Sharp Blades, Soft Frills: Femme rebellion in lolita fashion, Japan.

By: Megan Catherine Rose May 24, 20230 Comments
a pair of lolita dolls, one themed white and pink and the other black and purple

Hamuka stares down the camera, spiked bat in hand. Fingers entwined around the sharp nails, she rests it against her decadently frilly lolita fashion dress. She’s wearing an “Elizabeth Doll” dress and matching headdress by BABY the STARS SHINE BRIGHT, the most coveted dress in the lolita scene this year. As a lolita in Tokyo, Hamuka stages and curates a collection of images on her Instagram @Hamukahamu and her zine Missing Magazine. 

Hamuka’s goal is to explore the connections between feminism and lolita fashion.  “I think that lolita fashion’s independent spirit makes for the image of a strong woman. You are freed from the male gaze and dress only for yourself,” she explains. 

In the first issue of her zine “I Want to Be Your Queen”, Hamuka explores gender, sisterhood and independence through her interpretations of Queen’s music. In her photos, she glowers in her soft frills, giving her femme audience a knowing, recalcitrant look. Soft and fierce, Hamuka is ready to take on the world. 

Hamuka in a tiered red frilly dress
Photo by Hamuka. You can support her Instagram and @Hamukahamu, and her collaborative YouTube project Wonder Tea Party.

Lolita fashion has been part of Japan’s rich alternative scene for over 40 years. It is a celebration of self and is intended to provide a ‘hyper-femme space’ away from the imposition of the male gaze. Not to be confused with Vladmir Nabakov’s (1955) Lolita, this movement actually uses the word “lolita” to mean frilly “French-inspired” fashion. A big influence on lolita fashion is kawaii and Japanese “girl culture” which is for anyone of all genders and ages.

Both spicy in their hot-takes and dreamy in the spectacular world they make together, lolitas pursue their interest in frilly excess with a ferocious independence. In this article I outline what lolita is in the context of frilly rebellion, drawing on my 10 years of close consultation with the Japanese community as an academic and as someone who has been part of the global scene for 15 years. In this essay, I have also consulted with the lolitas I discuss about their own practice, working collaboratively with them to capture their views and concepts.  

Skirt of freedom: the origins and inspirations of lolita fashion

Lolita is characterized by an excess of ribbons, ruffles and frills, the key aesthetic feature of this mode of dress is a bell-shaped skirt. This silhouette is typically paired with round-toed shoes and a hair accessory such as a large ribbon, flower crown, or bonnet. Some substyles like ouji or aristocrat style incorporate more princely aesthetics, like waistcoats, knickerbockers, and top hats. It’s not only highly visual but full of feeling; Lolitas feel elated, happy and free in their frills.

Woman in knee high socks and a mini dress, holding a teddy bear
Lolita in the early years. K, 19, in Harajuku, published in SAMPLING vol 1 1998. Her top, shoes and accessories are by Vivienne Westwood. Her skirt is by Milk in Harajuku and her bear bag is by Shirley Temple in Harajuku also. Her rectangle headdress is handmade. Image courtesy of Lolita History.

Lolitas are creative; as artists in their own right, they dream of a more fantastic world and have  built it with their own hands. While a quick point of reference is that practitioners draw on both Rococo, Victorian, and 1950s fashion, in truth over time lolita in Japan has been inspired by a fantastic array of things: kawaii fashion happening locally in Harajuku since the 1970s; the aesthetics of flowery girls, Yuri and BL manga;  bisque and contemporary doll collecting; book illustrations; the sparkling costumes on the stages of Takarakuza; and punk, rock, and Visual Kei icons like Mana of Malice Mizer. While lolita is intertextual in terms of where it draws its inspiration from, it is not cosplay; cosplay involves dressing as a character, whereas lolitas dress as themselves, just as punks or goths might. 

