The physical look of the Lolita style of dress has been called many things – some of which are not accurate – from Rococo French maid meets Alice in Wonderland, to a Victorian doll come to life, to Street Style meets historical fashion. The Lolita look, as a whole, has links to the French Regency, Baroque, and Rococo periods, and the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These elements ground the Lolita subculture in Western dress, but with these influences the Japanese have created a unique style and lifestyle that does not reflect the Western conceptions of Lolita.
Although, in North America and Europe, one thinks automatically of Vladimir Nabokov when one sees the word Lolita, this subculture has never been about sex. Quite the opposite is true; this is girl culture for girl consumption. The Lolita wardrobe includes such demure items as high–collared, long–sleeved shirts and dresses, and skirt lengths that fall below the knee. It is quite likely that the use of Lolita, in this context of subculture, has origins in the Japanese practice of incorporating English words into their phrases and names, which creates an entirely new meaning. This may in turn have origins in the desire to enhance the prestige value of an item by linking it to the West (Miller, 180).
Gothic Lolita is a style of Lolita dress
The Gothic Lolita substyle of Lolita fashion (Gosurori or GothLoli) has been referred to as a perfect meshing of romance and childlike innocence, and as the LaCarmina.com Blogger Carmen Yuen states, „a real tension between cuteness and innocence combined with a little bit of darkness and morbidity.” Gothic Lolita dress is characterized by a harmonization of the macabre, by way of skulls, bats, and the color black, with chasteness through the clothing’s bell shape, the covering up of exposed skin, and the ever–present porcelain–doll–like cuteness. The ethereal quality that Gosuroris exude is one of the most striking features of this style.
Gothic Lolita aficionados tend to dress all in black, or combine black with minimal accents of white. The must have Lolita accessory is a petticoat or crinoline underskirt to help create the desired silhouette. Heavy stockings or knee–high sox complement large platform shoes – the ne plus ultra of which are Vivienne Westwood’s „rocking horse ballerina” shoes that combine a Geta–style platform with a ballerina flat and ribbons that lace up the leg. In Japan a large purse, bag, or small suitcase is an integral subcultural accessory because in it Lolitas carry extra outfits, make–up, and necessary items of Kawaii (cute). Japanese Gosuroris often carry a very large Vivienne Westwood purse, which prominently displays her orb logo. Other styles of purses range from large leather bat–shaped handbags to handmade (from patterns supplied in The Gothic & Lolita Bible) ruffle–trimmed sacs. The final accessory of importance is a headdress, headband, or hair clips with bows, ribbons, and ruffles on them. There are a multitude of coordinating clothing pieces that make up the main Gothic Lolita wardrobe; many are homemade by crafty seamstresses, and many are purchased from authentic purveyors.
Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL) and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat (EGA) are two styles that harmonize with Gothic Lolita. Both variations lean towards a more mature version of Lolita dress, and they can accompany a Lolita as she ages. The clothing is styled by the Moi–même–Moitié clothing label. EGA can incorporate long floor–length skirts or even wide–legged pants and an androgynous appearance, while EGL almost always follows a traditional Lolita silhouette all in black. For American Lolitas, EGL is particularly attractive, and it has become a default term for describing the spin that American Lolitas have put on the traditional Japanese Gosurori look.
Japan and Gothic Lolita’s origins
In Japan, „subcultural lifestyles are often related to music, and many… spectacular outfits… are inspired by a rock genre known as visual–kei, meaning „visual style’” (Keet, 60). Some women get into Lolita through this musical connection, but Lolita and Gosurori is not exclusive to it. Another lead–in to the lifestyle is Cosplay (costume play) where women and men dress up as their favorite pop culture characters. Some Lolitas begin by dressing as their favorite rock star, and this is their entrée into the Gosurori culture. Of course there are also people who find Lolita on their own, without any connection to music or Cosplay, through magazines or the Internet. Today many girls are getting into Lolita via Manga (comic books) and animation, which are both becoming immensely popular in America.
Mana, who was the guitar player for the Japanese rock band Malice Mizer and is currently the fashion designer for the clothing label he founded, Moi–même–Moitié, is often given credit for inventing Lolita as a style of clothing. This is inaccurate because, although he created the substyles of Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL) and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat (EGA) as a way to promote his elite clothing label, he did not invent Lolita as a subculture.
The subcultural origins of Gothic Lolita, according to Macias and Evers, look all the way back to the 1970’s and the Nagomu Gals subculture (121). Nagomu was a Japanese record label, and its followers are described as something akin to the American art school girl. Nagomu Gals were Fushigi Chan, or mysterious girls. They made their own clothing, and they appeared „to be lost in a twisted extended childhood” (111).
Because Japan does not have the Eastern European cultural origins of Goth, they did not readily relate to the Western Goth aesthetic (Macias & Evers, 118–120). While there are pockets of Goth culture in Japan, it is not entirely the same and it is not particularly influential. What ultimately gained the attention of Japanese teens was the visual look of Goth, and how it was filtered through the unique cultural experience of the early 20th century author Edogawa Rampo’s Ero–Guro (erotic and grotesque) stories (119).
The Lolita lifestyle as a whole has origins in the 1970’s and 1980’s Kawaii culture, and the Kogyaru culture, or more commonly in English Kogal meaning „high school girl”. As Miller states, „embodied in many of the new girl prototypes is a rejection of cultural proscriptions about proper female affect and presentation of self” (34). At that time many Japanese girls were looking for ways to belong to a subculture that was uniquely female. According to Macias and Evers, the establishment of clothing brands catering to this new market, such as Milk, Emily Temple Cute, and in 1988 Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, brought a hyper–feminine girly look into being (122). With the establishment of Moi–même–Moitié in 1999, and the founding of The Gothic & Lolita Bible in 2001, the roots for the Gothic Lolita subcultural style were firmly entrenched.
