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Lolita Culture: An Introduction

This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week on February 5, 2008 Sign up now!

by Laurel Maury -- Publishers Weekly, 2/4/2008 2:38:00 PM

As the fashions and lifestyles associated with manga and anime fandom become more and more popular in the U.S., there are bound to be some that are harder for observers to understand. One of the most complex is the Lolita look.

Lolita presents the confusing sight of young women dressing like frilly Victorian dolls. Lolitas, or “rorikos,” are famous in Japan, but the movement is growing in America via LiveJournal, which has a little over 8,000 members in its EGL (Elegant Gothic Lolita) community. Interest in the style travels globally through manga titles featuring young girls in slightly gothic, neo-Victorian situations. Some popular titles are The Embalmer, Bizenghast, Dolls and Rozen Maiden. There’s also a novel, Kamikaze Girls, which was made into a movie in Japan, and Lolita is also linked to the popularity of the Japanese ball-jointed dolls made by Volk. (Aimee Major Steinberger's Japan Ai discusses visiting the factory that makes the dolls.) But the images of other Lolitas, which captivate certain women, do as much as anything to spread the style.

Lolita style is widely misunderstood. Most press focuses on the name, saying that Lolitas are adult women taking on the role of sexualized children. “Despite its name, it’s not about attracting an older guy,” said Mary Moos, who wore a Sweet Lolita outfit to the New York Animé Con, held last December. The fun of being a Lolita is that “you get to dress up without having to be sexy,” said Amanda Barkhorn, a frequent contributor to EGL. Jenna Winterberg, editor of Tokyopop’s quarterly magazine,  Gothic & Lolita Bible, out this month with its first volume, said she sees parallels with the modesty movement, which advocates stylish clothing that is not oversexualized.

Lolita has a lot to do with craftsmanship and loving clothes that are girlish and pretty. When I met Barkhorn at the New York Animé Con, she wore a lacy skirt she had made herself from a pink Alice in Wonderland print fabric. Her matching headpiece, which she also made, was exquisite. As she showed it to me, she pinched a nearly invisible loose thread. “Lolita is about perfection,” she explained.

Gothic Lolita, a darker style, favors black and dark colors. Superficially, it resembles goth and punk, but Lolita isn’t really linked to these movements (even though music star Gwen Stefani, who has dressed Lolita-style in videos, has punkish roots). Lolita lacks the vintage element found among punks, who like a few real Victorian or Depression-era items in their clothes (Lolitas appear never to wear secondhand clothing.) Furthermore, Lolita emphasizes neatness. (Ripped or dirty clothing is not Lolita.) Far from being rebellious devotees of the Sex Pistols, Lolitas seem to be intelligent women, the sort you might find at a Seven Sisters school reading Jane Austen. They chat online and get together for meetups and tea parties.

They also have strong opinions about lace. Softer lace is preferred, and mixing different colors of lace is simply not done among proper Lolitas. The poorly made "Lolita-style" dresses coming in from China and appearing at Hot Topic anger many EGL members. But shoddy clothing isn’t the only object of Lolita venom. EGL members often criticize each other online, sometimes to the point of being catty.

Winterberg discovered Lolita cattiness when EGL members criticized plans for Tokyopop’s Gothic & Lolita Bible. American Lolitas’ style is a comfy, home-grown movement. Lolitas don’t want some big corporation, like Hot Topic or Tokyopop, cashing in on their interests, but the criticism got out of hand. “People will say things online that they wouldn’t say in real life,” said Winterberg. Members of EGL concurred that the rhetoric was over-the-top and agreed to tone it down.

A fashion page from the original Japanese Gothic & Lolita Bible.
While EGL online behavior may get carried away, American Lolitas do support each other. “Being a Lolita has made me a better person,” said EGL moderator Karaya McMurtray. “I have a wider variety of friends.” This dichotomy of friendship and cattiness may be a conflict at the core of Lolita beliefs. The movement prizes an elite, aloof look, yet functions through lateral friendships, not hierarchy. This conflict is visible in the movie Kamikaze Girls, where Momoko is torn between her growing friendship with Ishigo and her desire to care for nothing but lovely clothes. Though the movie’s motifs run from embroidery to hopeless fathers and cabbages—filmed in a sugary, J-pop style—the emotions and the girl power are real.

A full description of Lolita requires an encyclopedia, but here are the main flavors:

Sweet

The most common Lolita features a great deal of lace, with white or pastels, usually pink. Sweet Lolita is really about the details—details and lots of lace. Common motifs are fairy tale characters, keys, crowns and sweet food items, like ice cream. Momoko in Kamikaze Girls is a Sweet Lolita.

Gothic

Black and dark colors predominate, and outfits often have corsets ties, but are far less frilly than in Sweet. Motifs are crosses and keys, but the crosses do not have religious significance (unlike punk, they also lack antireligious sentiment).

Classic

More refined and ladylike, and less lacy than Sweet, Classic is more tailored, with an emphasis on jewel tones. Motifs include keys, crowns and crests.

Country

Very much like Sweet Lolita, only with ginghams, plaids and checks, and it sometimes has less lace than Sweet. Country Lolitas often wear bonnets and aprons. The style is a bit like Little House on the Prairie meets Alice in Wonderland.

Wa-Loli

Mixes elements of kimonos and other forms of traditional Japanese dress with the typical short skirt and frilly petticoat. Dresses have kimono sleeves and sometimes an obi, though a small corset-style belt is more common. Wa-Lolis often wear their hair in a manner reminiscent of traditional Japanese styles.

Sailor

Favors sailor costumes that riff on Japanese schoolgirl uniforms. Nautical caps, crests, stripes and anchors are popular.

Guro-Lolita

(Not to be confused with “guro,” a variety of Japanese pornography.)

Outfits are often inspired by nurse uniforms and are splattered with fake blood. Guro-Lolitas sometimes use makeup to draw wounds and scars on their faces. “They usually wear white,” Barkhorn said . “Maybe it’s to emphasize the contrast between purity and their wounds. Or maybe it’s simply because blood shows up better on white.” Outfits sometimes incorporate surgical tubing and bandages. At the end of Kamikaze Girls, when Momoko is covered with blood, she looks like a Guro-Lolita. While this form is much discussed, Guro-Lolitas appear to be rare.

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