Given the dynamic pool of aesthetics they splice together, no two lolitas are the same; each has their own story or narrative about what the fashion means to them. There are a range of “types” of lolita also, to express different interests. For example, while sweet lolitas wear soft, heartfelt, and uplifting pastel attire, glittering gothic lolitas explore darkness, gorgeousness, and the sweet macabre. Every lolita has their own interesting story to share about their practice.  

Each point of inspiration speaks to the frilly rebellion of lolita, but one great example is Vivienne Westwood’s “mini-crini” designs of the 1980s. Westwood is a beloved figure for the edgy, assertive hyperfemme world she created. Westwood conceptualized the mini-crini as a hybrid between the seemingly incongruent “matronly full-skirted crinolines of the mid-19th century with the miniskirts of the 1960s”. To her these skirts represented freedom; the shortened skirt freed up movement for the wearer, while maintaining the extravagant hyperfemininity of frills. It also carried the playful air of some of her other inspirations, including the 1911 ballet Petrushka and Minnie Mouse, which she introduced to disrupt the masculinized styles on catwalks in the ‘80s. In her 1986 Spring/Summer collection, hyperfemme models walked with mini-crinis, blouses, knee length socks, and platform Mary Janes. While this is just one point of inspiration and not the origin of lolita, the styling, world and message of the skirt speaks to the spirit of lolitas: free, playful, and fiercely femme.

In Westwood’s looks we can also see this chaotic mix, a collision of time periods, modesty and frilly flirtation (for other lolitas), softness and assertion. It’s a homosocial, hyperfemme world. Hamuka, our cover star for this essay, explains that one origin point for the lolita community is the “French image” popularized by CUTiE, a magazine that has produced content for “independent girls” since 1989. For Hamuka, CUTiE in the 1990s provided an aesthetic that mixed worlds in a way that was “chaotic and disordered”. 

Hamuka explains: “I think lolita is an image of a free woman. It overturned the ideal image of women from the male perspective up to that point.” One of the very first articles to mention lolita fashion in 1987 makes this very point, describing lolita as unfashionable, unchic, and undesirable. 

older group photo of five women wearing lolita fashion
From CUTiE magazine, October 1993. Image Courtsey of Lolita History.

This is key when we think about the common misunderstanding that lolitas might be cosplaying aspects of Nabakov’s Lolita. Many lolitas do not know of Nabokov’s book, but fierce feminist Hamuka does. “I honestly think that the way Humbert Humbert looks at Dolores is sickening,” she says. Mariko Suzuki, editor of the Gothic and Lolita Bible (2001-2017) explains that lolita fashion neither referred to Dolores nor to lolicon, a phenomena she describes as “men who prefer girls, including young girls”. It’s an entirely other space unto its own. Lolitas have changed the spelling of their name in Japanese to make their intentions clear.

As BABY the STARS SHINE BRIGHT once told me, this fashion “is not for men’s eyes”. Lolitas are not puritans, but they are disinterested in the dynamic Humbert Humberts bring to the table. Hiroyuki Higuchi observes that lolita culture is not one of Eros, as we might see in other alternative cultures like Akihabara. Rather as goths they are Thanatos, death personified, carriers of the underworld; Death to all Humbert Humberts and the patriarchal norms they bring with them. 

For this reason they’re very protective of their space. Unfortunately, some men continuously challenge and attempt to cross their boundaries via street and online harassment.  Further, as they’re sometimes mixed up with maids or idols, many are careful to separate the lolita world from Akihabara. While some lolitas  work as maids or idols or or might call themselves “otaku”, out of respect to the community and their practice, lolita is considered a separate thing.  Maids can enjoy lolita, but these garments are worn off-work for their own enjoyment.  Recently, when an anime artist attempted to generate illustrations of lolita with AI, the creepy, erotically charged images provoked absolute outrage. It was described as a kind of cultural appropriation. Lolita fashion is for the group, by the group and is not to be touched by outsiders. 

