We are very pleased to welcome today’s guest blogger, Paulina, who blogs and vlogs as Cupcake Kamisama. With an academic background in Japan studies, Paulina brings her wealth of knowledge of Japanese aesthetical history to the fore in her writings for us, and is sure to help every one of our readers understand and appreciate the beauty of oldschool EGL fashion on another level entirely.
The cherry blossom season has once again come and gone in Japan, the earliest since the 800s in fact. For centuries sakura has been the symbol of transience, a reminder of the impermanence of the material world, something to be admired precisely because it will soon pass. From as early as the Heian period (794-1185 AD), through the growing influence of Buddhism, Japan has been finding beauty in what the West would deem melancholy, irregular or even downright opposite of what we’d define as beauty. After all, while Japanese poets have been sighing over that which is imperfect and impermanent, giving birth to the complexities of wabi-sabi and mono no aware respectively, European aesthetic was built on classical principles of symmetry and perfection, best seen on Ancient Greek and Roman statues.
Hanami season at Shukugawa, Hyogo Prefecture, April 2011.
Once this thought had hit me, it put the (by comparison far more recent) lolita fashion history in a completely new light. Personally I can’t call myself a fan of oldschool lolita. It’s a look that I admire on others and value it as a precursor to the kind of style that I choose to wear, and that’s about it. Recent reflections helped me pinpoint that to a lack of nostalgia for oldschool lolita and the absence of a personal connection with it. However, if oldschool lolita can become a subject of academic discourse in the context of classical Japanese aesthetic and principles, and reignite the spark that made me obtain a diploma in Japanese Studies in the first place, then I could not miss such an opportunity!
From today’s standpoint, oldschool lolita is both romanticised and almost put to the side. Brands tap into the nostalgia by creating or re-releasing the simpler designs of the earlier days - and with success too. Yet flicking through the earliest of street snaps paints a far less clean picture than BtSSB’s Elizabeth JSK promotional photoshoot would have you believe in. By today’s standards those outfits from early FRUiTS, KERA and GLB magazines can appear messy, uncoordinated, random, breaking all the rules that we’ve come to associate with lolita fashion and which we use to protect its look. Of course, the organic and rebellious nature of those pioneering lolitas is precisely what appeals to oldschool fans to this day, what they view as an expression of authenticity and a reason to celebrate the look. Nonetheless, unless one remembers those times or chooses to study the fashions origins, this mismatched and chaotic style tends to warrant more questions of “is this even lolita” than appreciation for its intrinsic aesthetic value.
That in itself shows how much we’ve come to look at lolita fashion from the point of view of Western aesthetics. Over the centuries we’ve internalised that beauty means symmetry, whether that relates to the natural world or man-made objects (Osborne, 1986). We’ve applied that principle to everything from human faces that we brandish as aspirational beauty ideals to the art that we consume. And, yes, lolita fashion. How many times have you heard or been told that a coordinate or its elements are not balanced? Or excused an outfit as a work in progress, acknowledging its imperfection as something that is being worked on rather than embrace the outcome in its current form? These comments don’t tend to come from a mean place, in fact they’re usually meant to help, to fix what is perceived as a flaw and achieve the desired state of balance. Of symmetry. That which our entire sense of aesthetic appreciation is centred upon - and which oldschool lolita in its organic form back in the 90s and 00s happily threw in the bin.
Those pioneers of our fashion, whether consciously or not, knew that perfection is not something that exists. Their clothing rebellion was first and foremost against the expectations placed upon them as women in the Japanese society, against following a path that was deemed as ideal for women. But I’d argue that they relished not only in the opulence of standing out with their clothes, but also in putting them together in ways that clashed, both with the mainstream society and with the aesthetic principles of symmetry, balance, perfection that were imported into their culture. The way they dressed embraced the values of wabi-sabi, which can be crudely boiled down to the ideas that all things are imperfect, all things are impermanent, and all things are incomplete (Koren, 2008). Some claim that in order to apply wabi-sabi well to man-made creations, one must do so in a way that has flaws to “make it appear more natural and random” (Prusinski, 2013), which is precisely what the irregular and chaotic look of oldschool lolita achieves.
