Poofy, antique-looking dresses. Elaborate hairstyles. Piles of aesthetic accessories. Over the top and whimsical, these elements are the hallmarks of Lolita, a fashion style and subculture that emerged alongside other striking trends in Japan’s street style scene. While it may appear on the surface to be an overtly feminine, traditional fashion, Lolita’s history and present iteration are rooted in rejection of the male gaze and societal expectations for women, as well as the building of women-centric community spaces. Of course, these things don’t make it feminist outright, but the result is a subculture well-positioned for the potential to embrace feminist ideals of choice, self-empowerment, and autonomy.
Lolita fashion originates from Tokyo street style in the 1970s, and is based loosely on Victorian and French Rococo silhouettes combined with modern Japanese kawaii staples, often including pastel colors and cutesy adornments. Of course, there are as many subgenres of the style as you can think of, from Sweet to Gothic and everything in-between. (It’s worth noting that the name Lolita has seemingly nothing to do with Vladimir Nabokov’s book of the same name, or its cultural association with sexuality and pedophilia.)
Lolita developed, along with other whimsical and outrageous styles and subcultures, as a reaction to societal pressure involving strict gender roles and harshly policed notions of adulthood and “uniform culture”. At the rise of a very corporate and external success-minded phase of Japanese culture, the women who created Lolita style viewed adult life and expectations, including work, marriage, and bland, monotonous dress as a normative cage. According to researcher Perry Hinton, “the prospect of adult life was viewed as one of hard work, responsibility, and duty”. The style, with its focus on the fantastical and historical dresses of childhood literature favorites, along with personal, individualistic touches, flies in the face of repetitive and tame work uniforms, and the imaginative life it invokes is leagues away from a droll existence of offices and paperwork.
With today’s roster of niche, often expensive Lolita brands like Angelic Pretty, Alice and the Pirates, and Victorian Maiden, it’s easy to forget that the style and its culture started out as a largely DIY and relatively alternative scene. Fashion scholars Rahman et al. suggest that we think of fashion as “a discourse…a means by which consumers align themselves with certain cultural viewpoints while resisting or subverting other viewpoints”. In this sense, Lolita is positioned specifically to eschew societal expectations and pressures, including those of the male gaze. It has been used to express “socioeconomic uncertainty, academic discontent, job disappointments, and a sense of personal failure,” (Rahman et al.) and where there is an expression of discontent, there is room for deliberate disruption.
While reasons for choosing to don Lolita attire vary widely, and can of course be as simple as loving the beauty and aesthetic, a few common answers stand out to me in the search for Lolita’s more radical potential. Many folks in the Lolita community cite choosing to avoid predatory gaze or refusing to be “sexy” as a reason why the style appeals to them; it is a way of performing femininity that is not designed to be appealing to others. In fact, acknowledging and reclaiming a sense of femininity seems to be a common desire for those who wear Lolita, embracing femininity as something that is performative and transitive rather than inherent and fixed.
Unsurprisingly, another oft-cited reason for loving Lolita is self-empowerment; the style invokes confidence and creative expression, and fosters an empowering rather than degrading relationship with one’s own dress and appearance. And true to its origins, Lolita still inspires plenty on the basis of refusing to take on prescribed “adult” responsibilities and conformities, though this seems perhaps more relevant to Lolita groups in the East. Much like the similar phenomenon of cosplay, Lolita fashion may not be inherently intended as a feminist rebellion, but it is born out of the desire to fully realize oneself regardless of external expectations and pressures.
Community is a big part of Lolita subculture, too; it’s known for tea parties and other gatherings that are devised as opportunities to show off styles and find friends with a common hobby or identity. However, despite a nominally rebellious spirit and sense of community, many women who are a part of Lolita “[do] not channel their discontent into some sort of social movement, whether through political action, volunteer work, or socially minded careers” (Younker). Perhaps it is through these missing manifestations of defiance that more praxis of feminist potential could be incorporated into the Lolita subculture. The framework for more community-building exists, but so long as the outlook and attitude of the style remains so individualistic, it may not be good for much other than basic mingling and surface-level development of a community identity.
Of course, there are plenty of aspects of Lolita that stand in the way of its feminist potential. Like many fashion movements, it focuses largely on thin, light-skinned women and idealizes a specific frame. As a social and intellectual tool, it can be used to reinforce antiquated gender roles, idealization of colonial Europe, and unhealthy beauty standards. And yet, Lolita fashion is not limited to white and Asian communites, overlaps with over-the-top queer fashion, and continues to push beyond the boundaries of its basest and least radical self. Despite these limitations, along with its reputation and cooptation (along with most fashion in modern otaku culture) as a sexualized fetish, the genuine nonconformist sentiment of the original style lives on.
So, what is necessary for Lolita to fulfill its feminist potential? I would argue that those involved in the subculture need to actively acknowledge its limitations, including its muddled history, the economic privilege of those able to afford steep price tags of endless small brand products, and the aforementioned community-wide problems with inclusivity. In order for Lolita to be the feminist space and community that it could be, and that some already believe it to be, we need to center and support Black and plus-size Lolita groups and blogs, brands (like Elegy and Lilith et Adalia), and figures (like Marinakei and her podcast Frill Talk), as well as actively incorporate feminist thought and ideals into the ways we think about our fashion and everyday existence. It would be amazing to see a shift in the community from a focus on more passive, individual escapism and consumerism as a weak panacea to bigger problems, and a move to a more DIY, grassroots, and openly rebellious vision of Lolita.