All Dolled Up: the Aesthetics of Lolita Feminism

1 Sep

Image via daily-lolita.

Yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to attend Loli-POP! at the Victoria & Albert Museum – a celebration of Lolita fashion and frolics. The event was free and curated by Rupert Faulkner of the V&A’s Asian Department, to whom I extend my thanks for hosting such a wonderful evening. If you’re interested in reading more about the night, rabucon has an excellent post with lots of pretty pictures!

I was first introduced to Lolita style by the baby-goths of Brisbane’s King George Square, but it wasn’t until years later, on my first trip to Harajuku, that I was able to witness it on a mass scale. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of lace, frills and bows on display, as well as saddened by the fact that I would simply never be brave enough to pull it off. Because that’s the thing. Despite its sweetness, it takes incredible balls to becoming a fully-fledged Loli.

I’d never thought of Lolita as a feminist response until last night’s Q&A panel on Japanese Fashion Subcultures, when one of the panel spoke quite articulately about the movement and its relation to the subculture. I can’t remember if it was author of Tokyo Look Book Philomena Keet, or Harriet Hall, who wrote her thesis on ‘Nostalgia, Innocence and Subversion: Kawaii and the Lolita Fashion Subculture in Japan’, but they were both very clever during the whole panel discussion and made a lot more sense than I’m about to.

Image via jeriandjapan.

Basically, I see Lolita fashion as hyper-femme. It takes the concept of femininity to the extreme – almost to the obscene. Bear with me here. There is something quite subversive about Lolita. It takes these traditional symbols of femininity – bows, ruffles etc. – and exaggerates their existence. Rather than being feminine in a passive way, Lolita fashion is extremely visible and in-your-face. The whole package is all so obviously artificial, so unattainable, that I think it can be read as a political statement. A statement against a society that teaches girls to be princesses, women to be beautiful, to be submissive, to be feminine. Out society ultimately measures a woman’s worth by her appearance. These dresses and wigs and false eyelashes and knee-high socks are a rebellious act. They seem to ask, “Is this what you meant? Is this what you wanted?”

If you have ever seen a group of Loli girls, you will know that this kind of aesthetic is confrontational, and can be unsettling.

Image from feministlolita.

Lolita is also a threat to traditionally patriarchal values because it exists to the exclusion of men. These girls/women aren’t dressing this way to ‘get a husband’. These costumes are not created to please others, dressing Lolita is an almost entirely self-indulgent practice. This can be quite a novelty for those individuals who assume that “every single action in a woman’s life is entirely based around how she feels about the men in her life.” You know,

If she wants to be pretty, it’s because she wants men to look at her as an object. If she is a feminist or a lesbian, she just hates men. If she wants to be a stay-at-home mom, it’s because she feels she’s subservient to men. To society, absolutely nothing she ever does is based upon her own feelings, but to bow to or rebel against the men in her life.

Online, one Lolita shares a conversation with her friends’ father:

I was showing off ‘Sugary Carnival’, which is a print by Angelic Pretty with marshmallow-twist lines that end in carousel horses around the hem.
“So what,” he asked, “is the idea that men want to eat it off you?”
“Er, no,” I told him, “lolita isn’t intended as sexual. I guess people can find it that, but to be honest, finding it sexual I find more than a little creepy.”
“Well,” he told me, eyebrows raised, “what do you think men are thinking?”
“I think nobody cares what men are thinking.”

And there we have it. I suppose to outsiders like me, it can be difficult to understand how empowering pastels and frills can be. But I’m not about dictating what people should and shouldn’t wear – you know, “Let’s ban the burka!” or “these skirts need to be more feminist!

But this post is already way longer than I intended and I am by no means an expert, so I’ma throw it over to you guys. Any thoughts?

5 Responses to “All Dolled Up: the Aesthetics of Lolita Feminism”

  1. notpilgrim (@notpilgrim) September 1, 2012 at 9:25 PM #

    It was Harriet Hall who gave the awesome explanation relating lolita to gender performativity
    Sugar skulls??! I hope not.
    I love that you quoted Vag Magazine.
    <3 <3 <3

    • notpilgrim (@notpilgrim) September 1, 2012 at 9:56 PM #

      Oh, I mean because there’s been a lot of cultural appropriation of sugar skulls and similar imagery.

    • Stephanie D September 1, 2012 at 11:26 PM #

      Whoops I meant to link that quote to the video, thanks for reminding me :P
      I didn’t know that sugar skulls were culturally appropriating… I didn’t even know that they were a real thing… I was just trying to think of something sweet/deadly. Like vampire teddy bears, you know?

      Thanks for the comment!


  1. Strange the Way Things Work Out (Ten Years Since Straight Out of Surrey) – Lil Nonbinary Fashion - March 9, 2018

    […] Lolita was always too OTT for my tastes. I loved the boy style Ouji and the cute sailor suits but the lace, the hair and the accessories overwhelm me at times. Mori wasn’t tailored enough, too many layers and very little shape, good for winter though, very snug. Punk, well I’m just not punk, not in a fashion sense anyway, I think I’m a bit too square. But the thing with all of this experimentation is that I was exploring how one could express gender in nonconforming ways, all of these looks bring in strong strains of androgyny and gender manipulation, yes, even Lolita. Look at Ouji and Kodona or the “brololita” movement within the fashion – male identifying lolitas in the the hyper feminine clothing. The whole fashion is in and of itself subverting the ideas of gender, pushing against the boundaries of Japanese culture and traditional Japanese femininity, girls reclaiming their bodies and their appearance in a way that upset the status quo, kawaii is punk af my friends. This was then being taken on by western cultures to create their own subversive message of gender and appearance. Honestly I’m going to do a whole piece on Lolita and it’s nonconforming,  gender boundary pushing, society changing nature, but for now here’s some links if you are interested (LINK LINK  LINK). […]

  2. The Return of the King | Gliterature - March 10, 2018

    […] most traffic comes in from my posts about Lime Crime makeup and Lolita feminism which are…. not book-related. So less of that in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: