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Goth vs Emo: What’s The Difference?

Out there in the mainstream world, the alternative scene can look like a confusing mix of black clothing and loud music. From their outsider’s perspective, it can be hard to understand the nuances that define each alternative subculture. While some subcultures like pastel goth or rockabilly have stand-out features that make them clearly separate from the umbrella of ‘goth’, other subcultures such as emo can get lumped in with a generalist ‘goth’ term.

To give the mainstream a break, we can kind of understand why. For those that aren’t directly involved in the alternative scene, emo could easily be mistaken for goth going through a wild teenage phase. There are some similarities, but there are also many differences if you choose to look more closely.

In case you’re a mainstreamer looking to get a peek behind the goth vs emo curtain, or you’re an alternative fashion lover that wants to make sure they’re getting their alternative basics right, we’ve taken a deep dive into whether goth and emo are the same thing…

Before we get into similarities and comparisons – let’s take a look at some un-nuanced definitions of that ‘goth’ and ‘emo’ mean, look like, and sound like at their core.

How Is Goth Defined?

No matter what your customary Google tells you, goth in this context does not relate to the Germanic tribe who invaded the Roman Empire – thanks for trying though Urban Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. We’re sure that many of the goths we’re referring to think that this tribe are absolute badasses, but when we talk about ‘goth’ here, we’re referring to the music and fashion subculture.

Goth in this context is defined as a person who listens to gothic music (from Bauhaus to Marilyn Manson) and dresses in gothic fashion (black, black, Victorian-influenced, black, punk-influenced, black).

Because of goth’s affiliation and fascination with Victorian horror, pagan worship and ancient magic (spelling may vary), it’s often thought that goth was the original alternative subculture, but in fact, goth music culture primarily arose out of one of the other pillars of the alternative community – the punk movement.

When Did Goth Start?

The goth culture began right here in the UK in the early 1980s – bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned were creating a gothic rock sound that was directly influenced by their punk predecessors. Some argue that goth started in the late 70s when The Damned first broke the scene, but it wasn’t until things snowballed in the early 80s that the term goth was coined by the media.

What Was Goth Like In The 80s?

Influenced by dark theatrics, tragic romanticism and anything morbid, morose or even taboo, gothic culture became the distinctive sound of reverb, woeful lyrics and an all-black uniform that drew inspiration from the Victorian era of penny shockers and the punk scene it hailed from.

Teens across the UK and the US seized this cultural movement and by the 90s began to make it their own. Dressed in their uniforms of boots, backcombed hair and thick black eyeliner, paired with a mandatory all-black wardrobe, the goth scene took on a life of its own and paved the way for future gothic subcultures.  

How Did Goth Develop?

The classic 80s goth was eventually left behind as styles and trends developed. The late 90s and early 00s saw the goth scene produce musicians such as Marilyn Manson, Emilie Autumn and The Dresden Dolls – all of whom brought their unique gothic flavour. By this time, goth had become an umbrella term in the media for subcultures including nu-metal, post-punk and cybergoth. The lines between what was ‘goth’ and what wasn’t became blurred, and eventually the term ‘alternative’ began to circulate as a catch-all for these subcultures.

What Does Goth Look Like Now?

As with much popular culture nowadays, goths tend to turn to the gothic pioneers of the past for their gothic music fixes and influences and can take their pick from years of gothic style and fashion to create their own unique styles. Some may argue that the era of the classic goth is fading away in lieu of other subcultures from pastel goth to health goth and beyond, but with gothic clothing at the centre of alternative Instagram culture and so many alternative wardrobes, we can’t see the original spirit of goth culture leaving us any time soon.


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How Is Emo Defined?

One such subculture that developed as a result of goth’s rise in popularity was emo. The definition of emo largely comes down to defining the music, which places great emphasis on emotional lyrics, expressive visuals and a confessional tone. Reading like the angsty diary of a teenager, it’s no surprise that the emo charge was primarily led by a younger audience grappling with the feelings that emo music portrayed.

Visually, the emo fashion took cues from gothic clothing but pushed its way into a more mainstream streetwear style that plays into the idea of ‘geek chic’ – typically geeky t-shirts were paired with v neck jumpers and tighter than tight skinny jeans, with glasses, black dyed hair and a super-long side fringe also ranking as emo must-haves.