“Lolita” as a word has a dynamic use across girl cultures, but especially in the post punk scene. It’s been used to describe fashionable French looks by Chanel, and occasionally characters in fiction from France are named Lolita. But lolita punks had additional plans. Since the 1970s, they presented aggressive parodies of the patriarchal obsession with youth, bringing together both lolita as the girly kawaii aesthetic and lolita as a menacing object of desire. 

Jun Togawa, anti idol, sung in the 1980s “Lolita #108”:  “Iron virgin Stoic lolita/My daddy made me a tragic lady/My cruel daddy the doctor/Tragic lolita/ Alone until I die”. In its first two decades, lolita was a chaotic symbol of resistance, rebellion and rage; a giant middle finger to the patriarchy and their desire to possess and control women. Later, Lolitas in the 2000s moved from print to online and were affronted by the search returns they found. But sweet films like Kamikaze Girls had “locked” in the name for this group. They set to work, changing the spelling in Japanese. According to Suzuki, editor of the Gothic and Lolita Bible, the visual-kei scene should also be acknowledged for their role in changing up the spelling.

Jun Togawa sings Lolita 108 in the 1980s. 

Soft but fierce: The spirit of lolita fashion.

A common reading from outsiders in seeing the girlish imagery of lolita is that they must have “Peter Pan syndrome” and don’t want to have children but rather be the child themselves. This commentary on kawaii fashion more broadly is persistent;, see for instance the racist characterization of kawaii Kumiko in The Simpsons, who says “I don’t know much about babies, except how to dress like one” (season 32, episode 11). Lolitas are very quick and sharp to correct such intrusive commentary.; Many work full time, or have children of their own and share their love of frills, art and music with their entire family. 

Japanese lolitas believe that their fashion is for all, provided the cultural significance of these garments is respected, which means understanding the core tenants of the group: be soft but fierce; maintain respect for their aesthetic and its history; do not sexualize others in the group non-consensually. A second aspect to membership is “attitude”; while they may appear “coy” in photos and are largely good-natured, lolitas speak their minds and insist on their independence, concealing behind their skirts a figurative “bloody dagger.” This ferocity manifests in lolitas strength to pursue their own interests and wear what they want to, and the bravery to speak back to haters and protect their friends. 

For example, in September 2022, an artist implied that lolitas were “grandmas” in comparison to the cute and dark world of other groups like jirai-kei. This was met with a tirade of sweet and spicy takes. For lolitas, independence is key. They’re happy to be “grandmas” so long as it means they can do what they like, and wear what they like. 

This sweet and sharp disposition is common to many cute alt girl lolita scenes globally, a beloved avatar for the whole movement being plush toys wielding sharp knives. The pleasure is, in turn, the gleeful and mischievous juxtaposition of expectation vs reality, as well as the necessity to defend oneself in a misogynistic world. The physical space it takes up to be a lolita, to reject “‘conservative”’ femme presentations in favor of a spectacular one is a kind of everyday resistance. 

a pair of lolita dolls, one themed white and pink and the other black and purple
Kuromi and My Melody are beloved characters for some lolitas, as together they represent sweetness and mischievousness. These 2020 collaborations Pullip Dolls are not officially “lolita” but are certainly inspired. Photo courtesy of author. 

Lolita fashion in Japan is also a proud queer space; while a large portion of the community are cis-het women, it is for anyone of any gender, age, sexuality and background. Some of the most iconic members have been men, such as Malice Mizer’s Mana, and Lapin Labyrinth’s editor Aisya. There are trans and non-binary folks too, making it a space where one can embrace playing with gender. As such, lolitas are fearless and fierce, and will fight to protect themselves and members of their community from those who aim to reassert patriarchal paradigms and lolitas’ compliance.

A common question I receive is if lolita is feminist in its ideologies and practice. If an individual feels that wearing this fashion is feminist for them, we should listen to their perspectives and their own experiences. But also, Fourth Wave feminism argues that too much time is invested in exploring if individual gendered presentations bring about social change. We should be encouraging everyone to work together in solidarity to address issues of inequality rather than worrying about or policing what each person wears.

a queenly lolita dress with a crown
Opera the Princess house in Tokyo, provides a safe space for people of all genders and age to try princess fashion, including lolita fashion. The owner is passionate about supporting and affirming the gender of the local queer community.

