Billy Porter set the internet ablaze with his red carpet look at the 2019 Oscars. The Pose actor wore a black velvet ball gown with a tuxedo jacket designed by Christian Siriano that made him look like he was auditioning for the part of Anna in The King and I.
Despite overwhelming praise from celebrities and designers, Porter’s look was harshly criticized by some who perceived it as degrading to black masculinity. Porter made it clear he and Siriano designed his outfit to be a “play between the masculine and the feminine” (Ngomsi 2019). While Porter’s ball gown evokes the feminine, his masculine tuxedo jacket signals that he is “not [doing] drag” (Ngomsi 2019). His ensemble is not intended as a female impersonation and wearing clothing coded as feminine does not diminish Porter’s masculinity. As Porter explained, he’s “not a drag queen,” he is simply a “man in a dress” (Ngomsi 2019).
Part of the backlash to Porter’s outfit is due to the pressure some black men face to prove their masculinity. Toxic black masculinity is aggressively heterosexual and requires the “sloughing off of feeling anything other than lustful heterosexual desire and abrupt, turnt-up anger” (Bey 2019). Feminine clothing, vulnerable emotions, and homosexual desire are all threats to this type of masculinity. Porter sums it up: “when you’re black and you’re gay, one’s masculinity is in question,” sharing he has “dealt with a lot of homophobia in relation to [his] clothing choices” (Donohue 2019). By wearing a dress, Porter is breaking down the gender binary that prevents men from embracing the parts of themselves that don’t conform to toxic masculinity.
In addition to challenging toxic ideas about black masculinity, Porter’s outfit can also help us explore the fault lines of race and gender that often divide the Goth subculture and its fashion. The Goth subculture emerged during the 1980s with the evolution of the post-punk genre of Gothic rock, but it has grown beyond a shared musical taste to encompass an overall Goth aesthetic. Following this aesthetic, Goth fashion is characterized by black period-style clothing for all genders that combine elements of punk fashion and the Victorian and Elizabethan periods. Ted Polhemus has described Goth fashion as a “profusion of black velvets, lace, fishnets, and leather tinged with scarlet or purple, accessorized with tightly laced corsets, gloves, precarious stilettos and silver jewelry depicting religious or occult themes” (Polhemus 1997).
A couple photographed at the 2004 Wave-Gotik-Treffen festival in Leipzig. (Marc Haisenko)
Porter’s outfit plays with both the masculine and feminine aspects of Goth fashion. The sumptuous excess of his velvet gown resembles the floor-length satin skirt of the Goth woman above on the right, who also wears the wears a corset, mesh top and intricate jewelry. Porter’s tailored suit top also echoes the more masculine style of the woman’s companion who wears a dark ruffled blouse and an antiquated black jacket with silver buttons. By blending the two styles, Porter harks back to the origins of the Goth scene as a place where rigid categories of gender and sexuality could blur. Christina Goulding explains how the “Gothic subculture...deeply rooted in its associations with vampirism ...creates a symbolic space, or liminality, where gender boundaries can blur” (Goulding 2004). Just as vampires are both alive and dead, male and female, the Goth subculture invites its members to fashion themselves in a way that “transcends conventional categories of gender” (Goulding 2004).
This liminality is why the Goth scene is generally considered a safe space for people to explore their gender identities and sexual orientations. A transgender woman named Cassandra describes how “Goth was sort of a way [she] came into [her identity],” while Kuill, an agender member of the subculture, found “Goth fashion helped [them] evolve [thier] own understanding of [themselves] and has also made it easy for [them] to leave the house in whatever way [they] need to” (Vatomsky 2019). Goulding also notes that “many Goths are bi-sexual” and it’s the “toleran[ce] and open[ness] of the subculture” that “attracts them to the culture in the first place.”
While the outward tolerance of the Goth community has helped its members explore their gender and sexual identities, this does not mean the scene has completely transcended the gender binary. Instead, studies of androgyny and Goth fashion have found that the opposite is true. Catherine Spooner concludes “that despite the outward appearance of transgression, androgyny in Goth subcultural style often disguises or even functions to reinforce conventional gender roles” (Spooner 2009). Instead of using “make-up, skirts, and feminine accessories” to subvert masculinity, Goth men use them “paradoxically to enhance masculinity, as a kind of bravado or warpaint” that increases “their attractiveness to Goth women, confirming heterosexual courtship patterns (Spooner 2009). This is part of a bigger trend in Goth fashion towards hyperfeminine gender expression. Goulding notices how “both [Goth] men and women more frequently went to great lengths to display femininity” (Goulding 2004). For Goth women, this pressure to display femininity fails to be subversive and “all too frequently imposes similar pressures to mainstream fashion.” (Spooner 2009).
