Depending on your generation, the word “goth” may trigger memories of Bauhaus albums and Robert Smith’s smeared red lipstick or a Rick Owens clad Wesley Eisold of Cold Cave. The aesthetic is instantly recognizable, and the movement’s pop culture presence means that the movies and records are familiar, but there’s more to it than media. The intricacies of goth’s history are best understood by those who embrace the lifestyle, and anyone in search of primer need only look to Rose Nocturnalia, aka Chelsea Clarke. The 28-year-old content creator’s YouTube videos range from the YouTuber classic “What’s in my Bag” to the niche “Goth Club Tips and Etiquette.” Her platforms offer a crash course in all things tied to Western goth and Japan’s gothic Lolitas. For the uninitiated, those are two separate entities, each with a lengthy history. Clarke unpacks everything in detail, allowing her 16K subscribers the opportunity to understand the origins and evolution of the subculture while dispelling myths. “There’s a bit of a popular misconception that Lolitas are in some weird state of arrested development, obsessed with childhood, or we’re refusing to join the adult world,” she shared via email from Toronto. “In reality, most of us are grown, working people aged 20-40—you need a good job to pay for all this stuff—we just enjoy dressing up and having fun.”
First introduced to the concept via neighbors in her Toronto suburb, Clarke soon found herself captivated. “[They] were your stereotypical 90s goths — think big platform shoes, lots of crushed velvet dresses, and too much eyeliner,” she says. “I thought they were the coolest people I’d ever seen.” Armed with an internet connection and a willingness to explore, she delved into goth music at age 11, immersing herself in Siouxsie Sioux, Patricia Morrison and Strawberry Switchblade’s Rose McDowall. Time on forums and Livejournal communities led her to gothic Lolita, the Japanese subset that merges Victorian classicism, kawaii cuteness, and darkness. Though she experimented with countless styles as a teen, Clarke, now 28, came into her own post-college. “I didn’t feel fully comfortable expressing myself through my clothing until I was an adult,” she says. “I guess I was a bit of a late bloomer.”
She chooses her looks based on essential accessories and her favorite pieces—extra large wide-brim hats, Vivienne Westwood’s ballerina shoes—with dramatic babydoll dresses or monochromatic separates. “One of the perks of having an almost entirely black-and-white wardrobe is that everything matches,” she says. “I like to layer and mix textures so that I don’t look like a blob of uniform black, and I break it up with lots of accessories like belts and necklaces.” A former runway addict, she now pays attention to forward-thinking designers like Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, and Iris van Herpen, whose out-of-the-box creations appeal to her sensibilities. But now, she’s committed to anti-consumerism and browses forums for second-hand goth and gothic Lolita clothing.
Growing up, she had to deal with stereotyping as a result of her unorthodox style. “Since I was never a social butterfly to begin with, and I didn’t dress normally or listen to the right music, I was an easy target,” she explains. “I got more than a couple of “school shooter” and “Trenchcoat Mafia” remarks. The dust had just barely settled from the Columbine massacre by this time, and the popular image of goth and alternative kids was very negative. People thought we were violent, depressed, on drugs, or all three.” Teenagers can be ignorant, but several of the authority figures in her community proved equally uninformed. “A couple of my teachers reached out to me, concerned that I was using drugs, even though in reality, I was too scared to try them. Adults, in general, treated me with a lot of suspicion,” she says. “I couldn’t even go into a store without being closely followed by the staff while my friends were completely ignored. I’d even been stopped by the police a few times, even though I can’t imagine how anyone could have thought that a scrawny teenage girl could be much of a threat.”
The bullying had an isolating effect. “I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but deep down, it hurt. I just wanted to be liked,” says Clarke. “I developed a kind of cynical, contrarian, smart-ass personality as a defense mechanism, which didn’t exactly help me win people over. After a while, I tried to tone myself down to blend in a little bit better, but it just made me even more unhappy.” Though she had a close-knit circle of friends, Clarke didn’t meet many other Black people interested in the goth or alternative scene until she was in her 20s. “I was actively attending events and traveling. I realized just how many of us there were out there,” she says of the larger than expected community she stumbled upon. “It’s kind of funny since rock music of any kind wouldn’t even exist without Black musicians.”
Despite rock n’roll originating from African American blues and jazz, many POC encounter racism and gatekeeping within the insular musical communities that have stemmed from the genre. Clarke shared her experiences with such discrimination via her viral YouTube clip, ‘Black and Goth,’ that has since garnered 42K views. The topic, initially posed by one of her followers, was one Clarke reluctant to explore. Despite having touched on the topic years earlier with a video, she was uncertain about the vulnerability that comes with sharing your private life. “I didn’t want to discuss it at first since my teenage years were pretty miserable, and I’m not very open about talking about my feelings,” she explains. “I had to cut huge sections out of the video because it was getting too personal. The video sat in my YouTube queue for a few weeks while I debated releasing it.”
The Black Lives Matter movement and the spate of anti-racism and police brutality protests that arose worldwide made her want to speak up. “I figured that now was a good time to talk about how broader societal racial discrimination against Black people have even filtered down into this little niche subculture,” she says. “How it manifests itself in things like beauty standards and subtle remarks.” In the the video Clarke outlined the challenges she’s faced being an alternative Black girl growing up in the early aughts covering everything from her experiences with classroom bullying, the idea that the Black culture can be uniformly defined, and even criticisms she’s faced from other people of color. “I got a lot of criticism from my peers that pretty much amounted to ‘why are you like this’,” Clarke says in the video. “Non-black kids were often not directly aggressive towards me but they were condescending [saying] ‘oh I didn’t know that Black people did that’ as if all Black people were a hive mind and we’re only allowed to like and do certain things.”
Once released, the video immediately struck a chord with viewers. “So many other Black people, particularly women, commented that they experienced the same thing in the punk, goth, and metal subcultures,” says Clarke. “I also got responses from people of color from all over the world talking about similar experiences in their own cultures and countries. I didn’t expect that my story would be so universal. It’s disappointing, but it’s also comforting to know that we’re not alone in our experiences.” Thus far, Clarke has been moved by the positive response. Fans reached out with thanks and shared how her honesty inspired them, which showed just how important representation is. “It’s so easy to feel alone when seemingly nobody in your subculture looks like you,” Clarke says.
Though she began vlogging as a hobby, she now hopes her social media presence will have a positive impact. “There aren’t a whole lot of goth YouTube influencers as is,” she says. “Almost none of them are people of color. Just being visible on this platform as a person of color sends the message that we also belong in the goth subculture.”