“I Wish I Were a Doll”

from “Mika” in vol. 2 of the manga “Doll” by Mihara Mitsukazu

Gothic Lolita. I’ve been chewing on this for a while, wondering if I should or shouldn’t venture to write something about it. This usually happens when a certain topic is very dear to me, and I don’t want to cause it any kind of injustice. But this time, in particular, I’ve had several serious doubts. For one, I know there are many dedicated lolita bloggers out there, who have long been part of the fashion and the lifestyle, and they’ve surely written everything about lolita that anyone may wish to know. There are forums, groups, video blogs and oh so many other online outlets gathering information and sparking discussion about lolita. I have never taken part in any of them. So what could I say that has never been said before? Nothing, I’m sure. And yet, I feel there are a couple of points that need, and I stress, need to be reiterated, for the good of the “lolita community” (and here, I mean “community” on a purely abstract level, as a sort of all-encompassing lolita sorority, stretching far and wide through the power of Internet).

from “List 10” in vol. 2 of the manga “Doll” by Mihara Mitsukazu

But first of all, for the sake of those of you reading this who may only be familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” – this is not what I will be talking about in this blog post. (Actually, I might touch upon that too, but let it be understood from the get-go that in this case, the nymphettes and the lolitas are not precisely synonymous, though they are both ultimately just as contentious.) So, what is lolita and where does it originate? Again, I will not pretend to be any kind of authority on this, but I still believe that my ongoing – shall I call it – obsession with the topic, allows me some pretty solid insight into the matter. Lolita, then, is a Japanese street fashion evolved into a full-fledged subculture. Originally, it is supposed to have been inspired by depictions, in popular manga and anime, of female characters, childish in appearance, wearing decorative frilly dresses and sometimes large head bows or headdresses, largely reminiscent of the styling of antique porcelain dolls and children of the Rococo and/or Victorian era.  These characters were termed “lolita”, which is itself what the Japanese call a “gairaigo”, i.e.  a word borrowed from a foreign language (in this case, English) through transliteration. (It is probably important, at this point, to keep in mind that not all terms adopted through transliteration keep their original meaning, as Japanese has a tendency to import words in a haphazard fashion, often modifying their initial sense unscrupulously.)

This first inspired the emergence of Visual Kei/Visual rock on the Japanese

Mana-sama, wearing lolita

rock scene, i.e. rock singers dressed to impress; and although this may appear to be a very similar feat to Western “Goth rock” displays, in many ways it is not. Yes, Visual Kei does have numerous Goth elements, but in many cases (especially true of early j-rock bands) it has the added element of “porcelain doll”-ness or childishness, looking more like undead Alices in Underland than anything else. This, of course, was ultimately copied by the fans, and so lolita, slowly but surely, became a Japanese street fashion. Many things ensued: a nefarious quarterly mook (combination between a book and magazine), the Gothic & Lolita Bible, popularising the fashion; pop culture and fashion icons, like the mysterious Mana-sama (of Malice Mizer, and lately of Moi dix Mois), gender-bending rock star who started his own gothic and lolita clothing brand (Moi-même-Moitié); and, of course many many more clothing brands specialising in lolita were born in the Japanese fashion market (metamorphose temps de fille, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, h.NAOTO, Mary Magdalene to name some of the most important).

from “List 6” in vol. 1 of the manga “Doll” by Mihara Mitsukazu

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this Japanese trend soon spread out, not only to other Asian countries (like Hong Kong and South Korea), but most prominently, perhaps to other continents, especially Europe, North America and Australia (don’t quote me on this, though). As a result of this expansion, gothic lolita (or, to give its full correct title, Elegant Gothic Lolita) surpassed the condition of “street fashion” and was claimed by many as a viable lifestyle and mentality (escapism is largely invoked), and was elevated to the rank of subculture. Alternative fashion and culture blogger La Carmina describes lolita as essentially a mix of “kawaii” (Japanse for “cute”) and “kowai” (Japanese for “scary”), thus both liking it to Western Goth style and differentiating it from Western subcultures, though some Internet culture Goth icons (such as Jillian Venters , better knows as the Lady of the Manners of Gothic Charm School) tend to claim lolita as an integral part of the current Goth scene. This view is largely controversial, especially because the style, as it grew, also developed several branches, differentiated through their particular colour schemes. Thus, we have:

  • gothic lolita (black and white clothing, sometimes only black – kuro loli, or only white – shiro loli);
  • sweet lolita (pink, baby blue, yellow, and generally bright colours and girlish prints, featuring cupcakes, lollipops, carousels etc);
  • classic lolita (closer to gothic through its sobriety, it is very elegant and perhaps closest to Victorian-style dresses; it plays with darker colours, like maroon, garnet and navy blue, or dusty pastels, like beige, off-white, and pastel violet);
  • casual lolita (a more toned down version, not as dressy as the other styles and more easily adaptable to every-day needs);
  • erotic lolita or ero-loli (a more fetishistic version, playing on the alluring display of corsets, petticoats and stockings and eliminating the modest and conservative elements of the style);
  • wa lolita (incorporating kimono and yukata elements);
  • qi lolita (incorporating cheongsam elements);
  • and, finally, kodona (the male version of lolita, using traditionally “boyish” garments, such as trousers and vests).

