Deconstructing Lolita Fashion

Since Her Excellency Tomomi Inada, Minister in charge of Japan’s “Cool Japan” strategy, visited New York, JapanCulture•NYC has been trying to define “Cool Japan” as it relates to New Yorkers. The broad range of the term can encompass an overwhelming number of areas: Food, fashion, design, travel, the list goes on. To focus on one type of fashion, JapanCulture•NYC turns to the expertise of New York-based accessories designer Jen Green, who attended Japan Society’s Lolita fashion discussion on February 5. In this special guest post, Jen deconstructs the Lolita look and phenomenon for the uninitiated.

Petticoats, sugar-coated pastels, lace, over-sized bows and ruffles worn with beautiful ornate full skirt dresses in sweet prints and accessorized with knee socks and maryjanes. I haven’t seen this much frill outside of Takeshita Dori in Harajuku! This is not the typical attire one would see on a frigid February night in Manhattan, but the winter weather didn’t stop ladies from coming out in their Lolita finest to attend Japan Society’s Lolita Fashion: Costume or Culture? The evening was part panel, part fashion show followed by a meet-and-greet reception.

Lolita fashion was popularized on the streets of Harajuku in the 1990s.  Heavily detail oriented and extremely feminine, Lolita fashion was Japan’s interpretation of the Rococo & Victorian eras. Jumper skirts layered with petticoats and blouses are the quintessential Lolita cupcake silhouette. Once only found in Japan, the Lolita fashion trend has spread globally in the past decade.

A panel of Lolita fashion experts, moderated by Gwynn Galitzer, spoke about what Lolita fashion is to them. Galitzer is a performance artist and founder of Dirty Bird Productions, a creative network and full-service event management community. As a moderator this was her introduction to Lolita fashion, and she embraced that by dressing the part. Looking kawaii in a pastel pink and blue Sweet Lolita ensemble, Gwynn was excited to learn more about Lolita fashion from the panel of experts.

Lolita, Jen Green, fashion, goth, Japan, Harajuku, Japan Society, NYC, Misako Aoki, kawaii, Cool Japan, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, F Yea Lolita, Ramble Rori, RuffleCon
Misako Aoki. Photo by Jen Green.

One expert was Misako Aoki, a well-known Japanese model for Lolita brands like Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, Putumayo, and Agonqiuns.  Misako served an official role for the Japanese government as “Kawaii Ambassador,” or Ambassador of Cute. As Kawaii Ambassador, Misako traveled the world to spread the word and appreciation of Japanese fashion and pop culture. She was first introduced to Lolita fashion by modeling for Kera, a Japanese street fashion magazine, at a time when there was only one Lolita store in Harajuku.

The other two panelists are the co-creators of the upcoming RuffleCon, the first Northeast conference in the United States celebrating Lolita and alternative fashion. Carolyn Dee has been involved with Lolita fashion for more than a decade and is known for her popular Lolita blog, F Yeah Lolita. Dee’s interest in this style came through online photos when the J-Rock scene became popular in the US goth scene around 2001 to 2003.

Christina Gleason runs the blog Ramble Rori, which includes surveys to gather information about the growing Lolita community in the US. She got into Lolita fashion by accident. She purchased a Wa Lolita dress, a style that combines traditional Japanese clothing elements with the Lolita silhouette, from a second hand store. When she wore it someone asked her if she was Lolita, and the rest is history.

Just like any fashion event, the panel started with the ever-important question: What are you wearing? Aoki wore a dress from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright with a ballroom motif and her favorite, princess sleeves.  Although she didn’t mention it, she wore an amazing floral and ruffle bonnet, as the headpiece is a key accessory in Lolita fashion. Gleason went for the “mint & white” look wearing a white Baby, The Stars Shine Bright dress layered with mint blouse & accessories. Dee wore a 2004 Innocent World piano dress that had a hemline border detail that was pleated piano keys!

The three most common types of Lolita style are classic, sweet, and gothic. Dee says most Lolitas overlap styles in their dress, not sticking to just one look. She prefers to dress in a combination of classic & gothic. Aoki loves anything pink, so she favors Sweet Lolita but will combine other Lolita elements into her look.

Lolita, Jen Green, fashion, goth, Japan, Harajuku, Japan Society, NYC, Misako Aoki, kawaii, Cool Japan, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, F Yea Lolita, Ramble Rori, RuffleCon
Lolita Fashion. Photo by Jen Green.

