Tribal Marking, Personal Expression, and Fashion.

A criticism I run into from time to time from people outside the goth subculture is that we all “look alike.” It’s often couched as a sneer about being “nonconformist exactly the same.”

Outrage at people “not understanding” aside, from a certain perspective there’s a certain degree of truth to it.

The first thing you have to understand is one of the characteristics of how human perceptions work.  Perception runs from the general to the specific.  The largest, most obvious features tend to be the first things the brain notes as identifiers and to distinguish from other things.  It is only with increasing familiarity that finer details become part of the identification and distinguishing process.  This, incidentally, is why “they all look alike” is a common response to minority groups that one is relatively unfamiliar with.  It’s not “racism” but simply that one hasn’t had the specific familiarity yet to automatically note finer details of individual characteristics so the brain gets swamped by the larger, more obvious characteristics.

When it comes to Goth, you have subgroups within the subgroup, each quite distinctive in and of itself, something like this:


People outside the goth subculture see mostly black clothing, mostly black or “colorful” hair, pallid complexions and think “they all look alike” because that’s as far as their perception goes.  The substantial differences, sufficient to actually create subcultures within the subculture, are ignored because that’s as far as perception goes.

What makes that happen, to another extent is another feature of human beings.  Humans are tribal.  They have always been tribal.  Tribes could consist of those living in a particular area but need not be so.  So strong is the drive toward tribalism that the wonder of Western society is not the remnants that remain (various ways people identify and divide as “our people” and “those others”) but to the extent that we’ve managed to overcome it–we, at least, are able to recognize people not of our tribe as still being people.  That, in itself, is a pretty major advance over much of history and nearly all of prehistory.

Part of being tribal is that members of a tribe tend to “mark” themselves in various ways–clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, even body modification of various forms.  Goths are no different.  The start of goth subculture wasn’t in fashion itself but in the music.  Groups attracted to various bands in the post-punk era–Bauhaus, Joy Division, Souxie and the Banshees, etc.–were the folk who became the founders of the goth movement.  It was these fans of the music, adapting certain styles of dress, makeup, and hair that formed the origin of “goth fashion”.  That fashion was specifically used to set them off from others.  They were, in effect, forming a “tribe” and the fashion was, in effect, a tribal marker.

To be a tribal marker, however, it must be both distinctive and sufficiently consistent to be recognizable as indicating “tribe.” Those very features, that make it adequate to the purposes of marking tribe are also going to render it so that to those outside the tribe who have little familiarity with the tribe, will think “they all look alike.” Because to those people they do “all look alike.” The “tribal markers” overwhelm perception in the individual perceptions.

A further complication is among newcomers to the tribe.  Historically it has generally been rare, although not unheard of, for members of one tribe to join another.  You were, back then, born into a tribe and absent unusual circumstances, in that tribe you died.  In modern Western society, tribal mobility is more common..  In the modern day in particular, it is fairly common for young people to explore different tribes to see which suits them and which they are better suited for.  Their elders tend to refer to these explorations as “phases” with the expectation that they will settle down into the parent tribe in time.  And sometimes that happens.  And sometimes it doesn’t.  In either case, when the young person (and sometimes older person–I was rather late coming to the goth/metal “tribe”) they generally adopt the “tribal markers”, often in the most archetypical form.  They do this because they, too, don’t have much experience with the new tribe.  They start with no more than an outsider’s experience and, so, they grab onto the most obvious, most distinctive elements.  They become the very stereotype that the outsiders have of the tribe.

There is nothing wrong with this.  It is an important stepping stone, the transition from outside to inside, from curiosity to understanding.  It may be that a particular individual will never progress beyond that basic tribal marking.  They may decide that the particular tribe isn’t for them and move on to something else.  That, too, is okay.  Or they may find the home, “their people”, that they had been looking for.  In the latter case, they will gain the experience and understanding to allow them to move past the most basic tribal markings.  They can go beyond that to more self-expression.

Since a large part of finding a good tribal fit is in identifying who you are and who “your people” are, it becomes natural to blend tribal markers with self expression.  The tribal markers become a part of ones self.  Or rather, you discover how the tribal markers fit the self you’ve always been.  And the result is that you become a distinct “you” even within the tribal markers.

And folk on the outside will still say “you people all look alike.”

8 thoughts on “Tribal Marking, Personal Expression, and Fashion.”

  1. *chuckle* I would swing on the styles depending on my mood. Mostly perky, raver, j-goth, corp, and geek, because this could be worn in Philippine weather.

    Couldn’t dress goth now, given how hot it is where I live (except in winter) but I do rather miss the styles and fashion (especially the boots!)


  2. Interestingly enough, it seems that in science fiction fandom, there’s always been a “fannish look”. It’s possible to pick out the group of fans in a crowded venue, and never guess wrong. It’s not any one thing, although if a member of the group is wearing a propeller beanie, you can stop looking for more clues. It’s not that many or most are wearing glasses. There’s something else that I’ve never quite pinned down.

    One of the regular panelists at Loscon is an anthropologist. Maybe I should direct that question to him.


    1. Sometimes Tribal Markings are deliberate (and I suspect there may have been an element of that in the goth subculture). Other times they tend to evolve organically with the tribe which I suspect is the case with the fannish “tribe.”


  3. Acknowledging that all tribes have identifiers (I ride a Harley and yes, I have more black t-shirts than I care to wear) I just always found it amusing when one tribe (usually the young) would accuse you of being a part of the herd when they were just part of a different herd.


    1. As I note, it is very common for the “tribal markers” for a tribe to “all look alike” to folk of other tribes who are not intimately familiar with the tribe in question.

      “Herd”? Not so much really. The individuality and self-expression is simply not terribly apparent to those outside the tribe who, therefore, don’t have the familiarity for perception to go past the most obvious “tribal markers” to the individual differences. It’s just part of the way the human brain is wired.


    1. And yet, I run into goths on a fairly regular basis, even here in the Midwest. Considering that I’m a strong introvert and need considerable incentive even to leave the house that’s saying something. The Darkwave DJ Dance Night events and the like that I have attended (dance? Well, no. I go to listen to some music, maybe have a couple of drinks, and people watch) have generally been quite packed. Again, that’s here in the Midwest which is hardly prime territory for “fringe” subcultures.

      What people expect has a considerable effect on what they perceive.

      But even so, “goth” was simply an example of the factors I was describing, used simply because it’s one I’m particularly familiar with. Other groupings, other “tribes” have the same issue–they “all look alike” to people on the outside because “tribal markers” outweigh “individual variation” in people’s perceptions when they aren’t closely familiar with the group.


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