This is important to note, as currently in Japan the debate as to whether kawaii is good or bad for women rages on, leaving some lolitas feeling left out from the feminist cause. Further, due to sexism in the academy during early research into “subcultures”, theory often sets up hyper-femmes for failure for “resisting in the wrong way.” Some scholars are also trying to dislodge “feminine” adornment from “feminism” as inherently conflicting concepts.

But given the interplay of frills and ferocity in lolita fashion, the strength it takes to wear and space it takes up and its subversion of ruffles, there are certainly feminist traits in lolita. In addition to our coverstar Hamuka, other lolitas appear in #MeToo protests and in productions railing against sexual harassment and assault. The versatility of kawaii and the way it can be subverted is recognized in scholarship as a tool of resistance. It comes down to how it is used and the meaning of the practice to the creative person in question.

A showreel from Tremendous Circus, a feminist LGBTIQIA+ gothic and lolita performance troupe. As a queer safe space, their cast is made up of performers of all genders.

Smokes, axes and swords: Playing with femininity

As lolitas try to escape the crush of tourists in spaces like Harajuku, the community has taken to Twitter as one of their central meeting grounds. Just like the salon of Versailles, Twitter becomes a place to discuss the latest garments available as well as art, music and literature produced for and by the group. They also love to share photos; femmes in fluttering ribbons are shown drinking tea, reading books, twirling, and going to galleries and plays. Dr Masafumi Monden describes this a “soft revolt”; a rebellion through a pursuit of sweetness and antiquity.

I agree with Monden’s reading, but also I’ve found that outsiders often miss the wink behind the popular images of doe-eyed lolitas. In truth much of “Lolita Twitter” activity involves a complicated discourse of femininity, assertiveness and what it means to play with gendered expectations. In between images of “‘ladylike”’ behavior, there are playful subversions of our expectations. 

a gothic lolita in a city crowd, smoking
“In a corner of this world” by Shiki Photolog Model: Emu.

Photographer Sakuya Shiki explores this in her own work with people like Emu. When she’s not photographing lolita clothing for designers, she uses the camera to paint ethereal and dark portraits of her subjects. “In my work, the protagonist is not the clothing, but the lolita herself,” Shiki explains. “These days, girls do what they love without giving in to the pressure to conform. They may look pretty, but they also have a strong core. They will never give up on what they love.” 

In her image “In a Corner of this World,” Emu passes through a busy street, taking a drag from her cigarette. The bright Tokyo lights create an ethereal glow behind her; with her eyes downcast, she appears as a contemplative dark angel. Emu floats in a chiffon blouse and fishtail dress from the “Blooming Rose” series by Atelier Pierrot. Adorned with two large bows, her gown spills into a decadence of ruffles with both a tiered skirt and an asymmetrical sheer bustle overlay. This is Emu’s first lolita dress.

Emu’s red nails punctuate the image and draw our eyes to an additional point of resistance: the cigarette. Shiki explains that, “Smoking has long been considered against the rules in lolita fashion.  But my friend Emu is a lolita and a smoker. I am honored to be able to photograph how they live now.” In listening to Shiki, I recall the Harajuku kids smoking and hanging out in their pastel frills on Brahms path, a back alley in Harajuku and outside Christon Cafe in Kabukicho on goth nights. 

