Black cabaret: how Goth got its look

Goth came together in the aftermath of Punk in early 1980s Britain, but its “look” has a long pre-history. Even leaving aside the building of the Gothic cathedrals in the medieval period — after which it got its name (due to the spacious sound of early Goth bands) — the Goth look was more than sixty years in the making, and begins in the avant-garde arts: theater, movies, and the Berlin cabaret in particular.

Theda Bara as Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
Theda Bara as Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
Early Goth: Specimen on stage.
Early Goth: Specimen on stage.

One of the fist “sex symbols” was Theda Bara, an American silent movie actress, active until the mid-1920s. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, who bleached her hair blonde and pretended to be a bit dim, Bara presented herself as a woman of power – a virtual pagan priestess who was not afraid to appear on the screen virtually naked, except for some loose-fitting translucent fabric. Bara introduced two aspects of culture that would later become part of the Goth image: thick black Siouxsie-style eyeliner and, perhaps more significant, the combining of seductress and dark otherworldliness in one figure. Those around the actress named Bara the “vamp”, and the term soon entered into the vernacular as a description for the femme fatale.

Another “vamp” of importance to Goth is the German dancer Anita Berber, who sought and won notoriety in Berlin for her experimental, highly theatrical, and decadent dance routines. Her sense of style was also unique. She cut her hair into a bob, and sometimes dyed it bright red. She was also immortalized by the painter Otto Dix in a portrait of the dancer wearing a red dress and with matching red hair.

Let’s be honest, today, cabaret is a bit passe. It sometimes tries to revive the old decadent, Berlin spirit, but it usually fails. Decadence has gone elsewhere; into Goth in a process of solve et coagula, and elsewhere. But the times are also different. Cabaret entertainers were against the system, displaying sexuality, advocating a libertine lifestyle, and — since many entertainers and cabaret hosts were gay or Jewish — mocking the rising Nazi Party in particular.

Mauritia Mayer single by early Goth band Sex Gang Children.
Mauritia Mayer single by early Goth band Sex Gang Children.

Like the post-punk (and pre-Goth) band Cabaret Voltaire, one of the earliest actual Goth bands, the distastefully named but musically quite brilliant Sex Gang Children, drew directly on the German scene for inspiration. Their single “Mauritia Mayer” is named after the Mauritia “Moritz” Meyer, owner and founder of the Steinhausbaurin, an alpine inn, which became a haven for artists. The inn was better known as the “pension Moritz” hotel, after its founder, although it was later requisitioned by the Nazis, who renamed it the Platterhoff, and turned it into a hotel for party use.

Berber and Droste in performance.
Berber and Droste in performance.

While I can’t be certain, I wonder, at least, whether one of the band’s better known singles, “Sebastiane”, is named after Sebastian Droste, Berber’s dance partner, collaborator and, later, husband (they later divorced). Sebastian is, of course, the name of a saint and gay icon, but the lyrics tend to suggest Droste and Berber. Certainly, they recall Berlin’s journey from its cabaret (“jezebel”) to its post cabaret (“nazi”) years:

Caught again jezebel, with your ‘friend’ and his beauty bible
He once walked through sacred lands
Now he waves his nazi dagger

Droste’s stage make-up is also strikingly similar to that worn by Andy Sex Gang, the lead singer of Sex Gang Children, during their early years, and Goth later on. And even if they are largely forgotten today, the band certainly influenced the scene. (Siouxsie Sioux, lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees, was also sometimes strikingly reminiscent of Berber herself.)

Siouxsie Sioux.
Siouxsie Sioux.
Anita Berber.
Anita Berber.

Arguably the first Goth band was Specimen, who ran the infamous Batcave club in London. “Goth” has been applied retroactively, since Specimen and the scene they created didn’t have a particular label at the time. But it’s pretty clear that this is where Goth was more or less codified. One of the things that is striking about Specimen is that, like Sex gang Children — who where part of the same scene — the influence of cabaret is evident. Specimen performances were more than music; they were Berlin-esque shows, with the all-male band wearing thick layers of cosmetics, and flouncing around on stage. A more direct influence, though was the Rocky Horror Picture Show movie, about a mad scientist and transvestite hauled up in Transylvania (where else?). Wearing all black, decidedly skimpy and self-consciously womanish attire, lead singer Olli Wisdom looks virtually identical to Dr. Frank-N-Furter (played by Tim Curry) in the 1975 movie.

Partly because of its interest in cabaret and in the German cultural scene more broadly, we find in Goth a fusion of the decadent, the theatrical, and the avant-garde and — early on at least — Nazi imagery. Siouxsie Sioux enjoyed and became notorious for wearing a swastika armband, along with fetish-style black clothing. Then as now, the prudery that passes for morality — which itself allegedly displays intelligence or cultural sensitivity — tells us that we ought to be shocked and “offended”. But that was the point. Despite some rather silly commentaries on Goth and Punk, alleging racism, the swastika was adopted to affront a society that now regarded itself as the country that “defeated Nazism” and thought that that it could tell young people how to think and what it could and couldn’t do. Sound familiar?

Charlotte Rampling as Lucia in The Night Porter.
Sex and the swastika: Charlotte Rampling as Lucia in The Night Porter.
Siouxsie Sioux with swastika armband.
Center: Siouxsie Sioux with swastika armband.

But there were other influences, most especially The Night Porter, a movie by Liliana Cavani. The plot revolves around the destructive and sado-masochistic relationship between Lucia, a beautiful Jewish inmate in a World War II concentration camp, and an SS officer (played by Dirk Bogarde).

The movie was meant to be “anti-fascist”, but with scenes of Lucia (played by Charlotte Rampling) parading around almost naked except for a Nazi officer cap, and singing cabaret-style, it also introduced the sexualized Nazi image to the public. It was this image — sexual, decadent, anti-bourgeois, offensive to the prevailing morality; part libertine, part authoritarian — that Siouxsie and some other Punks and early Goths picked up on and exploited.

The look developed by Specimen, Sex Gang Children, Siouxsie and other early Goths — that mixed cabaret decadence, Bara, Berber, et al, with spiky black hair (probably adopted from Jordan, an early Punk who appeared in Derek Jarman’s movie Jubilee) — is rarely appreciated for its decades-long pre-history in some of the most interesting and challenging cultural scenes of the last century. Yet, if often misunderstood, Goth itself has proved a lasting and oddly influential subculture. It has gone on to affect everything from the aesthetics of vampire movies to adverts for Absolut vodka. So perhaps the Berlin cabaret lives on after all.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

One Reply to “Black cabaret: how Goth got its look”

  1. Fantastic article! Very well researched. I hadn’t even thought about Specimen in decades. ..

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