Aesthetic purist, modernist architect and bitter man Adolf Loos hated ostentation. In his lecture-essay “Ornament and Crime,” he wrote, “The urge to ornament one’s face and everything within reach is the start of plastic art. It is the baby talk of painting. All art is erotic.”
He argued that children don’t know any better, but in the modern (Western) adult, the decorative urge is degenerate. Anything that doesn’t contribute to a structure of a thing, the essence of it, is unnecessary and childlike. He also measured the value of a country’s culture “by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared” (Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” 1908).
Yet roommates Max River ’22 and Jedidiah Christie ’22, christened by many rubbernecking Vassar students as the “Joss Goths,” sporting metal, ink and several black layers, are self-professed utilitarians. This prompts the question: How do we define useful? Do enjoyment, comfort or happiness constitute utility? Is a tall, clunky pair of boots useful if it makes us happy? Recounting his “goth” origins, Christie first used “utilitarian” in the traditional sense. “I started wearing more black. It was easier. You don’t really get stains on stuff. No grape slushie stains on a black shirt,” he laughed. “Beyond that, you can wear things multiple days in a row—same hoodie. It’s super utilitarian.”
So in some ways it’s low maintenance to dress goth, but the roommates’ unique aesthetics extend far beyond the label. River described “goth” as “a catchall term and mostly a meme.” At first, they thought the goth designation was somewhat monolithic. They went with it, though, and have fun with it now. It remains more a nickname born of campus speculation rather than something that dictates their dress and interests, which are ever-changing. River revealed, “Me and Jed like to come up with one- to five-word short phrases that describe our vibe in a nutshell for that period of time.” Like a Mad Lib. At one time last week, he was “redneck militant Freedom Fighter goth.”
Although their aesthetic inspirations change regularly, River and Christie cherish their wardrobe. They talked about their closet with parental affection and the vocabulary of a tailor. Putting on a pair of boots that I can only describe as moon shoes meet “Mad Max,” River explained that he got them from his girlfriend’s mom’s boyfriend, who wore the shoes to Burning Man and abandoned them because he was too frail of spirit, apparently. Christie is similarly attached to one hoodie he’s had for four years despite the wear: “[W]henever I wear it I’m like, ‘Wow, this makes me look like a freshly raised wraith in the cemetery.’”
The pair doesn’t pay much attention to color, but they did emphasize texture, layering, shape and the way garments hang. Moreover, under all the layers is the principle of presence. A distinct appearance, fashioned by clothing in this case, contributes to a sense of being in the world. “Something that subconsciously guides us is having a not necessarily strong, but very defined presence,” River reflected. Christie brought up bulkiness: “I think we’re defined in the way weight and mass are represented. I like the solidity in a lot of things in our uniform, like a nice clunky pair of boots. Along with silhouettes, it adds a nice cartoonish edge to things.”
The students affirmed that “goth” dress is utile in the tactile comfort of a blanket or thick sweater, but they also enjoy the comfort of artistic autonomy. In other words, they get to curate how they look; they present to the world how they feel. “We think of the way that people dress as being for comfort. Not just our physical comfort, but comfort in feeling a congruency in the way you feel and the way you look to others,” Christie mused. “When wondering how others interpret one’s appearance, they should acknowledge that the comfort it gives them probably supersedes any shock value derived from others.”
While they value a defined presence in the world (they are instantly recognizable and they know this), their appearance is not for the enjoyment of outsiders. Wearing items that bring you joy and comfort, they agreed, is a way to make your life more exciting. It makes any given environment “conducive to you existing comfortably,” as Christie put it. I found this attitude admirable, even righteously selfish: They do not care about outside reaction, however shocking their clothes may be in some contexts. They welcomed me warmly into their space, and there was a harmony between interior and sartorial design such that even I, in blue jeans and a thermal, relaxed. Curious, I asked them if they’re ever uncomfortably aware of a dissonance between their looks and their largely “collegiate” surroundings. They recalled the org fair, where the preppy pair represented Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). Christie detailed, “We’re standing at this table in the College Center among all these freshmen.” (At this River burst out laughing.) “We had a sign for SSDP that had a shoddily spray painted, large marijuana leaf that said ‘Free Drugs,’ and we spent the majority of the org fair laughing about the picture we made at this table.”
They also admitted that, when they went to a “towel-on-the-arm” restaurant in Poughkeepsie for their friend’s birthday, they attracted a lot of attention. “All the boomers looked up at us,” said River, smiling, satisfied. Outsiders, be them Poughkeepsie retirees or Vassar peers, many cast a second glance at the Joss Goths because they are heavily ornamented; whenever he wears his space boots, River said, he feels like he’s shaking the earth. However, in this case, what could be perceived as excess is not excess at all, because even in more private places they are bold and playful. Although River championed the meaninglessness of his tattoos, I saw how lovingly he looked at the little rat inked on his leg. Likewise, they pored over the little details of their room (so many plastic Halloween skeletons, a gas mask, an old lamp, a banana resting domestically on a UV light).
As we delved into a conversation about childhood influences like Danny Phantom, Raven from “Teen Titans,” My Chemical Romance and the “Halloweentown” series, I continued to marvel at their wear, their warmth and, as River said, their defined presence. I realized then that I am materialistic. The things you watch, wear and touch bring you joy. I don’t think you should deny yourself the joy of stuff and decoration, which not only serve as beauty and entertainment, but also as a means of forging identity and lasting comfort. As Christie told me, “It’s not always for an outward perspective.” Deco—piercings, clunky boots, little skeletons—is the stuff of the spirit.