On the singer’s birthday, we revisit her DIY fashion and the London club that inspired generations of teenage outsiders
How does fashion shape adolescence? Every month, Claire Healy deconstructs the ways that style culture has contributed to the idea of the teenager in new series Extreme Adolescents
In a photograph taken by Simon Baker in 1977, Siouxsie Sioux carefully applies bright make-up in a handheld mirror. Transforming her eyes into geometric art, she wears sparkling earrings and a hot-pink blouse. By the early 80s, her fearless look would become iconic, empowering teenaged, raven-haired acolytes up and down the country: she was their ‘godmother of goth’. But Sioux herself always resisted that label. As she would later refer to it, “the doom, the black” – what did the witty effervescence of the Banshees have to do with all that?
Divorced from the style’s roots in the fashion provocateurs of the 1980s, today’s perennial goth – sitting at your bus stop, looking awkward on the beach – can be easy to dismiss. But before the health goth, mall goth, and even the term ‘goth’ was used to describe these children of darkness at all, the movement’s beginnings are intriguing and complex. In its original form, goth style was as much about startling individualism as belonging to a clique: something encapsulated by Sioux’s exotic make-up, bejewelled gloves and nipple-baring fetish gear. In early-80s London, you might find Sioux so outfitted at the movement’s high church nestled in Soho’s backstreets, known as The Batcave.
“It’s a name that people know, even if they never went to it,” writes Liisa Ladouceur, author of the Encyclopedia Gothica. Founded by Olli Wisdom and his band Specimen, the Batcave was the hub of the burgeoning gothic rock scene from 1982 to 1986. The club’s regulars ran the gamut of goth’s hall of fame: there, you’d find Robert Smith, Nick Cave and, of course, Siouxsie and her Banshees watching shows by Specimen or Alien Sex Fiend. More than a club night, The Batcave hosted scary arthouse movies and cabaret nights. In 1983, it even produced a definitive compilation record, Young Limbs and Numb Hymns.
“In its original form, goth style was as much about startling individualism as belonging to a clique”
With the space decked out in all the hallmarks of a Halloween party – spiderwebs, coffins and bin liners – it was the DIY attitude to fashion that would really define The Batcave’s lasting aesthetic influence. Decades before the hot topic fashions preferred by today’s teens, the club’s attendees has no such choice in London’s retail environs. Instead, Batcavers would paint and customise their clothes using whatever they could lay their hands on, and the resulting looks defied gender norms: women’s tights for sleeves, vintage men’s suits and African jewellery were all aspects of the Batcave style that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with your neighbourhood goth today.
Pre-YouTube tutorials, there was an eclecticism also reflected in the beauty looks donned by the goths. Men and women wore make-up in widely different styles, whether inspired by the ghoulish facepaint of Alien Sex Fiend frontman Nik Fiend, or those heavy brows, Egyptian-lined eyes and sharp painted lips of Sioux’s. Others wore sunglasses indoors, as if to plunge their dark vision further into the shadows. In contrast to the battle lines later drawn between teen tribes, it didn’t really matter what you looked like: the club operated with an open-door policy, and welcomed anyone who sought a space to state their difference from the everyday.
Today, “I was a teenage goth” is internet confessionalism writ large. Ex-goths bewail their adolescent phase, crying about their ‘virtually miserable’ and ‘sartorially defective’ years. But fashion has been central to our vision of the goth, adolescent or otherwise. From Alexander McQueen’s gothic princesses to Rei Kawakubo’s ‘black crows’, fashion visionaries have taken on the tropes of goth with the anti-formulaic approach of the Batcaver originals. McQueen’s MA collection, dubbed “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”, featured jackets lined with human hair. For the Batcavers, the club’s location on the streets of Soho gave it a similarly dark Victorian flavour; as David J of Bauhaus recently told The Quietus, “It was easy to project one’s gothic fantasies on that locale.” Perhaps more true to the unrefined DIY nature of the Batcavers’ style was Rodarte’s influential SS10 collection: the duo, obsessed with slasher films, sent out torn scraps of found fabric resembling cobwebs woven on the body (with a strong goth lip, of course). At Valerie Steele’s comprehensive Gothic: Dark Glamour exhibit at the FIT in 2008, Specimen band member Jon Klein��s ‘Pigeon Shit’ jacket, daubed to look like it had been pooped on, was on display alongside Rick Owens garments and Victorian Mourning dresses – proof, if ever it was needed, that goth fashion will always resist easy definition.
In a television segment from 1983, a balding newsreader in a suit and tie asks, “Where do young people go in the dark hours of the London night?” The answer was, of course, the Batcave, but the question of destination – like the northern soul dancefloors of the 70s, or illegal raves in the 90s – is inextricably tied to dress. For subsequent generations who identified as goth, Siouxsie Sioux and her army of fans sketched the blueprint: wild make-up, a preference for black layers and a gender-bending attitude are all part of the modern goth’s toolkit. More than this, the proto-goths of the 1980s were powerful proof of the primacy of clothing in true self-expression, regardless of money. The do-it-yourself dynamic of the Batcavers’ style, finally, reconciled the tension between fitting in and standing out that still marks adolescence – as well as its dark impulses.