Lilly Sayenga, Editorial Director
18 November 2022

I would like to blame the creation of this essay on an Incident that occurred while waiting in line at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

The Haunted Mansion will always be my favorite attraction at the theme park. Its “happy haunts” simply resonate more with me than the crooning creatures of Splash Mountain (with the vultures being a possible exception). Sure, Small World warms my heart, but kooky ghouls are where it’s at. Growing up, dark inclinations such as this, along with my obsession with Count Chocula breakfast cereal (™), eventually led me to the Goth subculture. While I technically don’t fully identify as Goth (for various pretentious reasons I have addressed in other writings), I still feel connected to the scene. This affinity has resulted in corresponding Subcultural Rage, the irksome envelopment of my anger over its mistreatment. Why? I shall reiterate: things are far more confusing than they were in the ‘80s, which the aforementioned Incident reminded me of.

The Incident occurred as follows: I wore a dress to Disneyland that I very much enjoy. It is short and black with a white collar. My best friend described it as “giving Minnie Mouse x The Shining x maid anime girls x the Mayflower pilgrims.” I can’t possibly top that description, so hopefully you get the picture. Despite my love for the dress, its tag hid a dirty secret: it was from Dolls Kill, a highly problematic corporation that peddles alternative fashion while promoting neofascism. In other words, buying from the brand made me a poseur. What was worse was that I knew this, but justified the purchase by citing tight funds as a college student – and the fact that it was on sale. (Which are valid reasons, by the way, but I’ll get to that later.)

Another important thing to note about Dolls Kill is that it houses a variety of sub-brands that specialize in different subcultural “looks.” Most of them are pretty accurate, with Widow, the “Goth brand,” being the most on par. Though stylistically correct, Dolls Kill’s Widow is laden with the contradiction that has come to define the battle between “goth” and “mall goth”: a fast fashion corporation is unabashedly profiting off of the style of a subculture that its ethos is diametrically opposed to. This, dear reader, is the brand that made my dress.

You can imagine my distress, then, when I was asked by a pin-laden, skeleton-hoodie-clad mother/daughter duo where I got my dress from. From these semiotic markers and their 10:30 PM presence at the Haunted Mansion alone, I could deduce that these people were the Real Deal. If I was judging correctly, to lie would be an embarrassment, but to answer honestly would be subcultural excommunication. I knew that I wasn’t a poseur, my boyfriend who I was with knew I wasn’t a poseur, but all of that would be lost on the Haunted Mansion Line Goths if I said my dress was from Dolls Kill. So what did I do? I uttered the most poseur-ish response of all: I told them it was from “Widow, a Goth brand!” What a joke I was! An absolute devastation to the anti-capitalist, all-inclusive ethos of Goth! They thankfully bought my bluff, and we exited the ride with a final Alternative Outfit Nod and a polite goodbye. But inside, I felt like shit.

I decided to boycott Dolls Kill after additional research revealed that their practices are even more heinous than I had thought. But in an age of rampant late-stage capitalism, this move also felt a bit pointless. Corporations have thoroughly sunk their claws into alternative fashion, and there’s no turning back now. The gnawing feeling of the Incident nonetheless lingered inside of me, begging me to discover what exactly the problem was. Why is it so difficult to avoid being a poseur? (And is that even relevant anymore?) What happened in the relationship between subculture and capitalism that led to this level of ridiculousness?

Before I answer that, I must present the extent of the ridiculousness. I introduce: The Romwe Incident.

Romwe is a mega online fast fashion retailer and a model of exactly how far capitalism has entrenched itself into the fashion of subculture. It markets itself as “your social-inspired style obsession,” with a tab dedicated entirely to “Aesthetics.” Current options are listed as “Anime, Kawaii, Goth, Street Life, Cyber Luvr, Sweetness, Punk Rock, Fairy Grunge,” and “Y2K Revival.” This tab resides next to one simply marked as “Clothing.” One will immediately notice that only around five of these descriptors are actual aesthetics, while the others are either Japanese cartoons or references to subcultures. Granted, each have their own recognizable forms of dress, but they contain far more than that as broader media categories and movements. While Dolls Kill parades itself as alternative through its branding, Romwe is an upfront poseur. There is no “Widow” here to mask its blatant disregard for Goth as anything other than spooky black clothes. But they even get that wrong: to Romwe, “Goth” is a pair of white cowboy boots, and “Punk Rock” is a striped red shirt emblazoned with “EMO KID.”

It took an hour long call with my boyfriend to keep me from lighting my laptop on fire.

Now, I ask: how did this happen? And the answer, dear reader, lies in a little store called Hot Topic.

Hot Topic was founded in a California garage in 1988, and originally carried alternative accessories as a subset of its main line. When its clientele gravitated towards the darker goods, the company switched its business model: “Instead of trying to make it fly with [their] original concept, [the founder and the first hire] went across the country to… alternative stores that were usually in downtown areas. [They] came back and said let’s bring this look to the mall—to kids that can never get to these cool downtown… stores in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles” (Granshaw).

Thus began “mall goth,” or the infiltration of alternative style by corporate trend hunters. But Hot Topic’s history – and overall reputation – is a bit more complicated. Hot Topic-era Mall Goth, while looked down upon by traditional Goths, was actually also a subculture.

