For many, the word Lolita makes us think of the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov about forbidden love with an underage girl. But in Japan, for at least the last 40 years, Lolita has referred to a distinctive fashion trend that sees girls in their teens and early 20s dress up like young dolls in English Victorian or French Rococo styles.
Despite being based on historic European styles, this trend, within the cute Kawaii fashion world, feels very Japanese, with a cutesy ethos that feels at home in the land of Hello Kitty.
The style is credited as emerging in the Harajuku region of Tokyo when, in the 1980s, they began to close Omotesando and Takeshita-dor streets in the area to traffic on Sundays. This would allow many young people to congregate in Yoyogi Park.
Several distinctive fashion trends emerged at this time as young people met and connected through fashion, but the most famous and enduring is the Lolita style. The emerging trend was documented by the street photographer Shoichi Aoki, whose images helped Lolita graduate from a grassroots Tokyo fashion trend to a Japan-wide and then an international style sensation.
Japan in the 1980s
Lolita emerged in the 1980s as one of many signs of rebellion against traditional Japanese culture, which prizes conformity and places enormous pressure on children and young adults.
In Japan, education is considered of prime importance. Even from primary school age, children are pressured to excel. By the time they reach secondary school, they may be taking additional classes that finish at nine or ten o’clock at night, plus participating in extracurricular activities to round out their resume.
As they progress into adulthood, the pressure does not lighten as young people enter the workforce. To be successful, they need to appear to be going above and beyond. It is traditional that more junior workers show up at the office before their managers and don’t leave until after they have left.
In the 21st century, women still only make 52 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts and are often hired for jobs such as greeters at restaurants and hotels or as secretaries mainly responsible for photocopying and making tea.
Young women face the additional pressure that they are expected to marry and then often move in with their husband and their family. It is then her obligation to have children and devote herself to coaching them through the same challenging education system.
In the 1980s, young people in Japan were watching women around the world gain more liberty and freedom and wanted similar things for themselves.
Sociologists believe that the Lolita style emerged from this rebellion, with young women wanting to break expectations and reclaim the childhood that they lost to study. When they dress in Lolita, these women can enter a world of their own creation which is soft, fun, and cute and inducts them into a group of like-minded women.
What is Lolita Fashion
Lolita fashion is all about creating a cute, youthful, and innocent look. While there are variations within the style, the aim is to look like young girls, or even dolls. The outfits tend to be modest rather than sexualized, and this is one of the attractions for many Lolitas. There is little connection between Lolita fashion of Japanese Manga cartoons that sexualize young girls.
The majority of outfits are inspired by Victorian-era English fashion or 18th-century French Rococo fashion. But rather than the long dresses of English ladies, Lolitas wear the knee-length dresses of young girls, and corsets are rarely seen. Lolita styles can be inspired by any historic fashion period from outside of Japan.
While the first Lolitas made their outfits themselves, specialist Lolita shops quickly emerged. Among the most well-known are Baby the Stars Shine Bright, Manifesting Metamorphose Temps de Fille, Angelic Pretty, Innocent World, and Mary Magdalen. Prices for pieces from these stores tend to be expensive, and a complete Lolita outfit might cost $1,000. Some Lolitas make their own clothes, but to be accepted in the community, you generally have to have a few pieces from the mainstream brands. All items of clothing need to be high-quality and should never look like “dress up”.
Lolitas will meet in public places on weekends and often coordinate their outfits to be identical or in a very similar style. But the community does not demand that Lolitas wear their special clothing every day, as it is recognized as being impractical for many day-to-day activities.
Lolita style has some distinctive elements. Outfits often include big skits with layers of tulle underskirts, knee socks, and either Mary Jane shoes or historical boots. But there are a number of different styles within Lolita, the most popular of which are Sweet, Classic, and Gothic.
Sweet Lolita is the cutest version of Lolita, with lots of outfits in pale pink, baby blue, and pure white. It is the style most likely to include child-like elements, such as carrying toys. Expect long curly hair, elaborate headpieces, and lots of lace!
Classic Lolita is a more grown-up look, and followers of the trend tend to wear more adult Victorian styles, including long skirts in traditional colors. Expect high necklines with ruffled sleeves, skirts below the knee, bonnets, and aprons.
Gothic Lolita mixes the Lolita and Goth trends, introducing dark colors, especially black, into the color palette. You’ll see religious symbols, such as crosses, added, more corsets, and choker necklaces to finish the look.
Punk Lolita includes many punk elements in the look, so darker colors, check patterned fabrics, uneven hemlines, and statement jewelry pieces.
This is a kind of Steampunk look that includes old-fashioned ideas of what the future would look like. The Cyber Lolita maid trend is particularly popular.
Wa Lolita breaks the mold in that it includes Japanese-style fashion elements, such as the Kimono, but mixed in with Victorian style.
The Lolita style continues to evolve and change to respond to changing fashions, and it is not uncommon to see more modern Lolita-style fashions drawing on the clothes popular among young girls in the 1980s and 1990s.
The trend is also becoming increasingly popular around the world. In almost every corner of the globe, you will find young fashionistas who enjoy making a dramatic Lolita transformation or just incorporating some of the cuter elements of Lolita style into their daily fashion choices.
The Lolita trend was born as a sign of freedom from conformity, so the whole point is that you wear Lolita the way that you love it!
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