Gothic and Lolita Fashion – Modern-day Porcelain Dolls
On a Sunday afternoon in Harajuku, Tokyo, one is likely to spot a girl or two who stands out a little incongruously among the crowd of brightly-dressed youths. While her peers are wearing jeans, miniskirts and even colourful printed yukata (traditional cotton kimono worn in summer), she's more likely to be wearing a dress you would expect to see in a Victorian fashion plate – lacy and black, or perhaps a pastel pink, combined with petticoats, platform Mary Jane shoes and a bow in her hair. What is this fashion or subculture, and how does it reflect Japanese society and culture? Will it evolve in the future, or is it a static snapshot of twenty-first century youth rebellion? And how does it compare to the more well-known Western Goth subculture? This essay will cover these aspects in explaining the Gothic and Lolita phenomenon and those who are drawn to it.
Lolita began in Harajuku, Tokyo in the 1980s when Omotesando and Takeshita-dori, streets in the Harajuku district, were closed to traffic on Sundays. This closure allowed youths to gather in Yoyogi Park and the surrounding streets to listen to rock music performances, shop and simply spend time among other young people. Youths and street performers started appearing in wild, unconventional outfits which gradually developed into recognisable styles such as lolita, gyaru or kogal, decora and ganguro. These styles were catalogued by a street photographer, Shoichi Aoki, in his magazines STREET, started in 1985, and FRUiTS, started in 1997. Photographs from FRUiTS have now been released as a compilation in a book of the same title and toured both Australia and New Zealand as a photography exhibition, allowing Westerners a glimpse of this “grass roots” Japanese street fashion movement.
Lolita fashion was popularised with the establishment of brands such as Baby, The Stars Shine Bright in 1988 and Manifesteange Metamorphose Temps de Fille in 1993. Other brands include Angelic Pretty, Innocent World and Mary Magdalene. While most brands cater to the Japanese market, the advent of Western interest in the lolita subculture has meant that some brands have begun selling to Northern American and other Western countries; some brands such as Metamorphose have developed English-language websites to cater to this interest. Primarily, however, brands still aim their clothing at Japanese girls in their teens to mid-twenties.
Stylistic influences for lolita fashion spring from a variety of eras, the most easily recognisable being the Victorian era. The fashion is more akin to children's clothes from this era than adults'; skirts generally fall around knee-length rather than the full floor-length gowns, and the exaggerated wasp-waist corsets are not often worn. Influences are also taken from other eras such as the 1950s and the French Rococo style, but while lolita has a historical look and feel, it is not from any particular period and tends to blend multiple historical looks together for its own individual and recognisable lolita style.
The lolita style has since developed into multiple sub-genres, the most notable being gothic lolita (known in Japan as gosurori, a contraction of the phrase 'gothic lolita'). Where traditional lolitas wear pastel colours, embroidered cotton prints and lace, and sometimes carry toys such as porcelain dolls or teddy-bears, the gothic lolita is more likely to wear black lace, monotone black, grey or white dresses, and crosses or crucifixes in a style more akin to Western Goth. However, the main emphasis is still on Victorian styling; it “combines aspects of a Victorian girl's attire with a dark gothic mood.” This style has been popularised by Japanese visual rock bands such as Dir En Grey and Malice Mizer; Mana, the leader of Malice Mizer, has established his own store named Moi-meme-moite, which sells a distinct style known as Elegant Gothic Lolita. Other styles include punk, sweet (with even more pink, baby blue or white and a surfeit of lace) and classic. Some followers of the fashion choose to combine lolita with other popular street fashions, leading to hybrid styles such as cyber-lolita or wa-lolita, where a traditional Japanese aesthetic reflected in the kimono-style garment is combined with the bell-shaped skirt and headdress worn by lolitas, but the most popular styles remain sweet, classic and gothic.
While the style could easily be confused with a sexual fetish, due to its namesake the novel 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov, the lolita subculture emphasises modesty and youthfulness, as well as drawing from the Japanese kawaii or 'cute' aesthetic, and is not considered overtly sexual by its followers. Most Japanese lolitas are not even aware of the original source from which the fashion's name was drawn, although the Gothic Lolita Bible, a popular magazine for those interested in the culture of lolita, encourages the reading of that novel. One of the more unusual aspects of modern-day Japanese society, at least to Western eyes, is the prevalence and even acceptance of the 'Lolita complex' or lolicon, where middle-aged men are attracted to young girls and often seek out pornographic manga (comic books) which is readily available at bookstores and train station kiosks. While there are hints of the 'Lolita complex' evident in lolita fashion, the young women who adopt and wear lolita are not catering to middle aged men's pornographic fetishes, but to their own desires to be 'cute' and non-sexual. In fact, some lolitas state that one of the attractions to the lolita subculture is the lack of sexualisation in the fashion. In a society where the rise of “sexy beauty” has resulted in clothing such as miniskirts and shirts which emphasise the breasts, as well as breast enhancement and other cosmetic surgeries, lolita is seen as a reversion to demure clothing which allows women to dress for themselves, rather than for the attention of men.
