On TikTok, nestled alongside cottagecore, dark academia and cabincore, the Southern Gothic hashtag has amassed over 9 million views. Played out through current spring-ready trends like puff sleeves, corsets and gingham prints, the literary genre is capturing the imagination of a new generation as both a mode of storytelling and an aesthetic, finding a renewed popularity among creatives looking to subvert the legacy of Southern Gothic.
A much-needed antidote to Mark Twain’s romanticized version of the American South, the Southern Gothic genre drew its gothic elements not from the supernatural or the fantastical but from the real-life horrors experienced in the USA’s southern states. Using the macabre and grotesque, authors such as Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams began to expose the belligerent racism, gendered oppression, enduring poverty and religious extremism that swept the South after the Civil War.
Modern interpretations of the genre, from Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Beguiled to Melina Matsoukas’ 2019 Queen & Slim and Beyoncé’s "Formation" music video build upon the rich historical legacy of the American South but subvert expectations at every turn. In the past year, the literary trope turned aesthetic subculture has become increasingly pervasive, no doubt stemming from the global interrogation of America’s history of racism and a confrontation of the new horrors of Trump-era America. The contemporary wave of social commentary on racial politics in America was a catalyst for a resurrection of the genre – just see Antonio Campos’ 2020 film The Devil All the Time, starring Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, which explores the weaponization of religion as a justification for racism, misogyny and bigotry.
Dr. Ahmed Honeini, the founding director of research network Faulkner Studies in the UK, suggests that preserving Southern Gothic's cultural legacy is more important than ever. "The Southern Gothic remains so important because so many of its key texts urge the kind of confrontation with history that is being enacted throughout the United States and wider Europe right now," he tells Refinery29. "That history is made up of the horrors of racism, slavery, misogyny and white supremacy that have been brought to the forefront because of the presidency of Donald Trump, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the rise of the alt-right." With an influx of contemporary reimaginings of the Southern Gothic genre, it makes sense that its aesthetic is inspiring countless designers, musicians, directors and TikTok creators right now.
Although the term 'gothic' as a clothing style might evoke head-to-toe black and kohl eyeliner, TikTok is flooded with videos of women twirling around in long linen skirts and high-necked prairie dresses, an extension of last year’s cottagecore trend and the pandemic-fuelled modern rural fantasy. In fact, there are many similarities between the cottagecore lifestyle and the Southern Belle trope found throughout Southern Gothic literature. As Southern Belles are characterized in our cultural imagination as wearing parasols, straw hats, corsets and long, flowing dresses, it’s easy to understand how the sudden surge in popularity of historical costuming in mainstream fashion this year has helped pave the way for a Southern Gothic style revival.
Beyond TikTok, designers, too, have served up Southern Gothic-inspired elements across the catwalks (both virtual and physical) over the past few seasons. Sandy Liang’s AW21 offering featured beautifully tailored gingham dresses adorned with frills and Peter Pan collars that evoke farm-girl charm. An ode to the conservative sexual politics of the early 20th century, Liang’s models mostly donned calf-length dresses with Mary Janes or clogs but, in a subtle nod to the enduring literary exploration of repressed female sexuality in texts like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the designer flirted with fabric cut-outs, décolletage and thin layers of tulle which are far more decorative than practical.
H&M’s recent sell-out collaboration with Simone Rocha echoed many of these Southern feminine flourishes. Rocha said that she hopes "women feel feminine, strong, cool, unpredictable and a part of something when they wear the collection." An accompanying campaign film toyed with the rural sentiment of Southern life, all outdoor picnics and Daisy Edgar-Jones traipsing through sun-soaked fields in flowing fabrics. "We were inspired to work with a female designer who spends so much time thinking about contemporary femininity and womanhood," noted H&M creative advisor Ann-Sofie Johansson when the collaboration was announced. The collection undoubtedly nods to modern femininity but you can’t help but notice the historical embellishments which make the pieces feel at once timeless and of the moment.
