1,600 Years of Gothic Fashion: Unders/Outers

Photography by VIONA IELEGEMS Model: Amaranth from the Noble Blood Vampire Chronicles
Photography by VIONA IELEGEMS Model: Amaranth from the Noble Blood Vampire Chronicles

Photography by
Model: Amaranth from the Noble Blood Vampire Chronicles

Anyone who’s worn black for a funeral or white for a wedding. Anyone who’s looked at a slip and thought, I could rock this as a dress. Whose idea of a little black dress includes sequins and lace and a corset … or a not so little billowing skirt made out of chiffon.  Anyone who has fled a mansion along a sea path, looking back over their shoulder and stumbling on the hem of a frilly white nightgown.

Anyone who’s tried out a smoky eye. Or dark lipstick. Black nail polish. Dyed hair, dyed clothing, a garnet choker. Vintage. Anyone who loves vintage!

Anyone who’s mourned a loss, who’s worn a locket that treasures a photograph or a strand of hair to hold on to love just a bit longer. Anyone who has discovered the beauty in weeping, and in ruins, and in a cycle of life that includes life’s end, and what lies beyond. Anyone who dwells in thoughts of The End and wants to look amazing right up until the eternal curtain descends.

Welcome to timeless gothic style.


We are in a very Goth moment (actually, we’ve been in one for about forty years now), in which we make our own rules as we plow along and then we break those rules. It’s all about breaking, really, and surprising, and acknowledging the yawning nearness of the grave. We dress for distress, our own (for we are creatures of infinite melancholy) and others’. They see us doing our thing, and they feel unsettled. Plus jealous. We win.

Goth subculture (let’s try to drop the “sub”) is the most enduring of the movements that formed around the DIY ethos of 1970s to 1980s punk. It’s also extremely creative, as the waves of surprise can be flashes of inspiration. A raven-haired angel, basking in the shadows of Highgate in black wings and her skivvies, might inspire the fashions that walk the next Milanese runway. But before we climb onto the catwalk, let’s peel away some layers and contemplate the very first gothic disruptions … meaning the Goths of the late 300s.

If you belonged to one of those Germanic tribes that started invading the Roman Empire, you wore what you killed. That meant a lot of fur and wool, and even though you could sew a bit, you held the pieces of your outfit together with thorns and animal bones.

You itched. You were lucky if you owned a linen undergarment to soften the border between your skin and your clothes, let alone something special to sleep in. You had probably never even heard of lace. You wore black and brown because those were the colors of your sheep, wolves, and deer.

But la-di-da, suddenly here you were in France and Spain and Italy and wherever. You’d broken the mighty empire down. And now that you weren’t running from the Huns anymore (they were the real enemy, not those enfeebled Romans), you had time to cultivate a few luxuries, such as underwear. Comfortable underwear that not only put a layer between you and your leather but might even … in a few centuries’ time … look … pretty. And clean.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Middle Ages (about 800 to 1453) were the era of the shirt, the chemise, or the shimmy. It was theoretically an undergarment, but if you shed your wool cloak and tunic, you were still semi-decent in your chemise. That was all a girl generally needed underneath, and it would grow into the nightgown of today—and the sack dress of the 1970s—or really, just the dress, period. Some shapes are classic in origin. You can always pile on details and accessories.

Come to think of it, why not add the cloak back?

A man wouldn’t need braies—long linen drawers tied on with string—unless he was out and about. They stayed pretty much the same for centuries,
just changing length as tunics divided into jackets and outer woolen braies, the codpiece had a heyday in the Renaissance, and trousers sprang into being. Women’s chemises changed even less; hence the timeless quality to the covers of 20th century gothic romance novels. And that Edwardian corset cover, a little tattered but still fabulous, that you’re thinking you’ll wear to the beach.

As clothing grew more elaborate in the 1400s and 1500s, changing your underwear was considered as good as taking a bath in actual water. Oh, you might wipe yourself down with a linen towel in between—that was considered a bath too—but all those elaborate gowns and jackets and breeches that you (or your queen and king) got to wear, the ones that make modern hearts beat fast, were unwashable. There was no way to clean them, other than a sprinkle of powder and an airing outside.

So underthings became a way of protecting the clothes from the person, rather than the other way around. And as they grew certain of their own importance, they started to assert themselves. They were the Goths of garments, conquering the empire of the wardrobe. Even against velvet and cloth-of-gold, they held their territory, because they refused to stay tucked demurely down inside those deep necklines. They demanded adornment. They felt they had a right to embroidery and fine handmade lace and, most of all, to being seen.

You’ll notice a frill framing the bosom of your favorite Renaissance portrait. Sometimes a swath of lace creeps from the bodice and leaps to the subject’s throat, there to be caught with a ribbon. Those elaborate ruffs for which Queen Elizabeth is famous—underwear that’s grown up and gone to town. Even the modest Victorians liked a bit of lace to show at the throat and sleeve ends. The less modest Victorians, and most Goths thereafter, embraced what they thought of as the gorgeousness of the Middle Ages—the simply cut, body-skimming gowns, the big sleeves, the cabochon jewelry.

Can you imagine a gothic novel without a mysterious figure in a veil? You cannot. And if the novel is from the 1950s or the 2000s, she is probably also wearing something shaped like a nightgown, perhaps with a corset or a low-slung metal belt and a filmy robe. She looks Victorian, or medieval, or maybe a little Renaissancey. Again, timeless.

And adaptable. Dye the lace black or red in any era, and she’s a vampire queen. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla looked just like every other girl until she stripped down to her blood-soaked lingerie. And what did you wear when you were laid in your grave? A shroud, which is essentially a nightgown for eternal sleep.

Carmilla’s nightgown is a sign of her depravity—and her power to seduce other girls and triumph over death (while also dwelling in death forever). So it makes sense that a modern Goth loves lace and filmy things just as much as T-shirts from the Damned and Siouxsie Sioux. The lingerie rebellion has been brewing for more than 1,600 years.

Come to think of it, T-shirts are underwear too, sometimes decorated and worn on the outside. Appearing in public in nothing but lingerie, though—that is still shocking to the mainstream.

Brides of  Frankenstein mostly wear nightgowns; the Rocky Horror party really gets going when the unconventional conventioneers cavort in their skivvies. In the late 1980s, costumers were hard pressed to get Madonna to wear anything that wasn’t originally underwear, and she still flashes her black lace bustiers on Instagram. The Material Girl is a bit Goth at heart.

Why not wear that slip as a dress, then? Maybe a corset, antique or home sewn, over top? I’ll bet you have something killer in black.


Enchanted Living is a quarterly print magazine that celebrates all things enchanted. 
Article from #61 The Gothic Issue – Winter 2022/23
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Susann Cokal is the author of four novels, including the award-winning Kingdom of Little Wounds and her latest, Mermaid Moon, in which a mermaid goes ashore to find her mother, only to fall into the clutches of a witch who wants to harvest her magic. Cokal also writes short fiction and essays about oddities, and she lives in a haunted farmhouse with cats, peacocks, spouse, and unseen beings who bump in the night. “I’ve always suspected there was more to mermaids than the shipwrecks and love stories that lead them to land,” she says. “I’m glad I had the chance to figure them out in these changing times—both in the novel and here among the creatures of Enchanted Living.”