It begins with Gothic architecture, although this is something of an incidental step. Gothic architecture, developed and used from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance, was characterized by an impression of narrowness and height; buildings in the Gothic style managed to be higher and narrower than earlier, Romanesque ones through the use of the slender and pointed Gothic or ogival arch, clusters of slender columns, and flying buttresses (basically, the skeleton of an arch, placed perpendicularly to a wall in order to support it).
During the Early Modern period, the humanities and sciences of the Middle Ages – then conceived of as a savage “dark age” between the enlightened eras of the Roman Empire and the classically-inspired Renaissance – were typically rated on a scale from “utterly barbaric” to “less barbaric, but still barbaric”, and by the time Batty Langley wrote Ancient Architecture, Restored, and Improved in 1742, this style was seen as “coarse” and “artless” and needed to be rehabilitated; where today we see it as having important feats of engineering, it was then generally considered to be ugliness incarnate essentially derived from the loss of culture caused by the destruction of Rome by the (see?) Visigoths.
As the love of Classical art and architecture built up to an extreme at the end of the eighteenth century, however, people started to see a good side to not just the Middle Ages, but a wilder and less pared-down aesthetic in general, and “Gothic” came to take on a new connotation.
For instance, Richard Hurd’s 1762 Letters on Chivalry and Romance described Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, written and published at the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, as a “Gothic poem”. The English started to see the Gothic era as one characterized by, well, chivalry and romance, and particularly important to their country’s history, taking it from a degenerate period to one with important figures to remember and a tradition worth reviving.
And it certainly was revived. In architecture, the Gothic style was being used from the time of Langley, above (that’s what he was writing for – he also published a book of designs for Gothic architecture and interior design), and exploded in a big way in the early nineteenth century.
The Lake Poets, led by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, took inspiration from medieval and English Renaissance literature, and were sometimes referred to as poets of the “second Gothic”. Sir Walter Scott was an early adopter of the fascination with the medieval in both fiction and poetry; his early poems, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), were set in Scotland in the sixteenth century, and he also wrote a number of historical novels.
We must also mention that women’s fashion was moving away from the Neoclassical and making many references to medieval and Renaissance dress, with slashed sleeves, starched white ruffs, and fuller skirts. Outside of England, others were responding to the same impulses against Neoclassical rationality: the German Sturm und Drang, the American Hudson River School, and Transcendentalist philosophers.
All of this together – the historical settings and references, and the love of untamed nature – is also known as the Romantic movement. Gothic/Romantic artwork was lush and wild; novels were full of the kind of excitement that modern people living in the prosaic Industrial Revolution felt was gone from the world.
This movement also saw the invention of the historical reenactment: a full-on medieval tournament was put on by the Earl of Eglinton in 1839, and several years later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert held a ball costumé where the pair dressed as Philippa of Hainault and Edward III and encouraged guests to also dress from the same period.
Romanticism faded away from popularity, not to return again until members of the hippie counter culture in the late 1960s adopted long, flowing skirts, peasant blouses, and long hair on both men and women. This was soon co-opted by the fashion industry, leading to a more mainstream take in the early 1970s. (Think Laura Ashley and Gunne Sax, cravats and ascots, those men’s shirts with ruffles down the front.)
The New Romantics of the 1980s – Spandau Ballet, Boy George, et al. – then took this to an extreme, as did Vivienne Westwood in her 1981 “Pirate” collection, with “puffy shirts” and eighteenth-century-style jackets.
Another aspect of the Romantic era, one which persisted through the late nineteenth century, was an interest in the dark, mysterious, and supernatural. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), for instance, is a classic Gothic horror story; The Monk (1796) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), two Gothic novels referenced in Jane Austen’s Gothic parody Northanger Abbey, were also classics of the genre and featured evil villains, persecuted innocents, and a lot of implausible but exciting situations happening in dark castles. This is the meaning of “Gothic” that the twentieth-century goths were drawing from.
The modern gothic subculture began with gothic rock artists and fans, an offshoot of punk that started in 1979-80, and then went on to combine with the style of the New Romantics – like goth rock and punk, both a musical and a fashionable movement.
Goths pulled from Victorian clothing, wearing black PVC corsets, velvet, lace, and high boots; they also added a lot of crosses in jewelry and tattoos, ripped fishnet stockings, and of course a heavy use of pale foundation and black makeup, none of which were really in use in the nineteenth century.
Modern goths are a post-modern pastiche of the people involved in the literary Gothic movement, many steps removed from the original ancient Europeans.
For further reading, we want to suggest Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy – it’s out of print, sadly, but as it’s a catalog from an exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum it is beautiful. You might also enjoy Valerie Steele’s Gothic: Dark Glamour.