For a darker take on the Southern Gothic trend, Alberta Ferretti’s AW21 collection adorned models with wide-brimmed black hats. Evoking the spirit of American Horror Story’s third season, Coven, Ferretti’s models look ready to cast a few spells themselves, with one model enveloped in a mass of crocheted black silk roses and mesh puff sleeves. Although there are more luxurious splashes of blues, mustards and golds, Ferretti’s palette mostly plays with the dark and muted tones of the Southern Gothic tradition.
It’s not all hyperfeminine frills and froufrou, though. Marco Zanini’s latest offering showcases earthy tones, flowing fabric and minimalism, an homage to the more subdued and androgynous mode of Southern Gothic style. To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout and Frankie Addams from The Member of the Wedding are notable ‘tomboys’ of the genre, parodying "heteronormative institutions and rituals" and challenging "binary understandings of gender and sexuality" through their rejection of hyperfeminine dress. Zanini’s rejection of a distinct gender binary in his clothing mirrors authorial attempts to abandon antiquated gender norms. Similarly, in HBO’s 2018 adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, Amy Adams’ character Camille Preaker hides behind dark colours and androgynous dress as she skulks through a haunted Wind Gap. Costume designer Alix Friedberg says this was to highlight Camille’s desire to retreat into the background as much as possible but also served as a means of escape from her destiny as a small-town Southern Belle.
Subversion of the genre is key to the Southern Gothic fantasy on TikTok, where creators post videos featuring an eclectic mix of era-inspired outfits, panning shots of antebellum mansions and even witchcraft inspired by the likes of 19th century New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Returning the Southern Gothic to creatives of colour is of the utmost importance, argues popular TikToker The Woodmother, who is writing a Southern Gothic fantasy set in Jazz Age Atlanta, entitled Gate City Blues. Set in 1928, the story centres on the daughter of a white vaudeville magician. "It’s based largely on my experience of growing up as a mixed person in the South, and the complicated legacy that comes with being the product of both the oppressor and the oppressed," The Woodmother tells Refinery29.
"I always felt a very complicated relationship with the South," they explain. "Living in a very white part of town, I never felt like the South claimed me back. I wanted to know what it would have been like for someone like me growing up in the place I live in the 1920s, combined with my experiences as both a mixed person and a non-binary person living in the South and how both of those things contribute to a feeling of 'in-betweenness', and like there’s not really a place for you." They also note that during the Harlem Renaissance, "there was such a thriving Black community that existed here that just isn’t represented in the media. There should be a place for us in every genre. As more space is being made for us and we are claiming more space in these genres, there’s definitely going to need to be a shift in how we think of Southern Gothic as a whole. I think Southern Gothic brings to the forefront the grotesque and unnatural and unsettling things that we live with. They become the sort of background radiation of our life that we might not realize how bad it is as we get used to it. It forces us to face the flaws of this complicated legacy of faded glory."
The trend has been rightly criticized for its longstanding history of pushing white men to the forefront. When writers like Faulkner and Williams are most known for pioneering the Southern Gothic, it’s especially important for women and gender nonconforming creatives of colour to reclaim it. "The history of Black performance has had such a huge impact on the United States but it’s often forgotten or whitewashed or gentrified. So much music from the time was created to encapsulate the Black experience, whether it be through blues, rock and roll or jazz. Black artists have always been at the cutting edge of so many artistic movements yet they never get credit for it."
The Woodmother explains that within historical costuming circles, they have often discussed "the idea of learning about different eras without romanticizing them. We can acknowledge that Southern Belle debutantes, who may have been the daughters of slave plantation owners, had very fancy dresses without wanting to emulate them necessarily. It’s a very complicated question about how to reclaim the fashion without glorifying the antebellum South. It really goes back to the importance of consuming media and participating in trends critically."
Thanks to radical and diverse storytellers revisiting and subverting the legacy of the Southern Gothic in mainstream culture and contemporary fashion, we’re confronted with what once was, and what still is. By attempting to encapsulate the genre through clothing, movies and music, designers and artists are helping to pave the way for a broader cultural narrative that challenges the colonial legacy of the South.