For a film that’s a knock-off of one of horror’s greatest works of fiction, and which saw its production company go bankrupt and all film prints meant to be destroyed, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror has had a remarkably long shelf life. An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, the silent film’s plot differs from the source material and transposes its setting from England to Germany. In a bid to avoid copyright infringement, characters’ names were also changed, and so Count Dracula became Count Orlok (the film’s antagonist is often erroneously referred to as “Nosferatu”).
Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu premiered in Berlin on March 4, 1922 to critical acclaim. Its visual style, which combined gothic horror with German Expressionism, was praised by critics and the press. But the hurrah was short-lived; Stoker’s widow Florence caught wind of the adaptation and promptly began legal action against the production company, Prana Film. By the time the lawsuit was settled, they’d declared bankruptcy and ceased operating, and all copies of Nosferatu were ordered to be destroyed.
Thankfully for us, a few copies survived, and today, the movie is considered a masterpiece and one of the most influential films ever made. Not only has it shaped the portrayal of vampires in popular culture, but the horror genre itself is heavily indebted to Nosferatu’s macabre style.
However, often overlooked among the film’s rich cultural legacy is its impact on fashion. Its aesthetics have inspired everything from the goth subculture of the late ‘70s and ‘80s and the metal scene, to dark fashion in the aughts and beyond. As the film rings in 100 years, its influence on fashion is unwavering.
Much of Nosferatu’s visual style and spirit can be attributed to Albin Grau, co-founder of the production company that brought the film to life. A lifelong occultist, Grau designed the film’s costumes, sets, storyboards and promotional materials. Set during Germany’s 19th-century Biedermeier era, Nosferatu retained the gothic elements of Dracula and combined them with German Expressionism, an artistic movement that peaked in 1920s Berlin. This movement was defined by portraying the meaning of emotional experience over physical reality, which influenced director Murnau after the landmark 1920 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The fusion created a unique style that saw gothic fiction’s common themes of horror, death, and romance executed in a modernist approach. The result was hauntingly stylized visuals that included long shadows, off-kilter frames, and ghastly imagery, particularly of Orlok, whose elongated body, dark eyes, pointed ears, central fangs, and grotesquely long talons resembled a verminous beast in lieu of the novel’s handsome and charismatic aristocrat. The groundbreaking melding of old and new is one of the reasons the film has remained so influential in fashion and culture ever since.
Music Industry Aesthetics
Although its influence lay mostly within cinema for the first half-century of its life, the 1970s brought it into the music sphere, and subsequently the general population. As the stirrings of gothic rock began in the UK amid the ashes of punk, a new musical genre was born. Bauhaus’ seminal track, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” is often credited as the beginning of goth. While the song referenced a different version of Dracula, Nosferatu went on to be one of the genre’s influences, as did other horror and B-movies, gothic literature, vampire cults, and occultism – all themes present in the film as well.
Like many music genres, gothic rock gave rise to a wider subculture that encapsulated clubs, fashion, and more. Its style took cues from gothic literature and the Victorian culture of mourning, and combined it with punk aesthetics, which echoed Nosferatu’s blend of tradition and modernity. The result? A moribund look that was as romantic as it was horrifying. Black clothing reigned supreme while fanciful Victorian embellishments such as frilling and lace were subdued by punk’s severity and DIY leanings.
A major hallmark of goth fashion was the eccentric hair and makeup worn by its adherents. As with clothing, it proved to be an amalgamation of punk and Victorian influences — wild hair, ashen skin, and overdrawn dark eyeshadow, as popularized by musicians Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith of The Cure. The look also referenced the 1920s through Nosferatu, Caligari, and femme fatale actress Theda Bara’s smoky eyes.
Meanwhile, some musicians took the reference literally: The Damned’s Dave Vanian, another style icon of the era, famously dressed up as Orlok while on tour in 1979, pointed ears and all, and even reprised the look for a 2019 show.
