Written by Lucy May
(Disclaimer: This is a mixture between a research article and an opinion piece, and therefore understandably may not be something all readers will 100% agree with)
In this article, I will be discussing the word ‘lolita’, its connotations aside from the fashion movement, and the work that Living Lolita (by IREGL x RTE) has done in reclaiming this word for the EGL movement.
‘What is that you’re wearing?’: Ugh…again?
We have all been through it. That moment during a meetup when a stranger in mainstream clothing approaches the group, a look of bemused astonishment on their face. They ask us about what we are all wearing, why we are wearing it…and what it is called? The first two questions are more easily answered than the last, for the final one is loaded. We always feel the need to explain that ‘lolita’, the fashion, has no relation to Lolita, the book. Be immediately on the defensive. Or try to skirt about it for fear of judgement.
The name is hard to get past, even now. Internet search engines are, unfortunately, not able to understand that there is a massive difference between this fashion and the book that just happens to share a name; merely, perhaps, because the book was written before the fashion came about. Westerners who are unfamiliar with this fashion can also be perplexed, inclined to judge, and jump to the worst possible conclusions when they hear the name of the fashion, without understanding its contextual history, values or meaning. Sometimes, the occasional print featuring toys or infant-related symbolism will pop up by popular Japanese brands, entangling the fashion community and those who don’t understand it in the whole unwelcome debate yet again. It is EXTREMELY frustrating to the lolita fashion community to have to deal with all this untruth and misunderstanding.
A Personal Experience of Being Misunderstood
What of the strangers in the world who cross these wires, however? They don’t matter. What about the family members and friends, confused by the name, concerned and often as a result of this, judgemental and critical of this fashion we love so dearly? Or that simply just point blank refuse to accept lolita fashion as a viable style choice, and for that reason reject the wearer immediately as a person. That can hurt quite profoundly and is something I’ve experienced directly.
My entry into the lolita community, as it turned out, happened at a time right before I moved to Italy to live and study for a year. The fashion became the main vehicle for positive social interaction and making lifelong friends in a year where I had to learn how to communicate in a new language, live functionally within another culture, and assimilate within a new university environment. EGL fashion was what I clung to for survival that year, so it was a very nasty surprise to return home after that to find my friends outside of the fashion immediately assumed it fetish-dressing of some sort, purely based on its name. Word for word, that is what they gave me as the reason for their behaviour towards me changing when I confronted them about it. When I asked if they had done any research, or if they wanted me to explain the fact that EGL fashion is the exact OPPOSITE of fetish-dressing, they refused. They thought they knew better, and shut me down, without another word or thought. Needless to say, I was heartbroken. That was, tragically, the beginning of the end of my friendship with those people.
I wonder how many of you have had a similar experience?
Distinguishing fashion from fetish
The misfortune of sharing this name with the Vladimir Nabokov novel; a word appropriated unknowingly by Japanese youths because it sounded cute, therefore describing this cute, frilly fashion, means that EGL fashion is often misconstrued by the very pronouncement of its better-known name. Unfortunately, lolita fashion has always and will always fall victim to Western misinterpretation on some level because of this unfortunate coincidence. We will always have to explain ourselves and be on the defensive.
This fact hurts: that a fashion that developed as a result of social pressures in Japan conversely becomes filled with social pressure to explain the minute you are asked what this fashion is called by an outsider/non-wearer. The name weighs heavy with responsibility alongside the frills on the shoulders of its wearers. I mean, we all say that we have abandoned societal expectation of conformist dressing and aren’t bothered about what people think of our clothes. But the determination of those who misunderstand to continue to do so can make that very difficult, painful and exhausting. Especially for those of us who wear the fashion as a kind of armour against oppression or external expression of internal truth we cannot say with words. Don’t get me wrong, public attention, unfortunately, comes with the territory in this fashion, as does being accused of being attention-seeking by those who aren’t understanding of the need of the individual wearing the fashion to reclaim body autonomy and to take up space. However, being misconstrued as fetishist is highly insulting, cruel, and overwhelmingly demeaning, even dangerous in many cases. It’s an oppression we still are being forced to face; alongside the oppressions our individual personal situations tend to force upon us.
Never mind that IN FACT words change in meaning all the time, or that words can have different meanings. Never mind the entire OCEAN between the Western world (where the book of the same name was written) and Japan, where this fashion originated and formed its meaning as a counterpoint to the ideals of traditional cultural institutions, rebelling against ideas of sexualisation women, or boxing in ‘woman’ as ‘wife and mother’.
