despite its popularity in American clubs such as The Chamber, Helter Skelter, and Jackie 60.
But the beginning of the 1990s welcomed fetishistic trends to the mainstream fashion runways of Versace, Marc Jacobs, and Thierry Mugler where, previously, they had remained underground. The style was no longer simply associated with sexual deviants and therefore became less taboo despite its weight in shock value. With the onslaught of popularity from bands such as the industrial goth act Nine Inch Nails, who shoved raunchy sex into consumers’ faces, the once-subversive looks were now seen on anyone considered to have an edge, such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns.
“[Fashion consumers] were attracted to the dark aesthetics and kinky sexuality of the BDSM lifestyle, but beyond accessorizing with certain fetish items such as bondage collars and wristbands, most never took it any further,” says Berger of latex’s uptick in popularity during that time. “Budgetary limitations and an aversion to the more hardcore aspects of sadomasochism kept most of them in their safe zones.” Just like the runways, latex fashions were reserved for the few because of the hefty price tag and the care needed for the material’s maintenance.
In the 2000s, the prevalence of the internet brought more opportunity for discovery, and Uberreste, who found her fetish gear by way of Lip Service at the turn of the millennium, thrived on the new exploratory aspects that websites provided. “You come across certain things, you listen to certain music, and you gravitate towards that to try to find other people with those interests.... It just becomes part of your identity,” she says. “I always gravitate towards shiny things.”
Brands such as Lip Service were now able to have a wider reach, and suddenly a material once found in specialty shops by exclusive designers such as House of Wax and Syren became easier to access. Thus, as the years progressed with social media, fashion overthrew the subversive exclusivity of latex. Valerie Steele, the author of Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, writes that fashion trendsetters are drawn to the theatricality of fetishistic eroticism and not necessarily the act of getting off on it—quite the opposite of its original intent.
“I feel like it’s arbitrary,” says Uberreste of the current trend in which latex outfits are found on red carpets and influencers such as Kim Kardashian. “The subculture used to inspire high fashion, but now it’s kind of backwards. Twenty years ago the goth scene was all born of the same counterculture, and I find it weird now that it’s a mainstream thing. It’s become more of a trend than what it originally stood for, which was experimentation, creativity, and individualism.”
Still, young and burgeoning latex designers, like the New York-based AW Brand, use platforms like Instagram as just one more way to show off their handmade latex creations. All of AW Brand’s pieces are custom-made and fitted to the wearer’s measurements, with Instagram acting as a clever way to prompt customers to DM for ordering instructions.
While many goths toil with various aspects of social media (the ever-present question of “Who is goth?” and “What is goth?”), the performative aspect of dressing up—whether it be for the club or an Instagram photo—remains vital to the longevity of the subculture. “[Latex] does look edgy,” she continues. “It’s about getting as many eyes as you can. It’s a shock-value thing, which I enjoy, but it bothers me when it goes mainstream for the wrong reason.”
There’s always been the idea of style versus significance within the goth scene, and that conflict has only grown through the sway of today’s social media. Brandished on curated Instagram accounts, latex seems to have lost its clandestine luster in some ways (“It’s all aesthetic with no substance,” says Uberreste). However, it is a material of dichotomy: It “draws attention to the sexual aspects of the body, while simultaneously restricting access to it,” writes Steele in her book. At a time when women’s bodily autonomy is threatened by way of politics, fashion reacts... and what is more liberating than a contained rubber dress?
Vivienne Westwood comments in Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power that “bondage clothes were ostensibly restrictive but when you put them on they gave you a feeling of freedom.” Besides that innate freedom, a latex outfit is menacing but oh-so-glamorous at the same time, a duality found in the goth's beloved vampires. Plus, as Ham adds, “It’s just damn sexy.”