More than that, whereas lolita fashion now is preoccupied with creating a perfect look and preserving it, in the true spirit of wabi-sabi oldschool lolitas realised the importance of being in the moment precisely because it will not last. Just like the beauty of cherry blossoms is praised above others since it can only be admired for a few days each year, early lolitas’ outfits were beautiful because they were able to enjoy wearing them, regardless of whether they got to be captured in a photograph or not. Tomorrow would bring a different look - or, if one was less lucky, an end to the freedom of expression as eventually conforming to societal expectations was inevitable for some. Enjoying what they had at the time, in that moment, was what mattered, and realising that perfection is unattainable and ultimately fake freed them to let go of dwelling on what might happen next or the mistakes of the past.
This pathos of things, the mono no aware, has been embedded in Japanese culture since its earliest days, encapsulated in its most prominent works and elements like The Tale of Genji or the tea ceremony. The West may have understood the concept of carpe diem, even expressed it during the rise of the impressionist movement in the XIXth century, but it still clung to preserving that moment in time perfectly. Meanwhile, Japan embraced the melancholy and the inevitability that things are transient, and in doing so found inner peace of acceptance rather than forever chase the unattainable. Although we could argue that lolita fashion sought to provide escapism by taking inspiration from the opulence of Western historical courtly fashions, there was also acceptance that that particular look has passed. As well as understanding that reshaping it into something for the young woman in the late XXth century feeds into the cycle of fashion that in itself is something that comes and goes.
At the same time, by today’s standards, oldschool lolita looks like it has acquired some patina, as valued by wabi-sabi principles (Parkes and Loughnane, 2018), than the current tendency to go OTT with our outfits. The nostalgia that people feel for oldschool now, as well as the nostalgia that lolitas in the fashion’s beginnings felt for times before them, fits into what Suzuki Daisetz would term “a longing for the world we left as children, the world of the here and now, undefined by language or values, just a pure existence of reality.” (Juniper, 2011) There was no logic behind putting fabric rectangles adorned with lace on one’s head, no reason to pair cutesy strawberries with punky stripes, no rhyme to choosing to combine band tank tops with bustled skirts - other than that in that moment the choice made people connect with a feeling and they embraced it.
When we say that oldschool lolitas were rebels, we tend to focus on the societal context. Yes, good on those young women, choosing their own happiness over pleasing others, we applaud them resisting patriarchal expectations placed upon them. That reaction in itself aligns neatly with Western values of individuality and personal happiness over group harmony that prevails to this day in Japan. But in a sense those same oldschool lolitas were also rejecting Western aesthetic ideals. They decided to forego symmetry and balance for what we perceive as chaos and rawness, and what classical Japanese aesthetic teaches us is the beauty of imperfection, the pathos of things that come and go. Furthermore, once lolita fashion gained traction in the West, those same oldschool lolitas refused to abide by the arbitrary rules the Western community has created back when everyone had to make do with what they had. Making do and mending things when they break are central to anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism, but also to wabi-sabi. It shows us that this is where beauty truly lies: in the simple tea ceremony utensil that’s been preserved and cared for rather than the flashy one adorned with gold leaf. Or in this case, in the bonnet that’s been lovingly patched instead of replaced with a newer, fancier one that better matches other things you have and that follows the latest trends.
And once you look at oldschool lolita from this point of view, once you shift your definition from European classics to Japanese - that is where you can truly appreciate the beauty of oldschool lolita.
Fuente del Campo, Antonio, MD. Beauty: Who Sets the Standards?, Aesthetic Surgery Journal, Volume 22, Issue 3, May 2002. [https://doi.org/10.1067/maj.2002.124917]
Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, Tuttle Publishing, 2011. [https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=objWAgAAQBAJ&dq=wabi+sabi&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s]
Koren, Leonard. Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Imperfect Publishing, 2008. [https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Wabi_sabi_for_Artists_Designers_Poets_Ph/jQelDAgr63oC?hl=en&gbpv=0]
Osborne, Harold. Symmetry as an aesthetic factor, Computers & Mathematics with Applications, Volume 12, Issues 1–2, Part B, January-April 1986. [https://doi.org/10.1016/0898-1221(86)90140-9]
Parkes, Graham and Loughnane, Adam. Japanese Aesthetics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018. [https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/]
Prusinski, Lauren. Wabi Sabi, Mono no Aware, and Ma: Tracing Traditional Japanese Aesthetics through Japanese History, Studies on Asia, Volume 4, Issue 2, March 2012. [https://studiesonasia.scholasticahq.com/article/14408-wabi-sabi-mono-no-aware-and-ma-tracing-traditional-japanese-aesthetics-through-japanese-history]