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Keeping a Subculture Alive

By Joie Goh

Tung Pham

One windy Saturday afternoon last December, I stood onstage at a convention. I wore a black ruffled blouse with enormous sleeves and a comically large cravat, and over the blouse, a black jacquard dress with a cinched-in waist and pearl details. Under the dress’s full skirt, a stiff tulle petticoat and a knee-length crinoline formed a formidable cupcake silhouette. On my head, a massive frilled headpiece perched on top of a curly blonde wig, and the look was completed with a pair of lace tights, wooden-soled shoes and a delicate parasol. 

The entire ensemble might sound like what a Victorian-era historical re-enactor would wear in mourning, but it wasn’t a costume. It’s actually a fashion style dubbed “gothic lolita”, a subset of the Japanese lolita fashion subculture, which started on the streets of Harajuku in the 1970s, and has evolved into one of the most-recognised alternative fashion styles in the world today. 

Despite the sexual context of the term “lolita” in the west, thanks to Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous anti-heroine, the Japanese lolita subculture rejects the overtly sexual. The style borrows heavily from the fashions of the Rococo, Victorian and Edwardian eras, albeit with an explicitly childish appearance: dome-shaped skirts that end at the knee, lace-trimmed socks, and large butterfly bows and frilly bonnets. 

While the subculture had its modest beginnings in the 1970s, when its proponents would often hand-sew dresses, skirts and headpieces from scratch, it wasn’t until
the early 2000s when it gained popularity and evolved into the style that is recognisable today, with its numerous subsets like gothic, sweet, classic and country.

Tung Pham

Thanks to a number of independent designers that began creating exclusively lolita items for retail and Japanese pop stars who adopted the aesthetic, lolita fashion became slightly more accessible to a wider audience. I was 17 years old when I first became aware of it through a current affairs programme on television, which chronicled the nascent street style, and 20 years old when I could finally afford to purchase a complete outfit, or “coord” in lolita slang (short for “coordinate”). 

I fell headlong into the local lolita scene and attended meets to show off new purchases, and participated in photoshoots with fellow lolitas. I also became voraciously active on LiveJournal, which was then the go-to social media platform of the mid-2000s, sharing pictures of my outfits to an international online community of frill-loving women. I gained a small measure of internet fame, and as a former wallflower in school, I relished being noticed and admired. 

A male acquaintance once derided my fanatic obsession of the fashion, which had become a lifestyle for me, saying that I would give it up when I’m older and when it’s no longer trendy. I remember boldly retorting that I would be a lolita for life, and that I would still be wearing the frilly dresses and lacy hair bows when I’m 30. At that time, I could not picture myself being anything other than a lolita — I would attend school fully dressed up, then head to my part-time job as a sales assistant at Black Alice, back then the country’s only lolita boutique, which stocked the latest imported collections from the Japanese labels. There, I would then blow my meagre monthly salary on more frilly things. 

Then two years after my lolita debut, after amassing an overflowing wardrobe of ruffles and lace, I began to fall out of love with the aesthetic. I felt trapped by the layers of lace and frills, and when I would once launch passionate tirades about how “lolita isn’t cosplay”, I started to feel as though I was putting on a different mask every time I dressed up. Graduation was looming, and adult life, with all its perceived responsibilities, was beginning to rear its unwelcome head. 

Tung Pham

“Quitting lolita” isn’t uncommon. In an essay for Wunderwelt, a Japanese digital portal for lolita and gothic fashion, titled “Can You Age Out of Lolita?”, illustrator and lolita Lucy Kagan mentions the occurrence of American lolitas positing that they were “getting too old for the style upon hitting their 20s, following up with massive ‘leaving lolita’ sales”. Like them, I sold off nearly all of my wardrobe, and I wasn’t the only one. Of the friends in the lolita scene that I had kept in contact with, most of them have also eventually left the subculture, especially upon marriage and having children. 

However, there are still a few who are still active in the scene, despite having new responsibilities. Jane Poh (named changed for her privacy), a 36-year-old married mother of a five-year-old daughter, is one of them. One of pioneers of the local lolita subculture, Poh got her start in 2002 when she discovered the fashion and her love for “frilly pretty dresses” never waned, even though she took a brief hiatus when she was pregnant and nursing. 