Shiki, wanting to support her friend’s new interest, loaned some of her own collection of accessories to help craft this image. Shiki’s earrings by EULALIA, twinkle in the moonlight. They are inspired by Catholic Iconography, reconfigured from antique parts imported from Europe. Emu’s hair is wreathed with a headdress is by MR Corset, and “arm corsets” by Massaging Capsule peak beneath her bell sleeves. These designers aim to capture feelings of fragility and woundedness, but more importantly independence and resilience. To Emu and Shiki, they also represent their connection, friendship, and support for each other in producing this image. 

a model wearing a black lolita dress with white frills
“Tokyo Lolita Girl”, a portrait by lolita photographer Shiki Photolog. Shiki is dedicated to creating evocative, beautiful portraits of people in her community. Model: Kyojou Riruha

Another of Shiki’s collaborators is Kyojou Riruha, who appears in “Tokyo Lolita Girl” wearing an “Original Hawase Embroidery Doll” dress and headbow set by BABY the STARS SHINE BRIGHT from 2021. The design of this dress is iconic to lolita since the 90s, with its square collar and “neck ties”, abundance of crochet, ribbon pass, and applique lace, and puffed upper and detachable bell-shaped lower sleeves. 

The image captures Rirhua’s experience as an urban princess, shining amongst her surroundings. Riruha points her toe in her rocking horse shoes, her parasol creating a strong vector against the streetscape. She stands anchored and strong alongside the detritus and greenery of the narrow alleyway, and the smoke plumes of the takoyaki restaurant. The glow of the sunset and lens flare again evokes a shimmering, sensational world. 

Riruha is sharp and adventurous; she enjoys activities like axe throwing with her friends. In a red ruffled dress and heels, with a friend she hurls an axe over her head with tremendous force. Thud; Bullseye! They shout, clap and yell, stopping to pose for the camera with a dainty foot pop and the victory sign. ‘We cheered like school boys!’ Riruha writes gleefully.
Riruha and her friends trying their hand at axe throwing.

Riruha and her friend’s sharp blades deftly cut through the air and stereotypes alike. This creative turn and subversion forms part of a wider playful discourse in the kawaii fashion scene in general. For example LARME magazine recently shocked the public by setting toy bunnies on fire while speaking out against sexual assault and bullying.

Other lolitas enjoy experimenting with similar sharp imagery. For example, Inami and Aisya created a stunt video of them fighting with swords, with coordinated elegance. They caption it with “‘lolita must not only be cute, but also strong.”’. Inami is a kung-fu and tai-chi instructor and fluidly demonstrates her technique. When she’s not drinking tea in frills, she’s sharing her combat mastery with her pupils. Aisya is editor of Lapin Labyrinthe, a recent print magazine made for and by lolitas. As a talented creative, Aisya has many projects on the go. He currently plays for Strawberry Quartz, who debuted this month.

Aisya, editor of lolita magazine Lapin Labyrinthe, duels with Inami, a Kung Fu and Tai Chi instructor.
Wakana Uguri, lolita influencer, was thrilled to see one her favourite paintings “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (c1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder earlier this year. Judith was the subject of many beautiful artworks in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In this image she has slain Holofernes, a general who was planning to destroy her town. Judith, using her charm and deceptively sweet appearance was able to trick Holofernes, a heroine in frills.

Subversion from the inside: lolita’s 100 year cultural history

In addition to Westwood’s a-historical fashion, lolitas also enjoy European classical paintings, historical fashion books and period drama costuming. The Ueda College of Fashion in Osaka also teaches historical fashion as part of their exclusive lolita designer major. But, as any historian of fashion will point out, lolita garments are in no way historically accurate, and critically for lolitas’ ideology, can overlook some of the eroticism found in its original historical context. A feminist reading might also point to the colonial and imperial underpinnings which may be obvious to a Western audience.

Shoujo (girl) manga and literature has played a key role in “filtering” how European historical aesthetics are understood by the group. Introduced in the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) with the intent of teaching cis-girls to be “good wives; wise mothers” in a “Modern” Japan, this movement was co-opted and queered from the inside. For example, one of the most influential illustrators in this aesthetic trajectory is Rune Naito, who also pioneered gay magazine culture in Japan.

At first this culture offered translations of works from colonies globally, like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. These translations were not really supported with accounts of global history or politics to contextualize these stories. Rather they presented an Occidental fantasy, a glimmer of a sweet, sparkling and soft world. Over time, Japanese authors created their own original content to subvert the ideology the state sought to impose. 

