What is Lolita
The ‘Cute’ Community
History and the Basics
The term Lolita may have originated from Vladmir Nabakov’s 1955 novel Lolita, yet its origins and contemporary meaning are vastly different. Where the novel introduced Western Society to the sexualized child, the subculture stands as a response to the rigidity and homogeneity of modern Japanese society harsh gender norms (Porzio 2012). Lolita fashion, inspired by historical Victorian dolls, started in Japan and has since gained popularity across Asia and parts of the Western world such as Spain, Britain and the United States. Starting in the 1980s and 90s, “rather than dealing with the difficult reality of rapid commercialization, destabilization of society, a rigid social system, and an increasingly body-focused fashion norm, a select group of youth chose to find comfort in the over-the-top imaginary world of lace, frills, bows, tulle, and ribbons” (Younker 2011, 97).
Despite the basic Victorian doll image originating from historical Europe, Lolita’s cute and feminine style flourished in Japan due to the fact that the concept of cuteness and sweetness has historically not been restricted to children (Monden 2008). With the beginning of the kawaii craze, literally translated as cute craze, of the 1970s, cute
aesthetics in the form of teddy bears, curly handwriting and ‘girly’ consumer goods such as Hello Kitty merchandise, began to gain momentum within Japanese popular culture and soaring into mainstream popularity during the 1980s (Winge 2008). By the time Visual Kei rock bands such as Malice Mizer, emerged in the 1990s, the Lolita subculture had been born (Rahman, Wing-Sun, Lam and Mong-Tai 2011). The impact Visual Kei bands have on their audiences through androgyny and unique fashion trends turned out to be the perfect medium for the spread of Lolita aesthetics beyond Japan, across East Asia and by the early 2000s with globalizing new technology, into the Western World (Porzio 2012).
The Lolita style itself ranges across a variety of sub-genres such as Sweet Lolita seen in Angelic Pretty, Classic Lolita seen in Victorian Maiden, Gothic Lolita seen in Moi-même-Moitié, Pirate Lolita seen in Alice and the Pirates and the lesser-known Grotesque Lolita seen in Blah Blah Hospital. By promoting demure mannerisms and sweet femininity without the traditional passivity ascribed sexualized women, the style offers participants resistance against conventional cultural pressures and happiness via an escape into fantasy (Kang and Cassidy 2015, Monden 2008). This visual performance of self for personal gain is only possible due to the fluid nature of the Lolita’s structure of self. There may be many real and ideal selves the individual is attempting to balance via participation in the community and dressing up (Rahman, Wing-Sun, Lam and Mong-Tai 2011). Who they are, what they think of themselves, how they wish others to perceive them all come together in the constant search for and construction of identity that is Lolita whether this be by consumer purchases, DIY projects, forum participation or even behavior in public.
Although the Lolita’s identity is heavily dependent on clothing and bodily adornment, everyday participation while in school or work is not necessary for authenticity within the group (Porzio 2012). This is due to the fact that balancing dual selves and the complexity of one’s identity is part of the essence of Lolita. What participation in the group provides is the opportunity to construct one of your ideal selves and become that individual for a short time, escaping tough circumstances, relieving stress or simply having fun. The ideals of a Lolita beyond visual cuteness include dignity, manners, maintaining a proper appearance, demure behavior and lady-like speech (Zi Young and Cassidy 2015, Gagne 2008). Many English speaking Lolitas in person and online prefer to use the old English terms “thee” and “thou” as this is seen as more aristocratic and traditionally authentic when abiding by postwar ideals of prewar femininity (Zi Young and Cassidy 2015, Gagne 2008). There are similar lady-like forms of speech, called joseigo,
used by Japanese speaking Lolitas (Gagne 2008). Specialized speech, common values and the style itself all come together to form a separate community for Lolitas to participate in while assuming their fantasy roles which in turn helps them “articulate interests and desires… erased by the dominant male public sphere” (Gagne 2008, 147-148).
With a following of primarily young women under the age of 40, despite the visuals depicting child-like innocence and youth, failed dreams and cynicism are a large part of Lolita culture and often the reason for escape (Younker 2011). These negative emotions may have fueled the emergence of separate sub-genres such as Gothic Lolita with its gloomy and dark aesthetics as a deliberate reflection of how the Lolitas see the world and their place in it. Furthermore, the connection between youth and sexuality, although not the goal of Lolitas, is still a common commodification by male consumers of Japanese Pop culture depicting hybridized Lolita aesthetics (Winge 2008). This has led to controversy around Lolita as a possible fuel for pedophilia and the objectification of females (Monden 2008). However with proper representation, Lolitas are, despite being sweet and demure, against the objectification and sexual submission of females – instead feminine strength in the form of self-control and proper conduct is ideal for the fantasized ‘lady’ (Monden 2008).