“Some of my best and oldest friends are part of the lolita community,” Poh says when I ask her how she maintained her loyalty to the subculture all these years. “I have less time in general for my own hobbies (now), which makes it more precious when I do get to dress up and go out with the girlfriends.” It was also Poh, whom I had known since my time in the community, who convinced me to make a full return to the fashion. I had already begun to feel the pangs of nostalgia, and had started to purchase a few pieces to try on at home. I had not yet worked up the courage to leave the house in full regalia, for I was worried that I would be judged for being a 30-year-old dressing up like a doll — “mutton dressed as lamb” came to mind many a time.

Three months before that fateful December afternoon, I ran into Poh and several other lolitas at a geek culture convention. They told me of their plans to stage a “lolita runway” at a year-end Japanese pop culture convention, and they needed volunteers to dress in the different styles of lolita. Dazzled by their outfits, and yearning a return to the past, I foolhardily accepted their invitation. It’ll be like nothing has changed, I thought.

Tung Pham

But I was wrong. Things have changed. Lolita fashion, just like street style and haute couture, has trends, and what was popular in 2008 is considered “old school” in 2017. While the overall silhouette remains the same, the styling has evolved. Previously, the fashion emphasised lace trimmings, ruffle details and embroidery on single solid coloured pieces, like black, pink, red and white, or subdued floral prints. Today, exuberant prints are favoured, with themes ranging from sweets and animals, to Gothic motifs like skulls and roses.

Where there used to be formal “rules” on what constitutes a “proper” lolita outfit, most of those rules no longer apply. Lolita items can be accessorised with non-lolita pieces, as long as the overall aesthetic appears well put together. Wigs are now considered an essential part of a coordinate, and there are several online boutiques that specialise solely on hair pieces styled for lolitas, such as ringlets with bangs, curled bobs and braided pigtails. 

And at a rehearsal for the runway, I met the current members of the community, now a mix of old faces and new, and far more diverse than when I was a part of it. “The community seems more inclusive and there is a wider range of people in various stages of life from us ‘oldies’ to students,” Poh notes. “Events are more elaborate and people are even more creative and dedicated to the fashion.” 

One reason for the continued longevity of the lolita subculture is perhaps because it is now far easier for anyone to be a lolita, thanks to social media and e-commerce. “It was almost impossible to buy branded lolita items back then, unless you were able to fly to Japan and buy in person,” Poh says. Today, nearly all of the Japanese lolita brands have online shops and offer international shipping, and the increase of reputable Chinese labels meant that one no longer has to pay exorbitant prices for well-made pieces. 

On Facebook, one can join the many lolita groups to receive the latest updates on brand releases and keep abreast of lolita trends across the world. “Back then, the only way we could keep up was to buy the GLB or scour LiveJournal for scans,” says Poh, referring to the Gothic & Lolita Bible, a now-defunct Japanese monthly print magazine dedicated to the fashion. 

Another reason for lolita’s long life is far simpler: as lolitas grow older, they evolve the fashion to suit their lifestyles. Kuniko Kato is a 45-year-old lolita designer for Japanese label Physical Drop, which caters to a more mature clientele. Amongst her latest collection are skirts that can accommodate a growing pregnancy and a dress that can open in the front for nursing mothers. Novelty fashion brand Mocolle is offering a series lolita maternity dresses via crowdfunding, while luxury indie label Excentrique features exquisitely made pieces in more sombre shades and fabrics like dark velvets and tweed for those, like me, who feel like they have outgrown baby pink gingham. 

Prior to that December afternoon, I was filled with doubt. Was I too old? What would people say if they find out my true age? The nagging thoughts followed me all the way to the convention, then ceased abruptly when I entered the dressing room. I saw women like me, some younger, some older, some married, some already mothers, of different ethnicities, shapes, sizes and heights, all dressed in beautiful, flouncy dresses, united over a mutual love for the whimsical, romantic style of dressing. 

And when I stepped on that stage, one thought did cross my mind: I’m 30 years old and I’m still wearing a frilly dress and a lacy headpiece – so suck on that!