There is certainly something to be said for the accessibility of alternative fashion. While Hot Topic was sneered at by original Goths as a breeding ground for poseurs, it also played a key role in the democratization of alt style. While Goths and Punks prided themselves on the effort it took to stand out, Mall Goth was more invested in impact. Teens trapped in suburbia now had an easy way to participate in the semiotics of angst. Whether or not one was a “poseur” became irrelevant simply because it wasn’t the point.

Nonetheless, something strange occurred: despite accusations from Goths that Mall Goth was only about the fashion, a new subculture formed around it. Hot Topic began carrying band t-shirts in 1990, and a music scene intertwined with the look. The problem? These were not Goth bands. While Mall Goths were bumping Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, and Korn, Goths complained from their Siouxsie and the Banshees-soaked shadows. A common denominator was Nine Inch Nails, whose Goth-influenced industrial rock appealed to both Cure fans and Mansonites alike. Trent Reznor brought industrial to the mainstream in a way that Mall Goths could consume while producing an authentically Goth sound. Even amidst Nine Inch Nails’ success, though, the damage was done: Goths and Mall Goths, despite sharing a dark look, had different subcultural agendas. Their similar fashion meant the groups were often confused for each other, much to the chagrin of Goths. In 2008, tensions rose to the point of parody in South Park episode “The Ungroundable,” wherein Goth kids burn down their local Hot Topic to stop Mall Goths from taking over the school.

The once-feared term of “poseur” had lost its edge, and the corporate monopoly on alternative fashion continued to swell. Mall Goth gradually dissipated as its teens aged and its dress gained mainstream acceptance. Goth went on to suffer the ravages of Scene Kids and an unfortunate conflation with Emo, but it still exists as a subculture today.

The state of alternative fashion, however, is becoming more and more of a joke. As witnessed in the battle between Goth and Mall Goth, bad things happen when corporations claim important stylistic and semiotic markers as “trendy fashion.” When the signs of a subculture are universalized in a way that strips them of their meaning, it compromises a subculture’s mission and cultural achievements. And, for younger generations who don’t know any better, “alternative” becomes just another fashion “aesthetic.” Tik Tok is partly to blame for this. Mall Goth is seeing a resurgence on the social media platform as a source of unlived nostalgia, with no regard for its fraught past and damaging impact on subculture. But this doesn’t matter: Subculture is dead, and we are now all subject to the age of the Aesthetic. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re trying to say with your clothing, it’s how well you fit into a prescribed label or box. Retailers like Romwe are promoting this model by profiting off of peoples’ desire to conform. It’s situations like this that make me resistant to calling myself Goth. If I am Goth, it’s not because it’s my “aesthetic”– it’s because it’s my subculture.

But it would be ridiculous of me to make all of these protestations and not acknowledge the issue which makes them irrelevant. If I’m so invested in the relationship between subculture and capitalism, I need to be realistic. Therefore, I must return to the retailers I’ve been critiquing throughout this essay: Dolls Kill, Romwe, and Hot Topic. What they all have in common is that they are accessible and carry alternative styles at a reasonable price point. This should not be discounted (unless we’re talking about the clothes). The one good thing about corporate entrenchment into alt fashion is that it allows for easier participation in the dress of a subculture. As I said, this has its drawbacks, but for people who are in tighter financial situations and are unable to shop secondhand, it’s a godsend. As high on my subcultural soapbox as I may be, I’ll be the first to admit that my Skeleanimals dress with adjustable buckle straps is in fact from Hot Topic because I didn’t want to fork over $250 for an original-run piece on Depop. (And before you go telling me that Skeleanimals is Emo and therefore I am Not Goth, that’s part of my point.) In most cases, unless you’re very well off, it’s going to be quite difficult to build a 100% Non-Poseur Wardrobe. While this may not have been the case in the ‘80s, it’s the case now. We have Hot Topic to thank for that.

At the same time, it’s crucial to avoid supporting corporate interests like these whenever possible. This is due not only to the Poseur Issue (™), but also (and more importantly) the ethics that make these clothes affordable in the first place. The atrocious labor practices and environmental devastation caused by the fast fashion industry endangers society at large. As we continue to cycle through clothing at an unprecedented rate, we contribute to our planet’s demise. It is therefore critical that we shop intentionally. Thrifting or buying secondhand is a more sustainable option, but comes with its own set of issues (I’m looking at you, Depop gentrifiers). While there are understandable reasons to buy from corporations, the best way to stop their agenda is to avoid them.

Alternative fashion is slowly becoming a melange of misappropriated semiotic markers that are no more meaningful than a 2016 Forever 21 “Edgy” section. Capitalism is de-weaponizing the style of subculture to become just another harmless “aesthetic” free of political purpose. While corporations may have made us all poseurs in our wardrobes, they can’t stop us from being authentic in our attitudes. Technically, it doesn’t matter if you’re Goth and dress like a Mall Goth, as long as you are representing yourself and the interests of your subculture authentically. Our clothes, whatever their source, are not manufactured with their meanings sewn in– it is up to us to instill them with purpose.
With that, I’m off to Spirit Halloween– I heard there’s a “Punk Rocker” costume this year and I am positively enraged. But whatever, I need new fishnet arm warmers...