Lolita: Fashion and Subculture

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Having explored FRUiTS fashion and the sailor fuku as a fashion statement in previous Otaku Lounge articles, I thought it might be a good time to look at another, more specific form of Japanese street fashion that has gained some recognition and popularity among fans across the globe – the lolita subculture.

Essentially, lolita fashion draws its inspiration from Victorian children’s clothing and 18th century French Rococo-period costumes. The general look therefore consists primarily of puffy knee-length dresses and skirts, lacy blouses, full petticoats, and varying forms of headdresses. Hand-held items such as dolls and plushies are sometimes carried in order to emphasise the childlike look, and make-up is often kept to a minimum. By adding gothic or other design elements into the mix, lolita fashion has evolved over the years into several different sub-styles, whose devotees often view their manner of dress as an entire lifestyle rather than as a simple fashion trend.

Although the term ‘Lolita’ is a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel revolving around a sexually precocious young girl and her relationship with an older male protagonist, the original followers of lolita fashion, as well as the majority of lolita fans across the world today, do not consider the style to be an explicitly sexual one. The concept of lolita fashion is typically thought of as cute or exquisitely charming, but most adherents believe that neither the term nor the style has anything to do with sex.

Even the gothic approach specifically, while sometimes synonymous with perceptions of bondage and other sexually-related ideas in the West, tends to be just the opposite when coupled with Lolita fashion in Japan, as Tiffany Godoy’s Style Deficit Disorder informs us: “Abstinence, girlishness, and virginity were prominent themes. Girls covered up so very little skin was exposed, and wore lace and other frilly material almost to excess. They covered their legs with knee-high socks and wore Odeko shoes, characterized by a prominent rounded toe, rather than high heels.”

While it is not known precisely how the lolita style came to be such an identifiable form of street fashion in Japan, it is attributed to have begun in the late 1970s, when famous labels such as Pink House – then a brand which chiefly sold very feminine ‘country’ clothes for housewives – began manufacturing dresses which would have fit some of the modern standards of lolita fashion.

However, the style did not gain a large following until visual kei bands started expanding in popularity. Japanese musical acts such as Malice Mizer incorporated dramatic make-up, strikingly unusual hair styles, and extremely elaborate and androgynous-looking costumes into their rock, punk, and metal performances. Fans of this musical style began adopting similar costumes into their own street looks, and consequently, there was a distinct line between those who wore lolita clothing as a way of supporting the musical scene, and those who dressed in lolita clothing only as a fashion trend.

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Although lolita fashion peaked in the late 1990s along with visual kei, the movement has gained enough momentum that a variety of stores and clothing lines exist purely as a means of selling and showcasing lolita clothing in all of its varieties. The subculture has also gained acknowledgement outside of Japan, helped along in its popularisation by the depiction of lolita clothing in music videos, film, and manga and anime.

Like most other styles of Japanese street fashion, lolita fashion is constantly evolving. There are numerous different sub-types within the general look, and it is also common to see style crossovers so that despite the ‘rules’ of lolita-wear, it really is up to the individual to determine what he or she wishes to be. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to categorize every single particular lolita sub-type – over the years I’ve seen Country, Hime/Princess, Chinese, Ero, Cyberpunk, Sailor, Decora, and even Pirate lolita. Nonetheless, there are several well-defined styles that have now been drawn into the fabric of the overall subculture. Below is a listing of some of these main lolita styles with generalised information on what makes each of them fit into their specific grouping, along with examples drawn from popular culture.

Ama (Sweet) Lolita

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Just as it sounds, the cutesy adorable style. Heavily influenced by Rococo clothing in particular, its focus is mostly on the child and fantasy-like aspects of lolita culture. Think heaps of white and pastels, especially baby blue and baby pink, and patterns incorporating cakes and candy. It usually incorporates a lot of ribbons, bows and frills, and bouncy curly-haired pigtails are also commonplace. Chii from the Chobits manga and anime wears several Sweet lolita inspired dresses in the official series artwork, and Momoko from the Japanese live-action film Kamikaze Girls also dresses in this style. Popular brands are Metamorphose temps de fille and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.