These are facts that we know, and cherish…but even if we try to explain them, they seem to still elude those who judge us based purely on the name of this fashion alone.
The Legacy of ‘Living Lolita’
It takes us to remind ourselves from time to time how empowered this fashion makes us feel, and reassure ourselves about what this fashion represents for us: Liberation from engagement from matters of sexuality or the pressures put on us by the world around us. I turn your attention now to my personal favourite piece of EGL fashion media made in recent years. Living Lolita, a documentary directed by Kate Olohan for RTE and presented by the IREGL (a EGL community I am proud to call one of my own fashion homes), is something I truly wish had existed when I was trying to explain to my friends what this fashion is all about.
Let me take a moment to wax lyrical over this incredible piece of media. I will never be over this documentary, and how outstanding it is in expressing everything that this fashion means to those who love it. And if you haven’t seen it, you should. It is 12 minutes well spent. I shed tears of joy merely thinking about it. It is, without a doubt, the best piece of EGL video media to have been produced since Kamikaze Girls itself.
Here are a few of my favourite quotes/pieces of inspiration from this documentary:
‘When I look in the mirror, and I’m wearing lolita, it feels right.’
‘This is it, this is how I’ve always felt inside.’
‘It’s not for anyone else’s gaze, it’s something primarily for yourself.’
‘The community really means a lot to me…’
‘It’s nice to have a bunch of people that understand what you like, and why you like it.’
‘If I’m not going to fit in, I might as well really stand out!’
‘It’s within my means to do as an adult woman who’s in charge of herself.’
‘Such a form of self-expression.’
- putting on how you feel –
‘We don’t dress up going, ‘I can’t wait for everyone to look at me.’.
‘You become very unapologetic in who you are.’
The individuals in this documentary are empowered to their very core by the fashion they wear, and the ideals that fashion brings with it for them on an individual level. They stand for everything that this fashion is and represents and set out very clearly what it isn’t. There is a direct and very brave addressing of the fact that the fashion is not fetishist or twisted in any way. Some of my favourite quotes about this come from Sarah, who just so happens to be a wonderful friend of mine. As well as their fabulous comments regarding how dodgy it is when someone judges this fashion and those wearing it based on its name, Sarah’s monologues surrounding topics of empowerment and self-actualisation are so unbelievably important and inspiring to those who feel their choice to wear this fashion has been overshadowed by the judgements of their non-lolita peers and misunderstanding family members. This message is, as discussed in our previous article, at the core of the message of Kamikaze Girls as well, however somehow, I feel we needed to be reminded within a Western context about why the fashion is so important to us. This documentary could have hidden away from having the word ‘lolita’ in the title. But it didn’t. I’ll admit, in the past few years, that I purely referred to myself as someone who collects and wears Japanese Street Fashion and/or oldschool EGL.
But no one in the documentary is afraid to call a spade ‘a spade’, as it were. Josephine, Harmony, and other voices we hear in the documentary speak eloquently on themes of self-empowerment, actualisation of inner self through external expression, a sense of control over one’s identity, being yourself and finding your community. Someone in the documentary stated that because they were a young person using mobility aids, they felt like people were staring at them anyway, so they were wearing this fashion as a way of empowering themselves and giving people something to stare at. Others stated that it gave them the confidence to take on the world, even if they didn’t necessarily feel like it. Time and time again, we hear the same message of rebellion against expected social norms and a rejection of the idea of dressing for pursuit of ‘fitting in’ or for sexual attention, in favour of indulgence in beautiful, wearable art that expresses one’s little idiosyncrasies, passions, tastes and sense of self. This is the message we should keep in mind, going forward.
Thoughts going forward
There is also no doubt that every, last, ruffle-butted one of us is a little bit more able to face the harrowing world we live in and our personal horrors within it because this fashion exists. We own more to this fashion than being ashamed of or afraid to speak its name. Some people in life are going to be vehemently determined to misunderstand you. To judge you. That is okay. YOU do not understand everyone, or everything, in this world. What raises eyebrows for some people can be perfectly clear to others.
I guess what I am trying to say is that we can go forward with this being confident in showing people what we do stand for by wearing this fashion, explaining ourselves at the baseline level, and let the people who think the word lolita can only pertain to the contents of that one Russian book and its film adaptations lie in their own miserable, frill-less, colourless graves. Stay away from them, frillies – YOU do YOU.