Elder Goths: When Growing Up Doesn't Mean Abandoning Your Favorite Youth Culture
"We are the first and second generations to age into goth, and we have to stand up and say that there is room for older women in this subculture."
Photos courtesy of Jillian Venters and Mary
Jillian Venters, who also goes by "The Lady of the Manners," has been a goth for most of her life—which means that she's identified as a goth for nearly as long as it's been an identity. She recalls watching the subculture evolve out of its heyday the 80s: "Almost all of the images are of people in their teens and 20s. You have these waif-y, incredibly perfect-skinned little goth girls running around graveyards and looking immaculate."
Today, she lives in Seattle and runs the popular goth blog Gothic Charm School, which is billed on its homepage as "an essential guide for goths and those who love them." Since she's somewhat of an expert in the field, women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s—eldergoths, as she calls them—will occasionally email her with questions about what happens when you're no longer in your teens and 20s, but still running around graveyards (at least on a metaphorical level). Some eldergoths ask her about the best eyeliner for crows' feet; others wonder when to discontinue using Black No. 1. "A lot of them are asking if they're too old to be visibly goth," Venters tells Broadly.
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Her answer, of course, is a resounding no. "We are the first and second generations to age into goth, and we have to stand up and say that there is room for older women in this subculture," she says emphatically. "We don't have to conform to that template that we're too old." Venters often reminds women 40 and over that as the progenitors of the goth movement, they are the ones who set the visual standard.
Born from the looks of Siouxsie Sioux, Rozz Williams, Morticia Addams, and almost any British gothic novel from the 19th century, goth style has evolved over the past four decades. From traditional all black attire, leather jackets and band t-shirts to variations such as cupcake goth (Venter's specific style, which combines a mostly black wardrobe with pink accents), cyber goth, health goth, and mall goth, goth embodies an amalgam of different fashions, each tapping into a macabre and often androgynous sensibility. Fashion choices like dark eye makeup, velvet, leather, corsets, and anything with bats are typical signifiers of the goth scene.
Goth, which emerged from the gothic rock scene in the UK in the late 70s, was initially seen as a youth subculture, attracting people in their late-teens and early 20s who gravitated towards music with darker, more melancholic lyrics that expressed their own sense of alienation. It united the strange and unusual, and the fiercely defiant, and formed tribes of like-minded babybats who loved vampire books and horror films. Since the mid-80s, however, eldergoths like Venters have maintained their spooky aesthetic, never questioning their place in the subculture.
A 2011 study from the London School of Economics and Political Science notes that many goths who enter their thirties, forties, and fifties struggle to balance "personal authenticity" with their understanding of age appropriateness; the factors that contributed most to a decrease in "extremity of appearance" were "the increasing importance of work, the establishment of long-term friendships, and, most of all, the onset of long-term... relationships," according to the study's findings. This is something Venters is well aware of, and she quickly offers a solution for to the work-goth balance. "One of the things that I always point out to people is that there is a called CorpGoth: the taking of normal, mainstream clothing and adding a darker twist," she says. She recommends that, if women want to maintain a darker look at work, wearing all black has an impact, even if you're still wearing a button-up shirt or blazer. You can also pair your business casual with subtle subcultural nods of skull-themed jewelry.
Trystan, a 48-year-old marketing writer from Silicon Valley, is a self-proclaimed "office eccentric." After college, she initially ditched the dark colors she loved in her late teens an early 20s because she wanted to buckle down and become gainfully employed, but she eventually found that dying her hair normal colors and wearing greens and blues just wasn't for her. "I got a job that I hated for about a year and I was so miserable. I was like, 'This job sucks. I hate everything. I'm not doing anything fun," Trystan recalls. She eventually enrolled in grad school, finding a dot com job in the late 90s where she felt comfortable dressing goth, and has dressed that way ever since—but she makes compromises. At work, she refrains from wearing her typical petticoats, corsets, and swirly eyeliner, mostly because she finds it exhausting to spend so much time getting ready in the morning. Instead, she pairs suits and heels with ties and skull pins. "Being an adult goth is a 'pick our battles' kind of thing. It's learning when and where you can have the time and energy to do the big, crazy styles."
Parenthood does not mean the death of your interests or the death of you as a person.
Some eldergoths face other external pressures that dictate whether or not they should continue wearing their beloved subculture on their sleeves. Because of the stereotype that youth-centric subcultures have a shelf life, there's a widespread cultural perception that goth or punk is just a phase—not something you continue as an adult—which can make it difficult for older goths with kids to be accepted by other, more conservative parents. But Venters feels that or having children doesn't mean that women should have to change who they are. "Parenthood does not mean the death of your interests or the death of you as a person," says Venters. "I have friends who are goths who are parents, and they're very adamant about showing their kids that this is who I am, these are the things that are important to me, and I am here for you and I support you."
Mary, an eldergoth who lives in Canada, says she grappled with gothdom and motherhood for a few years. After she first moved to Ontario in 2000 with her young son, her ruffly sleeves and all-black attire posed a challenge to the more colorfully dressed mothers in the conservative city. "I remember one of the mothers saying, 'Are you Goth Mom?'" says Mary, "and I was like, 'Oh, is that how they look at me?'" She felt self-conscious suddenly, and tried dressing more like her new peers: "I never really thought about how I dressed until this woman said that and that made me change my style for a bit. I was trying to fit into the crowd of young moms. But even when I changed my style, I never fit in. Even if you do change your clothes, you can't change what music you listen to or books you like to read. So you'll never have a common ground with the soccer moms."
While her interests didn't match the other parents, to adapt to the normal "mom" look, Mary toned down her Victorian-style garb, replacing it with what she saw as more age-appropriate clothing. "I wore more color, more of whatever the latest trend was. I also worked at a store that was trendy, so I would constantly see the new stuff coming in." For nearly four years, Mary reconfigured her style. But eventually, as her son grew older, she realized that colorful clothing wasn't for her; she began reconnecting with her former style. "It didn't matter what the other mothers thought of me anymore. I just went right back to the way I was. I actually feel more comfortable when I dress the way that I want to. It's the outward expressing the inward."
Natalie, a 36-year-old goth from Lancashire, England, says she sometimes feels a similar pressure to tone down her dress, and struggles daily with whether or not she should put away her bondage belts and corsets in lieu of more "age-appropriate" clothing. "In my younger years," says Natalie, "I used to go out with the full eyeliner, tights and the big floaty skirts, corsets, just to go to shops. Now I change my attire slightly because things that you wear will get a negative reaction. Last time I got a negative comment, I was wearing a pair of black and white stripy tights and a velvet dress and someone shouted at me, "You should be ashamed dressing like that."' At this point, Natalie is determined to stick with her darker aesthetic, but questions like, "How am I going to get away with dressing like this?" and "Is there a time when it's deemed as too old?" still plague her every day.
In Venter's opinion, you're never too old to be goth. She encourages women to embrace the idea that with age comes knowledge, power, and not caring what other people think. And with societal pressure on women to be caretakers, nurturers, and invisible past a certain age, Venters is determined to take up space, encouraging other eldergoths to age as visibly and flamboyantly as possible. "Maybe you think I shouldn't have brilliant pink and burgundy hair at age 48," says Venters. "Whatever. That's your opinion. I don't care."