Gothic Lolita

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Influenced primarily by Victorian-inspired dress, Gothic lolita is obviously a lot darker than many other styles. Black and white is the most common colour combination, but rich and dark shades of many other colours can still be used. Make-up is sometimes heavier than styles like Sweet lolita, such as smoky eyes and a deeper lip colour, but natural is still often the key, and things we might expect like a powder-white face and deep red or black lipstick is not particularly common. Death Note’s Misa sometimes dresses in Gothic lolita-esque outfits, as does Victorique from Gosick. Keiko from Japanese band Kalafina has also appeared several times in Japanese magazines like KERA and Gothic & Lolita Bible rocking the Gothic lolita look. Moi-meme-Moitie, created by Malice Mizer’s co-founder Mana, is an especially well-known brand, as is a line from Baby, the Stars Shine Bright called Alice and the Pirates.

Punk Lolita

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A slightly more eclectic look involving tattered and plaid fabrics, chunky boots, and plenty of layering combined with safety-pins, chains and studs. Dark red is a fairly common colour, as is black and white stripes. It’s actually not as easy as it sounds to pull off well, since the style isn’t usually as clean or traditionally elegant as many of the other lolita styles are. Japanese pop/rock singer Nana Kitade has previously appeared in Punk lolita clothing, as in the first volume of the English version of Gothic & Lolita Bible. Peace Now, Putumayo, and h.NAOTO all supply plenty of edgy Punk outfits.

Classic Lolita

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One of the most mature and refined of the lolita styles. It is greatly influenced by the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, although Baroque, Rococo, Victorian, and Edwardian influences can often be seen as well. Simplicity and modest elegance are key, so high-neck collars, empire waists, and A-line skirts are the norm, usually in soft patterns and in neutral or muted colour palettes. Lace and frills are not quite as prominent, so the silhouette tends to be slenderer than some of the other styles. Victorian Maiden, Juliette et Justine, Mary Magdalene, and Innocent World each cater to the Classic customer.

Wa (Japanese) Lolita

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Traditional Japanese clothing combined with lolita-style dress. Usually this is achieved by way of mixing the typical lolita bell-shaped silhouette with long kimono swinging sleeves, obi sashes, geta or zori sandals, and fabrics with flower or crane prints. Many of Yuuko’s outfits from the manga and anime xxxHolic are very reminiscent of Wa lolita. Because there are no brands that cater specifically to this style, wearers are more likely to create their look from scratch, using actual kimono or yukata prints and cutting/sewing them together with petticoats and other materials.

Guro Lolita

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Possibly one of the only lolita types not suited to tea parties. ‘Guro’ is short for grotesque, and grotesque often translates into bloody. The image of a battered or broken doll is an apt description for this lolita style; bandages, eye-patches, and spatters of fake blood are commonly used atop white fabrics in order to create a good contrast, and accessories such as similarly-styled dolls, teddy-bears and the like help to complete the look. Since the Guro style usually calls for ripping and staining, cheaper lolita brands from places like Bodyline or else second-hand clothing is used most often.

Ouji (Prince) Lolita

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The most common ‘masculine’ version of the lolita style, Ouji or Prince lolita (sometimes also referred to as Kodona or Boy-Style lolita) is very Victorian-inspired, and makes use of ruffled shirts and cravats beneath a vest or waistcoat, knickerbockers, over-the-knee socks, and top hats of varying sizes. The look is sometimes cute and child-like, with plenty of white lace and puffed shoulders, but it can also be mature and dark, with tall collars and buttoned swallowtail jackets. Black, white, burgundy, and deep blue are some of the most frequently used colours. Some of Ciel Phantomhive’s outfits from Kuroshitsuji/Black Butler fit into the Ouji lolita category, as well as a few of Oz’s from Pandora Hearts. While there are currently no shops that exclusively sell Ouji lolita clothing, brands like Alice and the Pirates, Innocent World, Moi-Même-Moitié, and Atelier Boz sometimes stock items that can easily be mixed and matched to create complete outfits.

Question of the post: If you had the money and could pull it off, would you wear lolita clothing? What style, if any, do you think you’d wear the most?

