By Madeline Umali
Michelle Dunn leads the sea of bell-shaped skirts, petticoats, bows, high socks, and Mary Janes down Massachusetts Street to the Japanese Friendship Garden. Just finishing up their late lunch at Lady Bird Diner, the women soak in the April sun as they stroll past the staring and pointing of bystanders. The sun shines into Dunn’s eyes. She pulls out her umbrella, pops it open, and continues her walk.
Finally arriving at the tea garden, the group winds gracefully through the path. They all find their own rock to stand on, and, without me even asking, posed for my camera. Realizing they wanted me to take their photo, I snapped away, feeling like a paparazzi for the oddest, most niche fashion week there’s ever been.
Each person standing before my camera lens identifies as a Lolita. Lolita, a term referring to a Japanese street fashion as well as the individuals who wear it, probably means nothing to the average KU student. But for the tiny community of twelve, it means everything. The fashion, starting in the 1970-80s in the Harajuku shopping district, shows similarities to the Victorian, Edwardian and French Rococo styles. With bell-shaped dresses and Mary Jane shoes, Lolita encompasses the conservative, innocent, yet cute aesthetic.
The group meeting in the garden is the newly formed Lawrence Lolita community, or comm. The comm, founded by Dunn, a senior from Galena, Kansas, meets up every month to hang out, dress up, and discuss what’s new the in Lolita world. The meetups, which in the past have included bowling, visiting museums, and of course, tea parties, give the Lolitas an excuse to show off their new outfit or hair accessory. Because it isn’t an every day fashion, these meets provide the Lolitas with a time and place to dress in their favorite trend.
Lolita fashion also gives the women who identify as Lolitas a chance to get out of their shell. The comm provides the Lolitas with a space where they feel safe to dress the way they want. Dagne Hammond, a sophomore from Denver, Colorado, says she only feels safe dressing in Lolita when she’s around other Lolitas, and although she really enjoys wearing it, she doesn’t like being looked at differently. “I’m already a self-conscious person, and then dressing that way…the hardest part about it is getting from inside my dorm to the car,” she says.
This is how the comm can really help its members. Although other Lolitas note that it is truly just a fashion for them, Hammond is in it more for the community.
“At the beginning of freshman year, I wanted to get involved somehow and meet other people, so I looked on Facebook to find groups I could join,” Hammond says. Since joining the Kansas City comm, and now the newly formed Lawrence comm, Hammond’s idea of Lolita has shifted from just clothes to a lifestyle. “Just by looking online, continually doing research and using it as an excuse to do more DIY projects, it’s become my pastime.”
However, for some members, including Dunn, Lolita is purely fashion. “It helps you find people who share your interests, but it’s kind of superficial. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But you can’t tell anything about someone by how they dress,” Dunn says. “There is more a culture around just the knowledge of Lolita and the lingo we’ve developed.”
That culture found home at rock concerts in Japan with the performers and audience members wearing extravagant outfits that resembled the now-known Lolita style. Street photographer Shoichi Aoki popularized the look in his magazines, STREET and FRUiTS. This is when Lolita designers emerged, with brands like Baby, The Stars Shine Bright and Manifesteange Metamorphose Temps de Fille, Angelic Pretty, Innocent World, and Mary Magdelene, all of which are still popular. The style continued to be a part of the Japanese music culture through features on album covers and music magazines.
Lolita made its way to the United States thanks to the Internet. Lolita blogs, websites, and online fashion magazines finally gained American’s attention in the early 2000’s. Now, every major city has its own comm of Lolitas, with most connecting through Facebook and Tumblr. There is even a “Find A Lolita” website, where Dunn met Hammond.
Most Americans who know the term “Lolita” know it from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel and film. The novel and film, which focused on a man’s infatuation with his girlfriend’s young daughter, has shed a perverted light on the Lolita fashion. Click on any Lolita blog, and you will immediately see a disclaimer about the fashion having no connection to the novel and film.
“Some people think it’s like a fetish thing. That definitely exists, I’m not going to say that there aren’t people who sexualize Lolita fashion, but that’s not a part of what Lolita is,” Dunn says. The film, which sexualizes a young girl’s innocence, is the complete opposite of the Lolita intention.