Gothic Lolita in America
The release of the book Fruits, by Phaidon press in January of 2001 was a watershed moment for the recognition of Japanese street style in America, and consequently for the fashions of Lolita. This book quietly infiltrated bookstores all over America, and by the release of Fresh Fruits in June of 2005 there was a full–blown phenomenon happening on American shores. Many burgeoning Lolitas saw the images published in this book and went straight to the Internet to find out more information. In 2001 there was precious little information available on the Internet in English, but thankfully there existed a LiveJournal community, J-Rock fan sites with Images of Mana and his ilk, and a few „street snap” sites with pictures of all types of Japanese street style models. From these humble origins American teens and young adults have carved out an entire subculture. It may have Japanese origins, but returned to its native Western context of Alice in Wonderland, tea parties, and Victorian dolls, Lolita has become something enticing and uniquely creative for Americans.
Another watershed moment for Lolita was the movie Shimotsuma Monogatari. Released in Japan in May of 2004, and based on the novel Shimotsuma Story by Novala Takemoto, Kamikaze Girls was made available for the American market in June of 2005. The movie follows the story of a Lolita named Momoko, and her addiction to all things Lolita. The movie centers on Momoko’s idolization of Akinori Isobe, the fashion designer for the label Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, and her dream of designing clothing for the company. When people use the term Lifestyle Lolita they are referring to a devotee who lives, breathes, sleeps, and eats Lolita, just like Momoko.
What is so amazing about the Lolita lifestyle in America is, unlike the Japanese who have Harajuku, the park, and the bridge, there are no culture specific events or central figures to draw Lolitas together. Each city, state, and region of the United States has pocket groups of people who stay in touch via the Internet. Some participants meet for tea or shopping, and some attend Anime conventions, but for the most part this is a disparate and solitary subculture that feeds on the Internet, individual creativity, issues of The Gothic & Lolita Bible, and the distinct art of dressing for self–pleasure.
Subcultural participant Carmen Yuen states, „For me, I consider what’s provocative isn’t showing [a lot of] skin, but wearing a fashion that makes people take a step back. A style that represents an alternative view of beauty can be darker and more subversive. I find the tension within Gothic Lolita, even though it can be quite modest, is the contrast between that which is dark and that which is innocent. This is surprising, especially to Western eyes. To me, even if that isn’t sexual, in an overt sense, it is extremely provocative.”
There is something supremely attractive about dressing in a style of clothing that is the antithesis of sexy. It allows one a moment of respite from the sexed–up popular culture America breeds and feeds on. For the time that one is dressed as a Lolita one does not have to grow up; one can stay a girl, and avoid all the messy mistakes of becoming a woman. The Lolita subculture allows a form of socialization that is all female; it helps girls cement friendships within the common interest of creativity, and without the antagonism that male attention can create. This subcultural style is, according to Carmen Yuen, a way to feel very beautiful without having to sexualize yourself. It is attractive to women and girls of all body shapes and sizes, and in America it is essentially for females only, which is inspiring and encouraging at the same time. (There are some men who cross–dress as Lolitas.) When asked why they like Lolita, many girls answer that it is pretty and very girly, or that playing dress-up and looking cute is self-satisfying in its own right.
More than just Gothic
Gothic Lolita is the focus of this article, but there are many other style subsets of Lolita itself. Some styles are brand–new variations, and others have roots older than Gothic Lolita. Classic Lolita is one of the most refined and adult styles of Lolita dress, and it lacks some of the frills and ruffles that many of the other styles have.
There is Country Lolita that entails a lot of patterned fabric, Pink Lolita that is a style formed around the color pink, a Blue Lolita style, and even a White Lolita style. Sweet Lolita (AmaLoli) is the most doll–like style of Lolita. It incorporates items such as stuffed animals, bows, and ribbons to create a fantasy of childhood. Punk Lolita (sometimes referred to as Goth-Pan) is a style of dress with additions in the punk style. Many adherents use safety pins, skull motifs, bondage straps, and chains to enhance the Lolita look. Twin Lolita (Futago-Loli) is when two people dress in the same Lolita outfit, regardless of style. Wa-Lolita (WaLoli) is a newer style of dress that is predicated on traditional Japanese clothing. Variations on the Kimono, customary hair ornaments, and Geta shoes all help to inform this style. Some Lolita looks, such as Sailor Lolita and Pirate Lolita, appear to be Cosplay influenced, and consequently are seen less often in the general Lolita community.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Lolita styles. Due to its ubiquitous popularity in Japan, Lolitas are always looking for ways to stand out and be trendsetters. Creating new styles is a way to do that, and so Lolita is an evolving fashion subculture.
„Gothic Lolita Fashions Make Me Happy”
Many girls are attracted to the Lolita style because the beauty of it enamors them. Women of all ages admire the style, and even if they would not wear it, some want to incorporate little elements of it into their own wardrobes. There is pleasure in the donning of a youthful bell–shaped dress, skirt, or coat, which can be appreciated by any woman. Wearing Lolita clothing is an ultimate expression of girly femininity, and it is done expressly to pleasure the wearer herself.
Gothic Lolita is a style that stands out among many other subcultural styles. There is an allure to the exquisitely elegant mixture of romance and innocence. For those of the Gothic persuasion, or those who can appreciate its aesthetic, there is something undeniably beautiful in the combination of „roses and spider webs.”
Article by Kyshah Hell (USA) published in Otaku: Kaidan (2008)
Photos by Marianne Williams / Half a Second Photography