19 thoughts on “Lolita: Fashion and Subculture

  1. Well, as a 60 year old man with muttonchops, I’llhave to say that YES, I’d wear Lolita if I could. Any style!

    (As it is I am wearing the top half of a sailor fuku right now (*purely* co-incidental, as I’m trialing part of my costume tonight).)

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Girls get ALL the good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am more learned, yet more confused after reading this post. I’m a simple clothing man myself, though if I could get my daughter to wear one of these styles it’d be super adorable. I guess for obvious reasons, the guro style was the only one I didn’t like.

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    • I think the guro style would be cool for cosplay purposes… of course, depending on your point of view, lolita fashion as a whole could be considered a kind of cosplay if you considered it to be ‘dressing up’ whenever you wore that type of clothing.
      In any event, I also tend to dress fairly simply – long skirts and tank tops usually do it for me. If I had the money though, I quite fancy gothic lolita as a substyle.

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  3. It’s an interesting style that I sort of wish was more popular. The concept of covering your body up is one that has all but disappeared entirely (here in the States at least); so much so, that it seems more attractive when girls show as little skin as possible.
    I’m not a very style-conscious person myself though, so I’m most likely destined to wear jeans and t-shirts for the rest of my life.

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    • I hear you – it’s becoming ever rarer to see young people covering up as opposed to baring skin, and while I have nothing at all against the former, it’s quite refreshing to see women being consciously stylish without resorting to showing off their legs or cleavage.

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  4. I’ve admired Lolita fashion for years, especially Gothic, Classic, and Wa styles (though I certainly have an appreciation for the others, too). Although I’ve had hodge-podge “dress-up” sessions or tried on dresses at some of the Loli-stores in big cities, but it only feels like dress-up. I have so much admiration for the people who adopt this style that I feel like a poser and that I should quit while I’m ahead and stick to drawing pictures.

    Maybe or maybe not directly related, but how could you tie a brand like Axes Femme (http://www.axesfemme.com/en/) into this? I’m not finding them immediately on the website, but they have some very loli-like dresses and skirts in the store I went to in an AEON once. I’m attracted to stores like that because it’s like loli-inspiration for people like me who are too shy to commit to it.

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    • Yeah, the gothic sub-style is probably my favourite (so long as there aren’t toooo many bows and frills involved), but classic and wa holds a lot of charm for me as well. I too view it as dress-up whenever I’ve experimented with lolita fashion, but I admire people who are more committed to that – I imagine it takes a lot of dedication.

      Oh yes, I see what you mean about that brand having a lot of lolita-esque clothing – very nice. I’d hesitate to call it lolita clothing per se, but I can see how some pieces are either directly influenced by or at the very least tie in very well with lolita fashion. And as you say, things like that make a good alternative for people who are attracted to the general lolita style but don’t have the time/money/confidence/whatever to go the whole way.

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  5. I’ve tried lolita, and I’ve realized that it’s not really my thing. Occasionally I’ll still do punk loli, but I prefer ouji (by the way, it’s just “ouji” and not “ouji lolita”). One style I do want to give a shot is ero-loli because it’s more provocative but it still retains the modesty of lolita fashion.

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  6. I’m a sweet lolita type of person. I really enjoy it because of all it’s candy and sugary sweetness! I also like how cute it looks :3 I like the matureness of gothic lolitas tho so sometimes I’ll wear it as a casual look.

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    • Nice. 🙂 Sweet lolita’s a bit too much for me – I like things a little more understated without the overdose of pink and frills. That said, I’ve definitely seen some stunning outfits over the years.

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  7. A bit of a late comment, but anyway…

    Nice post 🙂 I’d be more inclined to wear classic lolita, because, like you said, it’s mature, refined and elegant. I’d love to try out gothic lolita though; it seems like a very dark and interesting style to wear.

    Unfortunately, I probably can’t get away with wearing lolita fashion on a day-to-day basis here in Australia. I’m not even sure where to get authentic lolita clothing here… *sigh* 😦

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    • Late comments are just as welcome as any other. 🙂

      Yup, getting authentic lolita clothing is difficult when you’re overseas, and even now that I’ve been living in Japan for a while, I still haven’t bought any more of it. Leaving aside the fact that I wouldn’t really have anywhere to wear it because of where in Japan I live and what I do for work, it’s just so darn expensive!

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