Fairytales and Gothic novels are the inspiration for this season’s twisted trends. Stylist investigates why
Words: Helen Lewis
The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1757 that, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear”. To him, fear – like the two rigid minutes of 2am panic when you’re convinced someone’s following you – was the most pure and thrilling emotion, with the capacity to completely overwhelm the mind. He believed that sufficiently strong experiences could provoke a feeling of the “sublime”, which was awe and compulsion bound up together, all in one terrifying but addictive package.
His words inspired generations of writers. Victor Hugo combined the beautiful and the grotesque for his 1831 tale The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. The Brothers Grimm published their collections of ancient folklore choosing to include elements of horror, such as children being eaten and stepmothers dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes (ignoring pleas to sanitise the stories for young ears). At the same time, the Gothic novel was gathering its legendary reputation across Europe.
It was a reaction against the science and reason of the 18thcentury Enlightenment that drove the 19th-century Romantics to explore emotion, notably passion and fear. Suddenly the wan heroine and predatory, brooding male (sometimes seen in metaphorical form, such as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood) bound together in a world of dark mysteries, found a foothold in the collective psyche.
As the Gothic movement evolved, the influence of the supernatural became more pronounced, from the monster in 1816’s Frankenstein – brought to life by his deranged creator – to the erotic and dangerous Count Dracula. The Gothic tradition bubbled away throughout the 19th century, but fell out of favour in the 20th, replaced by the ordered thought of Modernism. Yet Hollywood’s recent run of reworked fairy tales (Snow White And The Huntsman, Maleficent) and revisited macabre classics (Jane Eyre) has shown that the Gothic, rather like a forgotten wife held captive in a fortified tower, isn’t dead at all.
Terror & beauty
The Gothic resurgence has now reached the fashion world, and can be seen in the mix of horror and romance that characterises many designers’ autumn/winter collections. The sorbet colours and pastel prettiness of the summer are gone – this season’s woman is a bold, dramatic, even theatrical, vamp. The Dark Romance trend has been led by British designers: even Erdem’s signature florals have been given a more brooding edge, and his autumn/winter collection includes high-necked, tight-waisted bold colours with lace overlays. “The spring/summer collections were very girly,” says columnist and fashion critic Rosamund Urwin. “This is tougher: Dior, Lanvin and Dolce & Gabbana all had a Gothic edge, and lace – which has been around for about four seasons now – has become darker.”
Urwin points to Christopher Kane’s leather and brocade dress as a perfect example of the trend: its drama comes from the juxtaposition of tight leather bands at the neckline, waist and hem with red and black lace inserts. When Kane showed the collection earlier this year, he was clear about the Gothic influence on his “deathly” fabrics and patterns. “I always think of moiré [watermarked silk] as being on the inside of a coffin. And that’s why I like it,” he said.
It’s no wonder women are fascinated by the Gothic concept, because it’s been a female-focused genre right from its origins in the late 18th century. “Life was so perilous then for women,” says historian Kate Williams. “A young girl could get herself into dangerous situations very easily. In fiction, you could control that experience, but in real life you couldn’t because men were in charge. You can close the book, so fear is something you can turn on and off.” This control over danger, however small, was an empowering feeling.
Plus, in an age where travel was expensive, and a middle-class woman might only venture abroad for her honeymoon, the Gothic stories of the 19th century also allowed their readers a taste of the exotic. Ann Radcliffe, who wrote 1794’s Gothic classic The Mysteries Of Udolpho and other works set in France and Italy, had barely set foot outside England. Her lavishly imagined scenery was cribbed from travel books.
Williams says that playing with fear and helplessness was particularly attractive to female readers at a time when they felt the world was changing quickly, and their newfound freedom was both daunting and exhilarating. “There’s the feeling that the world seems so huge, so overwhelming, and at the same time these women were trapped at home.”
Alongside the scare factor comes a dollop of (largely forbidden) sex appeal. The implied eroticism that has underwritten cinema’s recent take on fairytales was also present in the Gothic novels. At a time when conduct books told women never to show interest in a man, Romantic heroines struggled to contain their passions. They swooned over Byronic heroes, such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, who were “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, in the same way that modern women seem attracted to the damaged Christian Grey in Fifty Shades Of Grey.
The enjoyment factor
But why, since fear developed as a response to danger and the possibility of death, do we enjoy feeling it so much? For the original readers of Gothic fiction in the 19th century, the feeling of terror was pursued for its own sake, to reach a kind of transcendence when emotion overpowered reason. “The Romantics had the idea that extremes of emotion enrich the soul,” says Williams. “If you take yourself to an extreme state of fear, you see a new side of yourself.”
In our more scientific world, there are new explanations for why we love to scare ourselves silly. “If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that’s going to be exciting for us, because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine,” psychology professor Stuart Fischoff told The Daily Beast last year. The evil characters in Gothic literature, just like those in modern horror films, aren’t the things that really threaten us – cars, depression, cigarettes – but the extraordinary and the exotic. Like all good fiction, a successful Gothic tale takes us out of ourselves, and allows us to experience strong emotions at a safe, second-hand distance.
Against this dark background, beauty and innocence stand out more strongly. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites show the influence of the Gothic, often juxtaposing the lush colours of nature with the pallor of death – as in Sir John Everett Millais’ 1851 Ophelia, Hamlet’s drowned lover floating down the river. Incidentally, its creation nearly killed off its model, Lizzie Siddal, as she became ill after being forced to lie fully clothed in an unheated bath for hours on end while the painter got the pose just right. She certainly suffered for art.
That hallmark of Gothic beauty – vibrant colours contrasted with ghostly skin – is also found in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where the Count’s three vampire “sisters” tempt the hero, Jonathan Harker, in the middle of the night. Two of the women are dark-haired, with aquiline noses, while the third is blonde with “eyes like pale sapphires”. All three have teeth that shine “like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips”. Harker knows instinctively that they are evil, and, right on cue, he feels the twin emotions of the sublime: “Some longing, and at the same time some deadly fear”. Despite his devotion to his future wife, Mina, he cannot resist their beauty: “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.”
Such detailed descriptions of characters’ appearances are rare in Gothic novels, which usually aimed to create a sense of timelessness to heighten their exoticism and mystery. “If they were wearing the clothes of the time,” says Williams, “it would be alienating to contemporary readers.” Instead, we get glimpses: a locket engraved with a mysterious cipher; a veil blowing in the wind; a white nightgown stained with blood.
While this might frustrate the reader, it does give modern designers a free hand in creating Gothic looks: it is a mood more than a checklist. So Christopher Kane’s leather and lace dress evokes the Gothic just as well as Lanvin’s chunky chokers or flouncy taffeta trenchcoats. The palette is as brooding as the books’ heroes – black, purple and blood red – while modest necklines and fitted waists show the debt to Victorian fashions.
But the Gothic will always fascinate. As long as humans continue to indulge in the heightened emotions of imagined fear and take pleasure in their ability to control it, there will be a market for novels that make you keep the hall light on all week. Just as we need to laugh, and occasionally need to cry, we also need a good fright every so often. This season is all about fear, so go on – embrace it.