A one piece dress with a bell-shaped skirt or a jumper skirt with a neatly buttoned-up frilly blouse over a petticoat or bloomers. Knee-length socks in polished Mary Jane shoes. On top of naturally colored luxuriant curls an Alice bow. Light make-up in pastel tints. That is what it takes to dress like a lolita girl.
The word “lolita”, as you can remark, has connotations with a novel of the same name, written by Vladimir Nabokov (a wonderfully well-written work, in my opinion). “Lolita” was introduced in Japan to describe the child-like, innocent image of this fashion style. Funny is that the girl Dolores, for who Lolita is a nickname, is not an innocent creature at all. Could it be that the person who introduced “lolita” to describe a fashion style didn’t read the book? You have to admit, it sounds cute. But maybe there is another reason. Although lolita girls look fragile and cute, they are down to earth. What is hidden behind their sugar-coated image can look as little Victorian as Kim Kardashian at the beach. Or in the words of Tiffany Godoy and Ivan Vartanian:
For some reason, it resists classification. Certainly, there are some very general commonalities with the look of Rococo royalty, such as expansive skirts or the abundant use of frill. But Gothic Lolita has many other defining qualities beyond these. Furthermore, the individuals that practice Gothic Lolita have lost their bearings with the music, paintings, and literature they love. While they may like cute kids’ things and old-style classical music, they love grotesque, misshapen monsters, are devoted to Georges Bataille’s academicism, and are mad about violent rock. So, along with our bizarre sense of style and an apparent conflict in taste, we are always thought of as freaks by society.
Lolita girls do not blindly mimicry the fashion of the 19th Century, nor do they have an old-fashioned lifestyle. Some of them are tired of contemporary fashion, exposing too much skin. Others feel elegant and pretty in a lolita outfit. The short documentary the secret life of the lolita tells us that “though they may appear cute, they are not to be underestimated”.
Lolita fashion was born in Japan. Why? Despite the fact that these clothes are largely inspired by Victorian and Rococo fashion, there are certain similarities with Japanese fashion culture and social thinking.
In the first place, the concept of being wrapped up in many layers. (Later more about that in the second part of my posts about Japan’s wrapping culture.) From head to toe, Japanese Harajuku youngsters tend to dress up in a certain way, they present ‘the whole package’. Lolita fashion is a mix of Western Goth subculture and 19th century European dress style. So it appears to be non-Japanese. This style however, differs greatly from how Victorian women dressed in reality. Lolita fashion looks old-fashioned, but would have been unthinkable at that time. Lolita fashion is an example of cultural hybridisation (a concept I have discussed many times before on this blog). While forms of culture (e.g. fashion) spread around the globe, not necessarily the process of globalisation with homogenisation as a result is working, local cultural interaction plays the most important role. Antropologist Robertson introduced the term “glocalisation” for this process.
In the second place, and related to glocalisation, the image of cuteness. Whereas Western women and men believe being sexy is attractive, Japanese people prefer cute girls.
One of the most prominent aspects of GothLoli as a culturally hybridised form is the interaction between Western gothic/classic fashion and the Japanese aesthetical concept of kawaii (cute). (….) In general, kawaii refers to something childish/ girlish and sweet. According to sociologist Merry White, the concept of cuteness is not ‘restricted to children in Japan, though it means childlike and sweet, happy and upbeat—and vulnerable’ and Japanese cute style is defined as ‘bright for boys, lacy for girls’. – Masafumi Monden
Lolita girls often adopt a cute manner of speech and behavior. They prefer their presentation as much sugar-coated as the many cookies and cupcakes they order for their weekly tea parties.
Let’s have a look at the inspiration for Lolita fashion: rococo and victorian age fashion. Rococo, also called late baroque, is an 19th century artistic movement and style which developed a new dress silhouette for women. The contrast of a tight corseted bodice and a wide skirt was born. This silhouette continued to be in vogue during the victorian age and revived in lolita fashion. Panniers and petticoats often extended sideways with the help of an enormous hoop construction underneath. This extreme width, however, is not very fancied today. Neither are the tight corsets and over-the-top wigs.
As Rococo fashion flourished in France, Great Britain experimented with fashion during the Victorian Age (1830-900). I received a box full of precious magazines (La mode illustrée/”Illustrated Fashion”) from my grandmother some time ago. It was possession of her grandmother. The magazines date back to 1873 and were printed in Paris. My great-great-grandmother had them sent to her Belgian home every month. They illustrate the fashion worn at home and during soirées by ladies of the higher social class. Another source I keep at home are the porcelain dolls I collect.
Similarities with contemporary lolita fashion are the many frills, detailed adornments like bow ties, curly hair, a tight fit top and bell-shaped skirt. There is, however, an important difference: these victorian ladies do not look cute or innocent, they look gracious and refined. They have kids, a household to manage and guests to entertain with eloquent talk. Next to that, typical elements of victorian fashion are absent in lolita’s dress rooms. For example, the enormous hats with feathers, wide puffed sleeves, sexy low necklines or hair pieces to wear as elaborate curls.
It is likely that (cute) victorian children and adolescent’s fashion was more inspiring. The girls wear shorter skirts so that their (often) white-colored socks are visible. They have cute boots with low heels and their dresses are kept simple and Alice in Wonderland-like.
Victorian girls wore jumper skirts over frilly chemises or one piece dresses. Their hair was not completely put up in loose curls. How lolita girls dress nowadays, is very similar to victorian children’s fashion. A difference is the length of the skirt:
Sweet/Gothic/Classic lolita prefer their skirts to be knee-length. Of course there are many substyles in lolita, Elegant Gothic lolita for example. EGA’s tend to dress more mature. Men as well can enjoy this style without having to wear petticoats, and women in pants do not break the dress code.
– Godoy, Tiffany, and Ivan Vartanian, eds. Japanese Goth. New York, NY : [Enfield: Universe ; Publishers Group UK, distributor], 2009.
– Masafumi Monden. Transcultural Flow of Demure Aesthetics: Examining Cultural
Globalisation through Gothic & Lolita Fashion. University of Technology, Sydney. http://newvoices.jpf-sydney.org/2/chapter2.pdf
– blog History of European Fashion