She was tall, blond, and, like almost everyone there that night, dressed in jet black. What she shouted at — to be heard over the music — hurt, but only for a second, like a pinch.
I was vulnerable because I was not dressed in black. I didn't know what to wear to a Peter Murphy concert, so I dressed like I normally do, in blue corduroys, a tan suede coat, and brown shoes. Just a guy, though a little self-conscious that night. This was Peter Murphy after all, the former front man of the genre-bending band Bauhaus, the group that in the early '80s almost single-handedly inspired the subculture we call goth, for lack of a better name. (Bauhaus's most memorable song is the eight-minute anthem "Bela Lugosi's Dead.") Murphy was performing at 4th & B on November 28. It was one stop on his oddly named "Just for Love" tour. People don't associate goth with love, or not just with love anyway.
Murphy opened the concert with a screening of his short film The Grid. He's credited as the "artiste" and his former girlfriend, Joanna Woodward, as the "director." The film premiered on Bauhaus's 1980 UK tour, and Murphy fans had been clamoring for screenings for years. He has described The Grid as "a curious piece of memorabilia," a "handmade thing, made in the spirit of that whole period, where almost everyone was making art, some piece of creativity with no money, no technology."
Indeed, The Grid is peculiar. It's stark, skittish, and a little scary. It opens in an industrial landscape with Murphy, a skinny, puckish figure, crawling among rows of cement columns, or unmarked cenotaphs like that eerie block on the cover of the Who's Who's Next. The music starts and Murphy mimes paranoia and angst while he navigates the architecture of a bleak new world; thus inventing (or reviving, some would say) the temperamental goth.
But the new Peter Murphy took the stage to the polite hoots and hollers of a courteous crowd. He wore only a little black — a velvet vest over a white shirt with French cuffs: He looked elegant: He was a gentleman.
"With you I'm in no danger," he murmured in one song.
He sang of "indigo eyes" and "red angel wings." He envisioned-a-peaceful, kind world. He was sentimental, serious, and moral. Murphy's British gallantries and colorful lyrics and the crowd's pious ovations were not what I had expected. Perhaps goth is dead, I thought. Maybe it was merely a brief fashion 20 years ago that came and went like the portentous black bird in The Grid. Or perhaps goth is not what most people believe it to be. Maybe the media's depiction of this group is even more erroneous than its portraits of other eccentrics, like punks or hippies.
I was pondering this and jotting down notes in a small pad when the woman in black jolted me from my reverie.
"What are you doing?" she yelled.
"I'm interested in people who wear black clothes," I responded.
She considered this for a moment. "You know," she said, "it's people like you who have to find a symbol in everything that piss me off. Not everything has a meaning."
Well, black clothes have many. But maybe what she meant was that the implications of black clothes are so numerous and disparate that studying them and those who wear them for the reflection of a single leitmotif is an absurd enterprise. Fashion — what was until the '50s largely a game of subtle gestures — has been overwhelmed by irony and we can no longer learn much from what people wear. Who trusts a white wedding dress anymore? Carhartt, the line of rugged work clothes and what the author Alison Lurie might categorize as a "colloquial fashion," is now, worn by privileged young people and testifies — sometimes honestly, sometimes not — to their solidarity and sympathy with the working class.
Please, I'm no prude anti-ironist. I prefer the playful over the literal, whether in one's sense of humor or dress. It's worth pointing out, however, that the dictum "clothes make the man" no longer means very much. This is especially so of black clothes, which though plain have wide-ranging utilitarian and ceremonial uses. Black garments mean serious business:we find them on ecclesiastical professionals, corporate executives, law officers, and the bereaved. But sartorial understatement has always been an effective gambit of exaggerated self-expression, and so black clothes have been used to declare a variety of attitudes — such as cool unflappability and in-your-face aggression. Without going into all the social, political, and religious connotations of the color black, let's just say that black clothes have come to stand for almost every human emotion and posture. The black-clad man or woman is the preacher and the outlaw. He or she is the defender of justice, the classy aristocrat, the inspirational artiste; he or she is a friend, a vampire, a high school assassin, an erotic vixen. Black is as common behind the pulpit as it is on the concert stage. Johnny Cash, the devout highwayman, is the Man in Black. Lou Reed, the skeptical urbanite, is the man in black. You want psychological contradiction, look at Bob Dylan. He wears black, sometimes.
Black absorbs everything.
Anne Hollander, who writes about costume as well as anyone, has remarked on the paradoxical signals broadcast by black clothes. In her 1978 book Seeing Through Clothes, she wrote, "The diabolic character of black male evening clothes retained it flavor well into the twentieth century.... It is the proper dress of the magician, of Dracula — even in the morning. In the first half of twentieth century it was the popularly conceived costume of sexual villainy, as the daytime version (black frock coat and striped pants) was the popularly conceived costume of financial and political villainy.
In a 1996 review of of John Harvey's book Men in Black, Hollander remarked that black clothes worn as the Puritans wore them denounced and atoned for the modern world's vast accumulations of power, domain, and wealth. But at the same time, they were worn for authority; they vested the wearer with power and virtue. Hollander writes, "Male authority — collective and individual, spiritual and worldly — male cruelty and malice, male hypocrisy and depravity, as well as willing male surrender to impersonal duty; male self-discipline and self-loathing, self-effacement and self-importance; male chill and male zeal; male learning scrupulous intellect, male good judgment and moral excellence, male physical beauty, strict commercial probity, and vast emotional depth have all seemed appropriately manifest in male black clothing, right along with common courtesy toward death, real grief, and total despair."