And this is lolita in a nutshell. Now, all of the above may seem like too much detail to some of you, and a waste of space, but, I assure, it is entirely relevant to what I am going to say. Firstly, because through its variety of styles and its gender-bending permissiveness, lolita appears as an attractive channel for more outside-the-norm, mainstream-challenging creativity. “Creativity” is the key-word for me there, so please bear it in mind. Secondly, because the very “labeling” of styles within the larger theme of lolita can be, in fact, destructive and stultifying. I’ll return to that in a second. But before I do that – I feel I need to elaborate a bit on the criticism aimed at lolita. Sometimes, lolita is seen as being too feminine, and reinforcing traditional, constrictive elements of style (corsets or dress shirring imitating corsets, petticoats, girdles, even the dresses themselves), and thus essentially anti-feminist despite itself – see Moye Ishimoto’s spoof article, “Actual Great Moments in De-evolution: Gothic Lolitas”. This, of course, triggered the “feminine is not anti-feminist” response from the lolitas:

Response which is, in fact, sustainable, since lolita, through its anachronistic aesthetics, aims, allegedly, to challenge mainstream fashion and, implicitly, mainstream labeling of women and men alike, thereby undermining “the establishment”. The other prominent criticism of lolita was inspired, in fact, by its association with Nabokov’s novel and also with the Japanese concept “lolita complex” or “lolicon”, determining a person (usually male) with an unnatural fixation on young girls and/or boys. This view implies that lolita (which has attracted acolytes of both sexes, from teenagers to people in their ’30s or ’40s) is a largely fetishistic display, encouraging, through its childlike, costumey-innocent aesthetics, dangerous paedophilic tendencies. Members of the lolita community have reacted defensively to these implications (one example here, extensive discussion on the LiveJournal Lolita Community  here), repeatedly stating that the aesthetics of the lolita subculture and the implications of Nabokov’s “Lolita” have absolutely nothing in common. As an aficionado both of Nabokov and of Japanese lolita, however, I often find myself asking: “is that really so?”. And with the risk of offending some lolitas, I do have to point out that there is actually no other possible source for the term “lolita” than Nabokov’s much discussed novel. That is not to say, of course, that endowing the lolita style means to encourage sexual abuse of any kind; to the contrary. Nonetheless, I can’t help but observe that the aesthetics itself is inherently fetishistc. In an academic article on the lolita subculture – “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita” – professor Theresa Winge (specialised in topics like cosplay and subcultures), notes that:

By exploring the relationship between Lolita and kawaii, it is possible to understand aspects of Lolita that go beyond the Nabokov character, living doll, sexual fetish, or transnational object.

Screenshot of Yajun Zhuo – “Lolita”

Lolitas out there, don’t take me wrong, but lolita is fetishistic. Nabokov or not, and letting alone the “flirty young girl” attitude, the artificial display of innocence and the “I’m actually a living porcelain doll, don’t touch me” attitude imply a fetishistic (though in no way mainstream) approach to fashion and a – because escapist – “Peter Pan complex”– defined outlook on life. (To which, to make matters clear, I hereby subscribe.) I don’t see why this view should be rejected so virulently. It is, ultimately, an “I don’t care about your rules” attitude. Subcultures are all about that.

But, believe it or not, I digress. My ultimate purpose, in writing this post, is

Screenshot of Yajun Zhuo – “Lolita”

this: to challenge the existent lolita community. When I first discovered lolita – which, I stress, was pretty late, I was about 15 or 16, in 2004-2005 – I saw it as the most subversive and creative possible means to express myself. With the exception of this lone page, there was pretty much nothing about lolita, and although I loved the style, I had to apply all my creativity in order to adapt it to my daily shenanigans. By comparison with the “online scene” today, there was none of that commercial elitism: “the lace on your dress has got to be antique”, “your skirts must come from Japanese brands only”. Lolita was still, I believe, more of a frame of mind and a general aesthetics than a “hermetic society” conditioned, quite frankly, by how much money you manage to spend on the clothes. I suppose that is, after all, the trouble with all subcultures. They start as statements and devolve into fashion fads.

Myself in what would normally be termed, I suppose, a “casual lolita” outfit

I have never participated in a lolita forum or online group. The reason why is because, although lolita has gone a long way in just a few years, it has become elitist from the wrong –  and by “wrong” I mean “commercial” – point of view. Sure, it’s nice to save money for all the pretty dresses, but it should not just be about that. It should not mainly be about that.Lolita, the way I see it, should be about encouraging personal creativity, and not how much money you earn. And a too extensive labeling of lolita – see above –  ultimately means that you are not allowing for diversity, and you are keen on assigning each lolita in part a tiny, restricted place in the “community”. That is not as it should be. Welcome originality. Welcome creative effort. (This sounds like an ad, but nevertheless…) I feel like I cannot stress enough how much I deplore seeing a premise with such wonderful potential go to waste.
Signed: A Lonesome Lolita

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