Gender and Sexuality – The female transition from childhood into womanhood is, for most of modern society, a movement towards sexuality. With this comes an assumed loss of innocence, increased responsibilities and a variety of expectations placed upon women to perform as sexual objects. Lolita values question all of these assumptions and encourage finding other ways of being women than becoming sexual beings. However, Lolitas continue to perpetuate many traditional feminine ideals such as ladylike behavior and wearing dresses. Yet this support of the traditional ‘lady’ does not encourage subservience or submissiveness but rather upholds a belief in feminine strength as shown via strict self-control and maintaining polite, demure behavior.
- Resistance – By promoting a different definition of the feminine woman in contrast to modern sexualizations and by dressing in shockingly different outfits to the time period, Lolitas are resisting what they see as restrictive and suffocating cultural norms. This resistance is most apparent in Japan, where Lolita originated and where school and professional dress-codes and regulations on behavior are strictly enforced. Young Japanese middle and high schoolers, in conflict with their mandatory uniforms and rigid social norms have escaped to a variety of fashion-oriented subcultures. Lolita, in particular, is popular as a form of resistance against the conflicting messages directed at young women to perform as both pure and sexual.
Malice Mizer’s Beast of Blood – New Visual Kei rock bands in 1990s Japan often supported Lolita aesthetics with an emphasis on Victorian Goth fashion. Malice Mizer was such a band founded in 1992. Beast of Blood is one of their highest rated songs in which the member’s use of French romantic and Gothic style is most apparent. Guitarist Mana used these influences to later create his own clothing line Moi-même-Moitié which became wildly popular with Gothic Lolitas.
Gwen Stefani’s Rich Girl featuring the Harajuku Girls – Lolita aesthetics slowly spread out of Asia during the early 21st century and was hybridized into the works of manyWestern artists. Rich Girl‘s featuring of the Harakuju Girls presents some basic aspects of Pirate Lolita, namely the stripes, frills and ‘pirate’ theme, hybridized with the sexual fantasy of young women typical of Western Hip-Hop and Dance music videos.
Sugar Coated – A short 12 minute documentary following four young women in Los Angeles, California and how they became involved with Lolita.
Kamikaze Girls (2004) – A movie depicting the life of a young Japanese Lolita and her friendship with a Yankee in their small rural town, Kamikaze Girls shows the real-world experience of many Japanese Lolitas as they navigate their daily lives while trying to come to terms with their own identity.
Yuniya Kawamura’s Fashioning Japanese Subcultures – An informative book about Western influences on Japanese youth and the globalization of their unique fashion trends as well as where, how and why a variety of subcultures such as Lolita and Gyaru developed from these trends.
Kazuki Sakuraba’s Gosick – A light novel turned anime, Gosick is a mystery oriented romance between the main character Kujou and the young Victorique de Blois whose Victorian style dresses and mature mannerisms reflect the lady-like Lolita aesthetics so popular in anime and manga.
Gagné, Isaac. 2008. “Urban Princesses: Performance and “Women’s Language” in Japan’s Gothic/Lolita Subculture.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18(1):130-150. Link
Kang, Zi Young, and Tracy Cassidy. 2015. “Lolita Fashion: A Trans-global Subculture.” Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 2(3):371-384. Link
Kawamura, Y. 2006. “Japanese Teens as Producers of Street Fashion.” Current Sociology 54(5):784-801. Link
Monden, Masafumi. 2008. “Transcultural Flow of Demure Aesthetics: Examining Cultural Globalisation through Gothic & Lolita Fashion.” NV New Voices 2(1):21-40. Link
Porzio, Laura. 2012. “I Want to Be Happy Looking at Myself”: Lolita Style and Its Embodied Practices between Resistance and Urban Fashion.” Inter-Disciplinary.Net: A Global Network for Dynamic Research and Publishing n.v.:1-8. Link
Rahman, Osmud, Liu Wing-Sun, Elita Lam, and Chan Mong-Tai. 2011. ““Lolita”: Imaginative Self and Elusive Consumption.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 15(1):7-28.
Winge, Theresa. 2008. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita.” Mechademia 3(1):47-63. Link
Younker, Teresa. 2011. “Lolita: Dreaming, Despairing, Defying.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 11(1):97-110. Link
- EGL – Elegant, Gothic and Lolita, an English speaking cyber community.
- Lolita Updates – Facebook community for support, meet-ups and advice.
- The Gothic & Lolita Bible – A quarterly magazine and book hybrid focusing on defining Japanese Lolita as fashion, art and culture.