In the following decades, Nosferatu became a source of inspiration for hard rock and metal musicians as well — one just needs to look at how many songs and especially bands are named after the film’s unique vocabulary. Artists capitalized on its dark imagery in their branding, as metal is wont to do. This moved Orlok on from fashion icon to mascot, as visuals from the film began to appear on band merch including album covers and T-shirts.
Similarities to Orlok’s grotesque complexion would also crop up again. Although makeup and face paint was worn by male musicians as far back as the ‘60s, the ‘80s saw an undead influence arise in the form of so-called corpse paint, heavily popularized by Norwegian black metal bands. While its roots lie in Paris’ Grand Guignol theater tradition, the practice has echoes of the Count’s ghoulish pallor nonetheless.
The music industry’s wholehearted embrace of Nosferatu is ironic, since most of the film’s original score by Hans Erdmann was lost. Rich visuals without an audio accompaniment also led many musicians throughout history to create their own scores for the film. Over the decades, artists have resonated strongly with Nosferatu and its wellspring of haunting imagery continues to be mined to this day.
Haute Goth and the Rise of Dark Fashion
Nosefatu’s stylistic influence came to high fashion relatively late, in the mid-aughts, to be exact. At the time, designers like Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, and Yohji Yamamoto garnered increasing attention and heralded in an era of dark fashion, a new breed of “haute goth” — as coined by Cintra Wilson of The New York Times — was born. Goth fashion proved so popular during this period that the style officially left the sidelines, where it had always lived along with the outsiders, and moved into the mainstream.
But more than just being a trend, it seems the ushering in of haute goth could be due to shifts in society. As reported by The New York Times in 2005, one theory posited by Professor Allen Grove of Alfred University — whose specialties include Gothicism — is that dark themes appear during or after disaster as a way of coming to terms with uncertainty. It’s no coincidence then that the rise of dark fashion at the start of the 21st century arrived post-9/11, and amid the financial recession of 2008.
As the darkness climbed up fashion’s ladder, goth’s Victorian influences were eschewed in favor of modern silhouettes and clean lines. Once again, Nosferatu remained a relevant inspiration owing to the film’s Expressionist side. This was translated into fashion through both structured and shapeless garments and off-kilter tailoring, while traditional attire was given a modernist spin. Orlok’s decidedly chic looks — including his signature frock coat fit and amorphous cape ensemble — became the cornerstones of dark fashion. Even the mainstreaming of if you know, you know (IYKYK) fashion — Comme des Garcons, Margiela, Raf Simons, et al. — is emblematic of Orlok’s emergence into society, both in the film and the present day.
Orlok was once again turned into an overt style icon. Jun Takahashi was inspired by Nosferatu for his Spring/Summer 2020 UNDERCOVER show, applying the Count’s famous silhouette on various pieces. Meanwhile, couture womenswear brands Maxime Simoëns and Viktor & Rolf also based collections on the film. The latter’s entire Spring 2022 Couture show was designed around Orlok’s distinctive high-shouldered physique.
Nosferatu hasn’t been left out of the beauty space either, with the shaved head trend of the last decade drawing yet another link to the Count’s stark look. Add to that the industry’s increased shunning of conventional beauty standards and Orlok’s mug wouldn’t feel out of place at Paris Fashion Week. His role as a style icon was even satirized recently when Garage compared him from the 1979 Nosferatu remake to a Berghain attendee or Balenciaga model.
Dark fashion hasn’t waned, and neither has Nosferatu’s influence. Whether literally or indirectly, the film has influenced a century of style, and it’s unlikely we’ll be escaping its firmly clenched teeth on fashion anytime soon. In fact, it’s possible we’re about to see the third coming of Nosferatu, as director Robert Eggers — of The Witch and The Lighthouse fame — has been planning a remake starring Anya Taylor-Joy. When the undead looks this good, it’s sure to keep on living.