Explaining the difference between costume & Lolita fashion, Dee says to wear Lolita is to be yourself, but to wear a costume is to be something else. According to Aoki, in Japan Lolita fashion is often confused with cosplay, but since Lolita fashion started in Japan she feels it is established. Although the look has become more mainstream in Japan, Aoki says there is a way to go as a subculture.

In other subcultures fashion and music go hand in hand, like punk rock or hip-hop. Lolita fashion is not directly associated with a particular music scene, but Dee feels it has become a subculture in the past decade thanks to the “language” the Western Lolita community has adopted. The Lolita lingo is a combination of abbreviations like OTT for “over the top,” JSK for “jumper skirt” mixed with Lolita brand names and Japanese words.

Just like any fashion the Lolita scene sees evolution and waves in trends.  For example, OTT sweet Lolita was very popular but started phasing out in 2010. The classic Lolita style has had a resurgence, but according to Dee, it can still be just as OTT with bonnets, corsages, etc. Perhaps the community is growing up because most people who dress OTT Sweet are in their early 20s, and those who dress in classic Lolita are late 20s.

Surveys on Rambling Rori have shown Gleason that there seems to be two age groups of Lolita: 18 to 24 and 24 to 27. As you get older, the classic or goth Lolita styles are more practical because they can be easily toned down for work or other events.

The Internet plays a huge role in the Lolita community, bringing Lolitas together through photos and message boards. While it is crucial for Lolita communities spread out in the US, Aoki believes that the Japanese scene is evenly split between online correspondence and actually getting together to shop or have a tea party. Despite the negativity some US online Lolita communities have received for being elitist or judgmental, both Carolyn and Christina believe it is false representation. They encourage everyone to talk to a real-life Lolita if they are interested in learning more about the style.

Lolita, Jen Green, fashion, goth, Japan, Harajuku, Japan Society, NYC, Misako Aoki, kawaii, Cool Japan, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, F Yea Lolita, Ramble Rori, RuffleCon
Lolita Fashion Show. Photo by Jen Green.

After a Q&A session with the audience, there was a Lolita fashion show with looks provided by Baby, The Stars Shine Bright and Alice and the Pirates, two popular Lolita brands in Japan.

The first look was a Sweet Lolita skirt from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright Strawberry Days collection worn with a sailor blouse, an oversized coordinating bow in the hair and strawberry vine over-the-knee socks tucked into red tea party shoes. There was also a classic Lolita look from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright in a pink sparkle striped fabrication and accessorized with a floral headband and wand to evoke a Spring Fairy feel. Another classic Lolita look followed, a Baby, The Stars Shine Bright coordinate that first debuted at the brand’s floating tea party in 2013. This one-piece dress had princess imagery and the classic cupcake silhouette created by petticoats worn underneath. The last look from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright was “Wedding Dress for the Maiden from the Star” and depicted what a Lolita bride might wear down the isle. An oversized bow bustle and mini top hat veil completed the look.

The first look from Alice and the Pirates was “Lost Paradise,” showing imagery of Adam and Eve in gilded frames with snakes entwined in apple trees in an A-line silhouette. Part of the Lucifer series, the next look was that of a royal prince with an embellished black tailcoat with corset lacing worn over pants and accessorized with a top hat. The Alice and the Pirates brand celebrated its tenth anniversary by revisiting the original pirate motif in the next look, topped off with a feminine white pirate hat with veil. The last look of the evening was a black asymmetrical bustle and a high-wasted jeweled corset showing the epitome of the brand’s gothic Lolita signature look.

Lolita, Jen Green, fashion, goth, Japan, Harajuku, Japan Society, NYC, Misako Aoki, kawaii, Cool Japan, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, F Yea Lolita, Ramble Rori, RuffleCon
Lolitas with Misako Aoki. Photo by Jen Green.

The meet-and-greet reception, complete with heart-shaped cookies, was the perfect opportunity for those in the New York area Lolita community to meet others and discuss fashion, which is clearly a hot item from Cool Japan.

As a kindergartener, Jen Green appeared in the Japanese play Momotaro, which sparked her love of all things Japanese. Now she is an accessories designer who has worked in the fashion industry for 14 years. Twice a year she travels to Tokyo in search of inspiration and runs into Lolitas on the streets of Harajuku. Follow her adventures in New York and Japan on Instagram @jenpanese.