From left: Rinko (Shirobako), Misato (NANA), Kuroneko (Oreimo), Victorique (GOSICK)
One of the most frustrating things about wearing Lolita fashion (or being a Lolita, if you prefer) is that in most circles, you can’t casually talk about it without a few disclaimers and explanations. You can’t wear it without people assuming you’re in costume - “you look like a gothic Little Bo Peep” was the latest comment I got - most folks tend to assume you’re either a freak or on your way to a community theater rehearsal (which are not mutually exclusive). Fortunately, the anime and otaku community is familiar enough with the phenomenon to bypass the basic explanations. There’s a longstanding issue, however, with anime appropriating Lolita subculture or otherwise muddling what I’ll call the “spirit of Lolita.” Not all anime gets it wrong and a handful of shows have even become great inspirations among Lolitas. I’m going to explore the differences between representations of Lolita in anime and manga. Of course, I can’t cover everyone. There are a lot of Lolita and Loli-inspired characters in anime, many of them of the “appropriating” category, so I’m going to highlight a few examples for each type. First order of business - if you need the explainer, to paraphrase and shuffle things around from my senior thesis:
Lolita is a Japanese fashion and “street style” subculture that has gained popularity among primarily young people since the early 1990s. Lolita, to put it in overly simplistic terms, is an alternative fashion inspired by historical Rococo (more in philosophy than aesthetics) and Victorian fashion and made unique by combining these influences with Japanese ideas of cuteness and other inspirations from avant-garde fashion. The fashion has a distinctive silhouette and extremely feminine appearance, usually including a bell-shaped skirt,frilly blouse and headwear, and Mary Jane shoes. Lolita fashion is a product of traditional Japanese culture, Western influence, and modern Japanese pop and youth culture.
Why is Lolita a subculture vs. just a fashion trend?
Subcultures exist within yet separate from the umbrella of the whole culture. Thus, a “fashion subculture” expresses unique customs, sensibilities and norms through dress and external presentation. This presentation falls outside of the realm of mainstream fashion.
With the cost, accessibility or lack thereof, and popular perception of Lolita, it’s needless to say that it can be a very serious and personal commitment to be in the subculture.
The spirit of Lolita?
Novala Takemoto, author of Kamikaze Girls and one of Lolita subculture’s biggest advocates, wrote in a short piece for Gothic & Lolita Bible:
I want to become a lolita, you say.
So become one, I reply.
What can I do to look like a lolita?
What you feel is right is your answer.
Sew frills onto the hem of your heart!
Put a tiara on top of your soul! Have pride!
Sounds kind of badass and self-empowering, right? Lolita is more than just looking girly and cute. It’s a statement of self-expression and to a degree, rebellion. Against what? Well, in many ways, it’s harnessing things that society tends to look down on or deride as trivial - cuteness, girls’ culture, and the feminine realm - and using them to craft your own statement about yourself. To plagiarize myself for the last time:
“In the case of cute culture, female youth culture in Japan, and Lolita, this rebellion comes in the form of self-expression and distaste for traditional ideas of how women, or simply adults, should be, act, and dress.” So let’s look at some characters who embody this spirit.
Lolita through and through
My first two picks are characters from the mind of Ai Yazawa, beloved author of works like Gokinjo Monogatari, Paradise Kiss, and Nana.
Misato Uehara (above) (Nana) - Ai Yazawa is always great at bringing subcultures to life in her manga, and the anime adaptions so far have been faithful to this. In Nana, the biggest fan of punk singer Nana Osaki is the teenage Lolita Misato. Not only does Misato always have on-point outfits, but she is shown to have a rebellious spirit, not fitting in at school, but always ready to help her punk friends in Tokyo achieve their dreams.
Miwako Sakurada (Paradise Kiss) - Miwako is not strictly a Lolita. Throughout the series, she can be seen in many major J-fashion styles. Like Misato, she’s a bit on the fringe of society as part of a group of eccentric fashion design students. For Miwako, fashion and self-expression are tied to her dreams for the future.
Rinko Ogasawara (Shirobako) - Shirobako is an anime full of motivated, hardworking female characters, and its resident Lolita is no different. As an experienced and talented animator, Rinko is a successful and much looked-up-to person at her animation studio. Since one of the biggest criticisms of Lolita and cute culture at large in Japan is that it’s a form of regression and avoidance of adult responsibilities, it’s cool to see a depiction of a Lolita who can be passionate about the subculture as well as a career.
Ruri Gokou/Kuroneko (Oreimo) - It’s no secret that Kuroneko is one of my all time favorite girls in anime. She’s something between my waifu and my onscreen self. I was conflicted as to whether to put her in this list, because sometimes her goth-loli getup is referred to as cosplay. If you didn’t know, calling Lolita cosplay is the #1 thing not to say to a Lolita! Kuroneko does have cosplay skills, but her main outfit is simply what she wears out of school. In many ways, she embodies the Lolita spirit. She’s smart, independent-minded for the most part, and really doesn’t give a fuck what people think of her. My only caveat with Kuroneko is that despite the awesomeness of her character, Oreimo does have plenty of times when it uses her and other female characters as opportunities for some lame fanservice. Sorry, Ruri, I don’t blame you!
One major thing these characters have in common is that they have a lot of agency over how they present themselves to the world. They aren’t merely objects, but individuals who have a say in how they interact with and are seen by the world. And that is, at least to me and my personal experience with Lolita, what is so attractive about it.