Holovillain is an androgynous, trans, queer goth whose fashion is inspired by trad goth style.
This focus on hyper-femininity also has negative consequences for queer members of the Goth subculture. Since only female-passing queerness is accepted, masculine-presenting Goth women are more likely to be seen as “flawed women” because they fall short of the hyperfeminine standard (Halberstam 2018). This is probably why “apart from the female cyber Goths and their heavy boots... no female Goths [dress] as male ones or [try] to emphasize any masculine attributes (Goulding 2004). Judging how Goth someone is by how well they perform femininity excludes a large swath of the community who don’t have the time, energy or desire to adhere to an impossible feminine ideal. Sonya Vatomsky puts it best, describing how in the Goth community “people look at you and they have the bandwidth for one label. Does your eye shadow mean you’re Goth, or does it mean you’re trans? This call is generally made based on how well (or not) we “pass,” which sucks.” (Vatomsky 2019).
This kind of gatekeeping around gender in the Goth community also extends to race. Earlier this year a woman’s racist social media post went viral when she claimed the subculture was created by and for white people. While the Goth subculture does indeed privilege whiteness—this is reflected in mainstream Goth icons like Marilyn Manson, and Bela Lugosi—it didn’t start that way. Long before Gothic rock bands like The Cure and Joy Division climbed the stage, there was Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins whose performances included a bone through his nose, skulls, snakes, a tarantula, and a flaming coffin. Using these Afro-Carribean aesthetics, Hawkins laid the foundation for Gothic music as “America’s first ‘shock rocker’” (Collins 2017).
Screamin' Jay Hawkins performs in Switzerland during the late ’90s. (Memi Beltrame)
African influences also appear in the origins of the Gothic literary movement. Early Gothic novels capitalized on colonial fears of foreign lands, racial Others and their occult practices that had the potential to overturn the white status quo. Any attempt to define Goth as a white-only subculture: “obscures the history of Gothic aesthetics deriving from Black folk, but also erase[s] the reality that the African Diaspora’s history of enslavement, colonialism, trauma, and search for belonging are inherently Gothic themes. Within Gothic appropriation of African and Caribbean macabre aesthetics is the history of Black Diaspora cultures around the world." (Collins 2017).
DoomsdayDC is one of many black goths who responded to Two Broke Goths’ post.
To survive, the Goth subculture needs to drastically expand its vision of what Goth is. Thankfully, this is already happening in some corners. When they heard about the racist comments being made about black Goths, Two Broke Goths put out a call for Black goths to share their pictures on a Facebook thread. They have done the same for Latinx Goths and are using their platform to promote the diversity of Goths everywhere. Fat, skinny, Black, White, Asian, Latinx, biracial, butch, femme, masc, autistic, disabled, transgender, gay, queer: there are as many ways to be Goth as there are people and a subculture built on a shared interest in the different and unusual should embrace them all.
Bey, Marquis. 2019. “Tears, Tears: On Black Masculinity.” Black Perspectives. August 2. https://www.aaihs.org/tears-tears-on-black-masculinity/.
Collins, Shanna. 2017. “African and Caribbean Culture Is The Foundation of the Gothic Movement.” Medium. October 15. https://medium.com/@janelane_62637/african-and-caribbean-culture-is-the-foundation-of-the-gothic-movement-c3ba89bff31c.
Donohue, Caitlin. 2019. “Billy Porter’s Oscars Tuxedo Gown Was Inspired by Hector Xtravaganza.” Remezcla. February 25. http://remezcla.com/music/billy-porter-oscars-tuxedo-gown-hector-xtravaganza/.
Goulding, Christina. 2004. “Into the Darkness: Androgyny and Gender Blurring Within the Gothic Subculture.” ACR Gender and Consumer Behavior.
Halberstam, Judith. 2018. Female Masculinity.
Ngomsi, Vinciane. 2019. “Billy Porter Couldn’t Care About The People ‘Uncomfortable’ Seeing His ‘Black A*s In A Ball Gown’ If He Tried.” Blavity. February 28. https://blavity.com/billy-porter-couldnt-care-about-the-people-uncomfortable-seeing-his-black-as-in-a-ball-gown-if-he-tried?fbclid=IwAR3jNmnXEaQXHAWnsHTK29jJCRV36x5RBoJJjjXdrhFQMm2FvP8UUBoxgCc.
Polhemus, Ted. 1997. Streetstyle : From Sidewalk to Catwalk. London: Thames and Hudson.
Spooner, Catherine. 2009. “Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style.” Times Higher Education, no. 1898: 54.
Vatomsky, Sonya. 2019. “Goth Culture Needs to Embrace the Gender Identities of All Its Members.” Slate. Accessed March 20. https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/06/goth-culture-needs-to-embrace-the-gender-identities-of-all-its-members.html.