Lolita is a fashion style and subculture that emerged in Japan beginning from the 1980s, but has spread all around the world. Its exact origins are highly debated and mostly unclear, but closely related to both Harajuku’s youth culture of forming style tribes in the streets and gothic visual kei bands. The term “Lolita” is mostly unrelated to the 1955 Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name, apparently chosen only to reflect the concept of “youthful femininity.” In fact, many practitioners of Lolita have no knowledge of the novel’s content. The term encompasses a constellation of related subtypes and aesthetics, but is unified by features such as bows, lace, bouffant skirts that fall to the knee, etc. Lolitas stand out on the street as anachronistic, spectacular living dolls, often being misinterpreted by others as being “in costume” or showing off a fetish. To Lolitas themselves, however, the fashion is externalizing their inner young maiden without relinquishing an adult’s intelligence. Through hyperfeminine material fashion and performance, Lolitas embody their own personal ideal “girl” positioned against the flow of society and time.
Lolita fashion is inspired by a combination of Rococo and Victorian clothing and Japanese kawaii culture. Rather than take from these time periods directly, it is more accurate to say that general ideas from them have been appropriated, like Victorian children’s silhouettes and Rococo’s ornate detail. These features and kawaii aspects like whimsical prints and stuffed animal accessories confer onto Lolitas nostalgia for an imagined Western childhood. Lolitas adorn themselves this way to present ideals of innocence and femininity. The modesty of Lolita’s almost full-body coverage and figure-obscuring shape discourage those who may look at the wearer sexually, protecting a Lolita from the gaze of men and adult sexuality. This aspect of the fashion has been called naive, as men who fetishize Lolitas do exist and police have been stationed where large numbers of Lolitas gather in Japan to protect women from such men. However, Lolitas themselves have no intention to seduce men through their dress. Lolita is worn as self-indulgence and escapism for the wearer, to a higher degree than most fashions. This can be linked to participants in kawaii culture’s tendency to surround themselves excessively with cute things they love to look at. Lolitas develop a very particular sense of cuteness that they then use to please themselves and affirm their identity as otome or maidens.
This otome identity is divorced from gender and age and exists more as a philosophy held by those who identify with it, a way to toe the line between girlhood and womanhood with a distinct sense of what is cute and beautiful. Most members of the Lolita community are women, but men also wear the fashion, including Mana, a visual kei guitarist who created his own Lolita brand and avoids speaking in public to maintain a feminine image. Lolitas rebel against the expectations of modern Japanese society for women by stepping away from it rather than trying to counter it directly. They embrace an anachronistic, fantastical conception of Western female childhood and use it as a shield against contemporary life by focusing on enjoyment over adult obligation and conformity. Hyperfemininity here goes beyond what is palatable to society into something that only this kind of maiden can enjoy, a quiet and unconfrontational protest that would rather exist peacefully apart.
In addition to appearance and material goods, there is a performance aspect to the identity of Lolita. Putting on this kind of clothing and going out to Harajuku or another place is an important act of asserting Lolita identity, but devoted Lolitas may also change the way they move and speak. When posing for photos, Lolitas often stand in childlike and delicate ways, such as pointing their toes inward or tilting their heads slightly. They call to mind the dolls they are imitating. For a Lolita, the more fragile, the better. Additionally, Lolitas in Japan have revived and modified joseigo, or women’s speak, for their own purposes. Joseigo comes from the schoolgirl culture of the 1920s, when a new kind of woman, the shoujo, or young girl, appeared due to girls’ schools creating a defined period between childhood and marriage that let girls develop an adolescent culture. This girls’ speak was first derided before being embraced as feminine and desirable, and is nowadays associated with high-class women due to its waning prominence. Lolitas adopted this way of speaking to create the image of a ladylike princess and used it in online communities to reflect their identities. Lolitas are not well-liked by the media, so their adoption of this desirable form of speaking has caused mixed feelings.
Innocence, femininity, and nostalgia. This is women’s armor against a society they feel they do not belong to, expressed in frills and high socks. The princesses of Lolita maintain their maidenhood at any age and indulge themselves in what brings them joy, cute and beautiful things.
Carriger, Michelle Liu. “‘Maiden’s Armor’: Global Gothic Lolita Fashion Communities and Technologies of Girly Counteridentity.” Theatre Survey, vol. 60, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 122–46.
Monden, Masafumi. Japanese Fashion Cultures: Dress and Gender in Contemporary Japan, Bloomsbury, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=1769103.
Nguyen, An. “Eternal maidens: Kawaii aesthetics and otome sensibility in Lolita fashion.” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, Apr. 2016, pp. 15.
Winge, Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita.” Mechademia, vol. 3, 2008, pp. 47–63.