Why we're pining for the 'whimsy-gothic' aesthetic

From fashion to social media, many are searching out romantic, historical remnants of the gothic fairytale.

by katie tobin
29 April 2022, 12:39pm

Inspired by the likes of the Brothers Grimm, Guillermo del Toro, and of course Buffy The Vampire Slayer, gothic fairytale and witchcraft-leaning fashion has worked its way into the lives of content creators and fashion muses of late. From Julia Fox’s sinister graphic liner looks, to a rise in leather corsetry and luxury kinkwear by designers like Richard Quinn and VTMNTS, the gothic fairytale aesthetic is as much about style, opulence and femininity as it is horror

The aesthetic’s trademarks are unmistakable: ruby chokers that resemble slit throats; lashings of embellished black lace; nods to anything ethereal, otherworldly or magic. But beyond its visual appeal, the gothic fairytale isn’t just a style or fictional genre; it adds a dimension of playfulness, whimsy and escapism to the everyday, just when it's needed most. 

Gothicness, as both a genre and an aesthetic, has become far more palatable since the movement’s inception in the early 1980s. Gone are the days where the gothic look was solely defined by skyscraper-tall backcombed hair and eyes smothered with kohl. It has since been reincarnated as cyberpunk, the pastel goth, steampunk, and now, the fairytale goth.

On TikTok, the recently popularised #whimsigothic has also amassed over 6.6 million views. Whimsigothic, a term coined by Evan Collins, the co-founder of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, incorporates the whimsicality of a dark bohemian style with long, flowy, floral layers, astrological inspired-detailing, and the kinds of colours and patterns you might find in stained glass windows. Think Florence and the Machine or Stevie Nicks. From her love of chiffon, bell-bottoms, velvet, lace, and anything celestial, Fleetwood Mac’s frontwoman is the blueprint for whimsigothic style. As for interiors, whimisgothic hallmarks include crystals, incense and candles, lots of houseplants, and metallic textures. 

So, why has the gothic aesthetic recently struck such a chord? Perhaps the return to the monotony of everyday life has invoked the need for fun and a touch of magic when it comes to dressing. Marian St Laurent, a cultural historian and creative strategist,  also says that this modern gothic styling is also influenced by paganism and the occult, with many stylistic details overlapping with the goblincore movement. Marian also suggests that “the melancholic black lace and leather of goth fashion – in all its past and current variations – are a dark mirror that reflect cultural norms in reverse, empowering the wearer to negate assumed meanings and values”. Following the likes of dark academia, gothic fairytale couture and all its variations have brought to light our longing for whimsy and fantasy amidst the uncertainty of the past few years. It’s of little wonder, then, that the aesthetic has been so influential in digital spaces too.

Olivia Young-Thompson dedicates her TikTok account to all things whimsigothic. She runs a shop called Ostara – which she describes as a haven of found treasures and “magickal wares for hearth and home” – and notes that while trawling antique centres and junk shops for stock, she noticed traces of the aesthetic. “Beaded lampshades, curled wrought iron candelabras, purple satin cushions, celestial iconography, and cobalt blue glassware,” cropped up everywhere, Olivia explains. 

Another reason for the gothic fairytale aesthetic’s recent popularisation could be put down to the rise of all things astrological and Wicca-related on TikTok. “In an age of dislocation and environmental turmoil, younger generations are taking a renewed interest in astrology, horoscopes and the occult,” Wired reports. Beyond that, Olivia suggests that ideas of witchcraft are entwined with the ideas of sisterhood and female empowerment. “I think a lot of people recognised stuff from their childhoods, and luckily this aesthetic was usually associated with kind, caring women they knew growing up,” she says. The previous incarnation of whimsigothic dates back to the more traditional goth aesthetic of 90s, explains Olivia, which was for many women their first brush with anything “magical” or “alternative”. 

“Millennials like me look back with sweet nostalgia to the attainable cool girl look from the women who surrounded us as children,” Olivia says, referring to cult TV shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As for its popularity with Gen Z, Olivia says that “like with explosion of cottagecore in 2020 and the feeling of embodying a 'simpler' life, I think whimsigothic and all things gothic fairytale appeal to those who look back with rose-tinted glasses to a generation they never lived through. Trends in decor and fashion are always coming round again, but this time, there's a tangible want and need to almost embody the feeling and zeitgeist of the time”.

But our obsession with retelling gothic fairytales – be it through fashion or film – is nothing new. From Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a retelling of the fable of Bluebeard, to Eve Babitz’s Black Swan short story collection, the gothic fairytale has shown its enduring legacy time and time again. But beyond these delightfully dark narratives of female empowerment in bloodied, ugly, reclamations of power; gothic fairytales and folklore have also found a new lease of life on the silver screen. Recent cinematic examples include Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley; Robert Eggers’s The Witch; Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria; and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which many Twitter users have credited with the inspiration behind Julia Fox’s now-infamous look. 

Olivia, who also worked as an art director in film and TV for over 10 years, says that fairytales have always been a source of inspiration for her. “I’ve always loved stories of the magical, mythical, and of powerful women,” she says. “Working in film for so long, I was lucky enough to see some beautiful sets and props with a magical edge to them, and got to learn so much about antiques, furniture and materials.” This all went on to inspire her hunt for the whimsigothic items she sells today.

In a world of uncertainty and monotony, the gothic fairytale aesthetic has brought a mix of fun and fantasy into fashion and film. But as Marian also suggests, today the “gothic style shines darker to counterpoint our darker-than-gothic times, defined as they are by extreme events and unfolding crises”. It’s no wonder, then, that the gothic fairytales of sisterhood, maternal love, and retribution against the patriarchy are more appealing than ever. And with nods to these stories ever-present in current fashion, women are no longer content with being damsels in distress: we want to be our own heroines.

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