Whether lolita is a fashion or a subculture is a matter of some discussion among followers. Many women wear the style only on weekends and for concerts, possibly as a form of escape from their more prosaic everyday lives and of course, simply because it's 'cute'. Other women say that lolita is a lifestyle, and even when not wearing the clothes, they try to incorporate the lolita ethos into their everyday lives. Momoko, a character from the novel Shimotsuma Monogatari ('A Shimotsuma Story', translated into English and published as Kamikaze Girls) by lolita novelist Novala Takemoto, expresses the wish that she could live in the carefree, whimsical and hedonistic Rococo era. No matter whether a lolita wears the style simply as a fashion or sees it as a lifestyle, the culture of lolita is an escape to a fantasy world free of pressures of modern-day society and adulthood. While Japanese women of today have wider societal roles than those of their mothers, they are still expected to enter employment only until marriage and childbirth, and while employed they are generally placed in lower roles than men. It is still common for a young woman to be employed as a greeter or elevator girl at a department store, or as the “office lady” asked to make tea and photocopy documents at a corporation. Additionally, Japanese culture emphasises the importance of motherhood as a “sacred mission” and discourages women from pursuing a career as it distracts her from her main task of motherhood and running the family home. Thus girls and women who wear lolita are rejecting the societal expectation of low-importance careers and homemaking in favour of a fantasy in which they can “fulfill their own sense of princess-like aesthetic beauty” and avoid growing up in a more mundane world.
This rejection of societal norms by lolitas reflects the rise in Japanese society of young people, especially women, known as 'parasite singles'. Millions of young Japanese are choosing to stay living with their parents into their twenties and even thirties, working for a living but spending their income on material items and refusing to get married or have children. Lolita fashion is expensive; items from brand stores range from one hundred to five hundred dollars, and a full outfit may cost as much as a thousand dollars. The fashion began in the eighties, reflecting the affluence of Japanese society created by the 'Bubble Economy'. Due to the youthful nature of lolita fashion, many girls are supported by their parents in their buying habits, but for others in their twenties, the only way to continue buying such items is to remain living in the family home and use discretionary income to buy clothes, rather than establish one's own independent life. It is possible, but difficult, to become a lolita without spending exorbitant sums of money; some women learn to sew their own clothes or choose to buy from lesser-known 'indie' or independent brands. However, most Japanese girls will agree that in order to be accepted and respected by other lolitas, it is necessary to buy some brand clothing. This aspect of the lolita phenomenon reflects the obsession with brands found elsewhere in Japanese society. Other parasite singles may buy expensive brand-name handbags or jewellery. As Professor Masahiro Yamada, who coined the phrase, states, on average women lose two-thirds of their spending money when they marry. The rise of parasite singles does not surprise the sociology professor, who also attributes their prevalence to Japan's affluence during the 1980s. Despite the downturn in Japan's economy during the 90s, it appears that both lolitas and other Japanese youth have discovered one way to maintain their high discretionary spending and affluent lifestyle.
Lolita fashion appears at first glance not only to be a rejection of societal expectations in favour of a luxurious, responsibility-free life, but of the homogeneity of most Japanese culture and society. Until the mid-60s, most women shared a common beauty ideology, and even today the kawaii aesthetic permeates most mainstream fashion. In contrast, lolita offers distinction and individualism from the normal fashion style. However, upon closer examination, lolita has a distinctly paradoxical nature towards individuality of style. While it is true that it offers individuality from the mainstream, it still maintains strict rules about coordination and combinations of style. Additionally, brand clothing is generally offered in only one or two sizes, often very small and designed for the flat-chested, short and thin Japanese girl. In this way, lolita maintains homogeneity of style and appearance even while it simultaneously offers an opportunity to break away from mainstream fashion. While lolitas may be alone in smaller rural areas, as is depicted in Shimotsuma Monogatari, Tokyo lolitas gather in groups in Harajuku, many wearing matching outfits. This conformation and group ethos reflects the larger Japanese group culture and allows people to feel a part of a group or subculture even when they do not fit into the norm.
Comparing lolita with the Western Goth movement, it is easy to draw parallels. Both lolita and Goth are marked by striking fashion, a rejection of societal values and expectations, and “a longing to escape to another world.” However, whereas lolita incorporates the 'cuteness' found in more mainstream fashion, Goth fashion intends to both reject and parody mainstream fashion and good taste, aiming for a dichotomy between beauty and repulsion. Additionally, while lolita generally emphasises childlike innocence and purity, which tends to be expressed in 'sweetness' and optimism, Goth veers more towards morbidity, sexual fetishism and pessimism. Even gothic lolita, which shares with Western Goth a fascination with religious imagery and Victorian nostalgia, still shares the ethos of lolita that is a yearning for a carefree, whimsical world akin to Rococo. In contrast, Goths emphasise their separation from mainstream culture by yearning for tragedy and the “darkly powerful”, finding beauty in the darker side of life. These differences mean that if one were to compare a lolita with a Goth, both would strenuously disagree.
Lolita as a fashion and a subculture is easy to categorise as a static rebellion of Japanese girls against expected societal roles and appearance. However, to file it away as such a phenomenon is to ignore that, twenty years after the establishment of the style, it not only still exists but is spreading both in Japan and to the Western world, in no small part through the power of the Internet. Online forums now exist for Western lolitas to discuss the fashion, share photos and even sell or trade items; one of the most popular has nearly 7000 members from all over the world. Due to this worldwide interest, brands such as Baby, The Stars Shine Bright are establishing overseas stores; Baby has opened a store in Paris and is due to open another in San Francisco. Furthermore, Western lolita brands which cater to the different size and shape of Western women are developing, although none have yet reached the same level as Japanese brand stores. While some adherents of the fashion believe that the growing popularity will create bastardisations of the style that so many love, others point out that as lolita reaches the mainstream, the clothing will not only be more available but more affordable. While lolita may have begun as a fashion for Japanese girls who wished to step away from sexual fashion, reject societal expectations and revel in a world of luxury and individualism within a group of like-minded friends, it will continue to evolve into a fashion and a lifestyle loved worldwide as women simply enjoy “being a princess” in a modern-day society.