Several Lolitas, including Hammond and Erin Hrenchir, a Haskell University graduate and Raintree Elementary School teacher from Paola, Kansas, say they have had to change how they explain the fashion to outsiders.
“I really avoid calling it Lolita. If someone asks me what I’m wearing, I just say that it is a fashion inspired by Victorian wear, or Rococo, or Alice in Wonderland. I don’t even drop the name,” Hrenchir says.
That fashion stands out in the sea of hoodies, jeans and Nikes. With ruffled dresses, high socks, and layers of petticoats that make the signature bell-shape, Lolita upholds the look of modesty, youthfulness and cuteness. In Japan, the cute aesthetic, or kawaii, is extremely popular in all fashions, not just Lolita. This is very important when achieving the Lolita façade.
Although easily identifiable, it is not easily achievable. The Lolitas’ outfits must meet several guidelines, developed over time by Lolita designers, including a headpiece, blouse, bell-shaped skirt, bloomers, high socks, and Mary Jane shoes. These guidelines set Lolita apart from similar Japanese styles.
The headpiece, usually a headband or bow, must be worn to complement the entire outfit. Several Lolitas, including Dunn, even have special wigs that go along with each outfit. The blouse is conservative, with little exposed skin. Shoulders are always covered. The bell-shaped skirt is the essential Lolita piece. This silhouette is seen in every skirt, dress, or jumper, and is attained through petticoats and bloomers. A Lolita’s legs must be covered, except for the knee, by high socks, stockings or tights.
After the Lolita has met all the guidelines, she has the freedom to make it her own. The most common looks—Sweet, Gothic, and Classic—can be seen in almost every Lolita comm across the world.
“I think I’m about 50/50 sweet and gothic. I really like the gothic aesthetic, but I always fall for sweet pieces,” Dunn says. The Sweet look features a more child-like aesthetic that is more over-the-top than other Lolita looks. Usually comprised of patterned pink, white, or powder blue fabrics, the dresses contrast against the Gothic dresses, which are usually darker and richer colors.
Although aesthetically different, the looks always come back to the theme of cuteness. Even the Gothic Lolita look has some elements of cuteness, through ruffles on the dress or color in her socks.
Although cute, the look is not cheap. The typical Lolita ensemble costs between $100-$150 when purchasing from a secondhand website. If a Lolita wants a dress directly from a Japanese brand, it will cost around $300.
“It’s something you have to plan and save up for,” Hammond says. “I always plan out all my coordination and see what ways I can change it, what things I already have that can match with it, what things I can alter before I start shopping. I try not to buy random things off the Internet.”
That is, unless it’s your dream dress. For a Lolita, purchasing a dream dress is like getting a new car on your sixteenth birthday.
Dunn’s dream dress was very rare, only showing up on the Lolita secondhand website, Lace Market, every few months. She saw the dress, which is a deep navy decorated with bright pink rockets, carousels, rainbows, and cupcakes and a large seersucker bow on the chest, a year before buying it for $350. Hammond bought her dream dress a month ago after searching for eight months. The dress is a dark brown pleated dress with gold and white accents, costing her $330.
Hrenchir says every Lolita dress is her dream dress. “If I’m going to shove out a lot of money for a dress, it should be a dress I absolutely want,” she says.
Although this fashion holds up the ideals of extravagant, girly fashion, it is not an every day fashion. Unless you are a lifestyle Lolita, these styles are not a part of your daily wear. Dunn, who arrived at the interview in jeans and a dark hoodie, seemed like a completely different person than when she was popping open her black ruffled umbrella on her way to the Japanese Friendship Garden.
It’s clear that these petticoats and headbands stand for more than just a cute look. It can provide a community for people that truly love Japanese culture and fashion, even from a 15 hour flight away from the heart of Japan. It gives members of the comm a safe space to wear what they want to wear without judgment. It’s a chance to leave their boring grey hoodies behind for a fantasy dream dress, even if it is just for one day out of the month.
Photography by Madeline Umali