A famous example is the Rose of Versailles (1972-1973) by Riyoko Ikeda, which is a well-loved text by lolitas. The readers co-participate in an opulent reimagining of the revolution through an insert character named Oscar, a gender fluid member of the Royal guard in Versailles. Ikeda actively queered and sabotaged gender norms and roles from the inside, all the while teaching girls about socialism; Oscar in ruffles joins the battle to tear down Versailles. Other texts, such as Hadashi no Lolita (1968) by Yasuko Aoike stars a plucky heroine named Lolita to evoke an air of “frenchness”. Lolita in Aoike’s manga is outspoken, brave and breaks all the rules. While the colonial aesthetics are present, their meaning is subverted. Through this body of work they explored the liberation of girls, a raging rebellion beneath a lacey veneer. 

manga coverwith a young blonde girl
Hadashi no lolita (1969) the first lolita to appear in girl comics. 

Lolita fashion has taken on and transformed an opulent Occidental aesthetic, encoding it with their own meaning that is centered on frilly ferocity, independence, and self-determination. To them the frills represent the strength and resilience of femmes. Lolitas draw avatars of themselves in line with the shoujo aesthetics of their cultural lineage and as a tool to express their independence, world, and lived experiences. Popular examples include the work of Yoh Monochrome and Imai Kira.

Kana Fujii, a painter specializing in traditional oils, captures this shoujo aesthetic. In writing about her work for a kawaii special issue of Culture’s Window (Bijutsu no Mado), Fuji writes, “lolita is both a fiction and a fashion that exists in real life. When painting I try to match the immediate images and feelings as faithfully as possible.” For Fuji, lolita is an “abundant frills, delicate lace, a softly buoyant skirt and beautifully tied ribbons, all of which have been crafted to create a cuteness that makes the heart of the wearer’s heart dance.” 

In her images, lolitas, referred to as “shoujo” in the titles, drift in a sea of lace and flowers. Some hold each other’s hands with tender care and affection. In “A Small Story of Life”, two lolitas look upon a large and aged book. Leaning against each other with quiet intimacy they read its pages. A butterfly, symbol for transformation flutters along a trail of shimmering magic dust. Together, lolitas find resilience in each other and their stories, finding strength in each other’s company and support. 

painting of two girls leaning together to read a shared book
“A Small Story of Life” 2023 Oils and gold leaf on canvas,  by Kana Fujii 

While lolita represents freedom, resilience, and strength, in looking at the bigger picture we should also consider the ways in which lolita fashion might complicate feminist narratives, especially as it was never designed to be a perfect political statement in the first instance.

There are limits to the culture—questions of sustainability, high cost, potential intersections with toxic beauty culture—but lolita plays a key role for folks in giving them power, resilience and strength. To address these inequalities they need to work together, alongside wider political action nationally. Already the community itself regularly explores these issues together, and as a group can push for change. Sharpen your blades lolitas.

While interested in the soft and sweet, lolita fashion in Japan is undercut by a ferocity, a hidden dagger behind their skirts. Often practitioners are attuned to this discord and in discussing their views reflect on how this might scare away newbies. But this rebelliousness is a necessary part of the movement, its history and context. While it’s pretty to look at, outsiders should take care in understanding the philosophy and history that underscores the lolita fashion aesthetic, lest they be corrected with the deftness of a well thrown axe before teatime.


The author wishes to thank Hamuka, Sakuya Shiki, Kana Fujii and Kyojou Riruha for their time and contributions to this article.

About the Author : Megan Catherine Rose

Dr Megan Catherine Rose is a cultural sociologist who writes with kawaii fashion practitioners in Japan. She is interested in the intersections of cute media and politics, and how this shapes our everyday lives. Megan is collaborating with media outlets like Anime Feminist and Unseen Japan to bring to English-speaking readers information about kawaii fashion in Japan, including original content written by practitioners themselves. This project is registered with UNSW Sydney Ethics (HC190938).

Read more articles from Megan Catherine Rose

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