the Lolita files: what is Lolita fashion, anyway?

Part 1: What is Lolita fashion, anyway?

Lolita is a Japanese street fashion that’s blossomed into a worldwide subculture of sorts. Unlike Western goth or steampunk, Lolita’s community centres solely around the fashion itself,  tending to exist side by side with its associated musicians and artists instead of coalescing around cultural factors. It’s a niche fashion, certainly, both in the West and in its native Japan. Traditional Japanese society values conformity and subtlety; the ostentatious display and marked silhouette of Lolita are seen as a form of rebellion and eccentricity. Lolitas are few in number but very dedicated – and would want to be, with the high prices and scarcity of brand-name Lolita clothing. The spread of the fashion outside of Japan in the past fifteen years or so has opened the market up to many more prospective customers, but the price of pieces has remained high as the brands value their status as sub-couture fashion ateliers.

The origin of the name ‘Lolita’ is unknown. It doesn’t seem to have come from Nabokov’s novel, despite the fashion’s emphasis on innocence and youthfulness. It’s most likely a Western cultural loan word that became generic to the Japanese public to refer to young girls and girlishness, but stripped of the sexualised overtones assigned it in English. For a time the style was referred to mainly as ‘Gothic Lolita’ or EGL (Elegant Gothic & Lolita), but as substyles other than goth started to become more clearly defined, the overall term came into widespread use. Today, Lolita encompasses several main substyles and also features crossovers with other Japanese street fashions like mori girl, visual kei, and dolly kei.

The hallmarks of a Lolita outfit are: a bell-shaped silhouette, formed by a petticoat under a full skirt; attention to detail in clothing and accessories (ruffles, bows, lace, jewellery); modesty and/or skin coverage – high collars and knee-length skirts; a generally co-ordinated look in style and colour. Many Lolita co-ordinates have an anachronistic feel, as the fashion takes much of its influences from Victorian girls’ and women’s clothes.

Within Lolita itself, the main styles are:

gothic lolita. More toned-down in hair and make-up than Western goth, gothic lolita features as many roses, crosses, vampires, graveyards, and general goffabulousness as your undead little heart could desire. The big sister of gothic lolita is aristocrat fashion, which equates roughly to Western romantic goth – tailcoats, floor-length skirts, tophats if you’re so inclined. Some major brands in gothic lolita are Moi-même-Moitié, Alice and the Pirates, Atelier Pierrot, and h.NAOTO, and Surface Spell.

Moi-Meme-Moitié's Sleeping Garden; Alice and the Pirates' The End of Immortal EDEN; Surface Spell's Judgement Day
Moi-même-Moitié’s Sleeping Garden; Alice and the Pirates’ The End of Immortal EDEN; Surface Spell’s Judgement Day

sweet lolita. Sweet lolita is big on: pink, lilac, mint, baby blue; dolls, toys, sweets, oddly anthropomorphised animals. That’s your lot. Sweet lolita is the most childish of Lolita styles, and it revels in its childishness. Have you ever walked around a store and wondered why kids get the best clothes? Sweet is the substyle for you. It’s about as far as you can get from my usual dress sense, but it’s very popular in the Lolita world. Angelic Pretty and Baby the Stars Shine Bright are the main brands catering to devotees, with some of Metamorphose Temps de Fille‘s dresses also popular.

Angelic Pretty's Daydream Carnival; Baby the Stars Shine Bright's Paris Window; Metamorphose's Songbird Bouquet.
Angelic Pretty’s Daydream Carnival; Baby the Stars Shine Bright’s Paris Window; Metamorphose’s Songbird Bouquet

classic lolita. The most anachronistic-looking substyle, this is what you’d first visualise when thinking about Victorian-influenced clothing. It values demure and refined dress, using dusty jewel tones and florals. A classical wardrobe includes pieces from Innocent World, Victorian Maiden, Mary Magdalene, and Juliette et Justine. Also, if you read those four names in order, you get a progession from ingenue to the Marquis de Sade in ten words.

Innocent World' Theresia Rose; Victorian Maiden's Rose Flocky; Juliette et Justine's La Carte de la Vérité
Innocent World’s Theresia Rose; Victorian Maiden’s Rose Flocky; Juliette et Justine’s La Carte de la Vérité

There are also several thematic elements to Lolita fashion that don’t quite qualify as substyles in their own right – sailor/pirate co-ordinates, old-school, shiro/kuro lolita, etc. Some of them are explained (with cute illustrations) here.

Next time: putting together Lolita outfits, sticker shock at branded clothes’ pricing, and how to incorporate Lolita themes into your wardrobe without going full-on frilly.

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