In a Japanese magazine dedicated to street fashions, iconic fashion model Misako Aoki poses wearing calf-length Lolita dresses named “Marie Antoinette one-piece dress” or “Trianon chi! on one-piece dress,” decorated with lace, ribbons, flounces, and flared sleeves.
The italicized Lolita here refers to a particular fashion subculture originating in Japan which is not unrelated, but distinct from connotations normally associated with the word Lolita. Derived from Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous 1955 novel and its preadolescent heroine, seen by the older male narrator as a nymphet, the “Lolita” look typical in the United States, for example—generally characterized by highly eroticized adolescent or preadolescent girls—has stirred controversy in many Western societies. Lolita fashion, on the other hand, is characterized by images of women adorned in elaborate dresses with delicate fabrics, inspired by stylistic interpretations of early modern European clothing such as Rococo and Victorian dresses. The style thus exudes the look of European bisque dolls, yet one senses something odd about these Japanese “European” dresses.
Lolita style also references various forms of contemporary popular culture, including Western Goth subculture, manga, anime and Visual-kei (Visual-Rock) music—a Japanese music genre popular in the 1990s, typified by musicians wearing elaborate make-up and hairstyles, with flamboyant, rather androgynous costumes. Although it is practiced by a small group of people, Lolita fashion has received substantial media and academic attention, perhaps because of its visually spectacular and eye-catching nature. Moreover, the presence of Lolita fashion has increasingly been noted in locations worldwide. But why do people wish to dress in Lolita fashion?
When discussing cultural flows within a transnational context, often the focus of debate is the issue of whether cultures tend toward unification or fragmentation, whether flows of culture override or dissolve cultural differences in the places they reach, via an examination of Lolita fashion. Paying particular attention to its stylistic aspects, we examine one of the ways historical European clothing has been appropriated in Japan. We explore how concepts such as local and global have been relativized or renegotiated in Lolita fashion.
*The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York hosted a Lolita tea party in October 2010, in conjunction with its exhibition Japan Fashion Now! The exhibition featured contemporary Japanese fashion from world-famous designers, such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, as well as youth-subcultural fashion, including different styles and brands of Lolita fashion. A similar exhibition on contemporary Japanese fashion took place at London Barbican Art Gallery in 2010. A new store called Tokyo Rebel opened in New York in 2009, which exclusively sells imported Japanese Lolita fashion.