How Did Emo Start?

While emo was simmering away in the 90s, by the early 00s emo ripped straight through the alternative scene and all the way into the mainstream. While a handful of alternative musicians had made it into the mainstream, this was the biggest wave of alt music to make a cultural impact with consumers that otherwise wouldn’t have engaged with the alternative scene. Bands such as My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco were all counted among the most famous emo bands to come out of this era of alternative music, standing on the shoulders of early adopters of the emo sound such as Dashboard Confessional, Weezer and Jimmy Eat World.

How Did Emo Develop?

Emo branched out almost as soon as it became a defined subculture. One of the most successful offshoots of emo was screamo. The sound of screamo was much more aggressive, taking on frantic beats and hair raising vocals that kept the screamo scene largely underground. Bands such as Thrice, Poison the Well and Alexisonfire were all staples of the screamo scene, keeping a more alternative vibe to the emo subculture that was otherwise becoming more and more mainstream.

Why Was Emo So Controversial?

Emo had a pretty big PR problem. Because a lot of the lyrics dealt with themes of mental health and emotional distress, the music got a bad reputation for playing a part in creating a culture of depression – the worst accusations suggesting that emo music encouraged and glamorised self-harm and suicide. Bands that would have typically been labelled as emo railed against the term in order to disassociate themselves from the darker side of emo culture and media-bias. It’s this connotation that ultimately led to emo being discouraged, causing many to fall out of love with a subculture that had once created a huge sense of community – especially on online platforms such as MySpace.

What Does Emo Look Like Now?

As the scene moved on, emo moved back underground with its offshoots like screamo. It wasn’t until the mid to late 2010s that it reared its head again, this time being heavily sampled by hip hop artists from MC Lars as early as 2004 to Lil Peep and XXXTentacion enjoying much more recent success – a success that was to be short-lived as both artists tragically died not long after peaking in the mainstream music charts.

The Key Similarities of Goth vs Emo

The key similarities between goth and emo include:

  • Romantic themes – both deal with themes of romance such as unrequited love in their music and both talk about the object of their affections in a reverential way that makes their crush seem otherworldly or unattainable.
  • Black-based fashion – both feature black heavily in their colour palettes. However, goth clothing takes this to an extreme whereas emo encourages pairing bold colours such as red, purple and green with a black base colour.
  • Dramatic makeup – both use eyeliner and other bold makeup looks to create their distinctive styles. As with clothing, goth makeup tends to be very black and white whereas emo experiments more with bold colours.
  • Association with death – both have an undeserved reputation for inciting violence and glamorising death in mainstream media, but even this association with death has distinctive nuances. Emo was accused of promoting self-harm, whereas goth was accused of promoting harm to others.

The Key Differences Between Goth vs Emo

The key differences between goth and emo include:

  • Musical origins – goth developed from the punk scene and bears many similarities to punk music, whereas emo strived for a much more mainstream appeal that took on a pop sound
  • Style influences – gothic clothing takes inspiration from Victorian fashion and punk style, whereas emo clothing is much more pedestrian and accessible by the mainstream. Some would argue that the popularity of kawaii clothing has taken the place of the cute but deadly vibe that began with emo.
  • Longevity – goth has long been a subculture on the alternative scene and has remained in a semi-mainstream light for many years. Emo enjoyed greater mainstream success, but only for a relatively short period of time before it was pushed back underground. Bands disassociating with the emo subculture meant that a lot of the culture’s pioneers are now redefined in the alternative umbrella or have changed their sound to appeal to other subcultures.

Are Goth and Emo the Same Thing?

No. While there are certainly similarities between the two due to the emergence of emo from the origins of gothic culture, there are key differences to be found even in the similarities between the two that define emo as a separate alternative subculture in its own right – though both fall under the ‘alternative’ umbrella.

No matter how you identify, if you’re a part of the alternative scene we’re sure to stock alternative fashion that’ll keep you feeling part of your community all year round. Take a look at our alternative menswear and alternative womenswear collections to get inspired with Attitude Clothing.

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