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Gothic is an epithet with a strange history, evoking images of death, destruction, and decay. It is not just a word that describes something (such as a Gothic cathedral); it is almost inevitably a term of abuse, implying that something is gloomy, barbarous, and macabre. Ironically, its negative connotations have made it, in some respects, ideal as a symbol of rebellion. Hence its significance for youth subcultures. Today the words "goth" and "gothic" are popularly associated with black-clad teenagers and mascara'd rock musicians. But the gothic has many layers of meaning.

Just as the "barbarian" Goths were perceived by the Romans as the antithesis of classical civilization, so did the medieval Gothic come to be seen as modernity's Other, its "dark side." With the rise of the Enlightenment, the entire medieval period was retrospectively envisioned as the Dark Ages, characterized by superstition and sorcery. The Gothic has long attracted cultural outsiders, from the homosexual aesthete Horace Walpole, author of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, to the habitués of today's Vampire Balls.

The imagery of death and decay, the power of horror, and the erotic macabre are perversely attractive to many designers. John Galliano, for example, has described the "Gothic girl" as "edgy and cool, vampy and mysterious." Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, and Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy have also created what could be described as gothic fashion. Ann Demeulemeester may reject the gothic label, associating it with the ubiquitous skull accessory, but Owens proudly recalls that he once was a goth, just as Vivienne Westwood was a punk.

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