Influence and inspiration
A display of the Lolita brand Innocent World’s Rozen Maiden collaboration dresses
There are some shows that, while not having characters who are Lolitas, have provided some great aesthetic inspiration for the subculture. Usually, these anime are period pieces and recall Lolita’s first inspiration - Victorian girls’ fashion.
Victorique de Blois (GOSICK) - Victorique is right behind Kuroneko in characters I am a total sucker for. Though GOSICK takes place in pre-WWII alternate Europe, Victorique’s clothes are more 19th century in style. She has many features that are mainstays of Lolita - straight bangs and a hime cut, doll-like features, and of course great, frilly clothes. Her clothes were so great, in fact, that the major Lolita brand Innocent World produced a few pieces in collaboration with the show. They did the same thing with Rozen Maiden, another anime whose female characters have a lot to offer in the way of Lolita inspiration.
Dalian (Dantalian no Shoka) - Often compared to Gosick because of their similar time periods and smart, sassy protagonists, Dantalian no Shoka also has close ties with a Lolita brand. This time, it’s Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, perhaps the most famous Lolita label. Baby contributed the costume design for the anime, as well as produced a collaboration line (left).
Chaika (Hitsugi no Chaika) - Chaika takes place not in Victorian or Edwardian England, but in a 19th century meets Tales of style fantasy world. The titular character’s design takes clear cues from Lolita fashion. The silhouette of her dress is the classic bell shape, she has shoes that would fit in on any street in Harajuku, and her head piece is even reminiscent of the Lolita “rectangle headdress.”
Sunako Kirishiki (Shiki) - Sunako, the immortal vampire from one of the best horror anime out there, is too busy procuring blood to call herself a Lolita, but the fashion’s influence was clearly there in her character design. I mean, come on.
There are plenty of other anime that remain popular within the Lolita subculture, from Black Butler to Rose of Versailles, but it’s time to pull out the axe I have to grind about representation of Lolita in anime.
Missing the mark, and misrepresentation
Lolita is a fascinating phenomenon, and it’s understandable why anime and manga creators would want to take elements from it for their characters, but it’s led to a bit of a problem with what people, especially anime fans, understand to be Lolita. This issue, to me, is partly rooted the early 2000s with the “Cool Japan” initiative. The phrase was coined in 2002 by Douglas McGray as a way to describe Japan’s emergence as a cultural superpower and increasing global influence mainly through the export of its own pop culture such as games, anime, and kawaii culture. By the mid-2000s, Japanese government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) were co-opting the term themselves and supporting initiatives to bring “cool” Japanese culture overseas. Although Lolita has traditionally been a fashion that’s created and led by its own, mostly female, participants, the mostly male members of the MOFA were appropriating the subculture for their own gain, perhaps eclipsing much of the “spirit” along the way. Since then, many anime and manga characters are clearly inspired in part by Lolita aesthetics, but the whole underlying message of self-empowerment and having agency over your own representation is forgone in favor of sexualization. I jokingly refer to these examples as ita, which is basically Lolita slang for tacky, and comes from the term itai meaning painful, though the problem runs deeper than simple tackiness. Like...
Chii and Freya (above) (Chobits) - I love Chobits, I really do, but I’ve found that many people think of Chii and Freya as having a Lolita style. Unless you count the hotly contested substyle of “Ero-Lolita,” Chii and Freya’s designs in much of CLAMP’s art do not fit the “rules” of the subculture. Chobits occupies this weird space of catering both to the male and female gaze, and often jumping abruptly between the two. Mostly, though, Chii is a moe object. While moe objects may be nice and make us feel fuzzy, it often conflicts very much with a character’s autonomy.
Rory Mercury (GATE) - If you haven’t heard about GATE, run far away from AniTAY because it is the hot button show right now. What presses my buttons, though, is its female character Rory Mercury, a 900+ year old priestess from another world. Her costume, which appropriates a lot of Lolita details, is supposed to be her priestess clothes. Hmm. From the waist up, I suppose Rory (whose name is even a reference to Lolita) is pretty safe - aside from the cat ears. Beyond that, however, it’s clear that the thinking behind her design was to to be sexy and titillating. Despite the battle prowess she may have, her design is eye candy for viewers, which is diametrically opposed to that whole “spirit of Lolita” business.
Ranko Kanzaki (The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls) - From left: Nice, UMM, ehhh. It is rather unique to have a gothic Lolita character on an idol show, and I would totally wear that first outfit, but mixing Lolita and idol culture has an inherent problem. The Idol industry is very much about catering to (usually male) fans and crafting your image in a way that makes you what the fans want. iDOLM@STER’s (please let me not have to type that again) core fanbase is male-centric, so I do see Ranko as another example of co-opting Lolita as just another flavor of cute or sexy.
Why does it matter?
A simple answer is that Lolita is obviously near and dear to me. It’s one of my hobbies and I don’t like seeing it misused. A better answer is that we live in a world where much of fashion revolves around the idea of attractiveness, or dressing in a certain way to please someone else, not yourself. Lolita is one of the few fashions and fashion subcultures that offers girls (and guys, yes!) a chance to show themselves off in a way that’s creative, modest, and totally about how they choose to be. It’s hard to see something so rare misappropriated and added to the long list of things used for fanservice. So here’s to the Miwako’s and Kuroneko’s of the anime world, and let’s hope for more like them in anime seasons to come.
If you find the topic of Lolita fashion interesting, here are some books and essays I recommend:
Kawamura, Yuniya. Fashioning Japanese Subcultures. Berg, 2013.
Winge, Theresa. “Undressing and dressing Loli: a search for the identity of the Japanese Lolita.” Mechademia 3.1 (2008): 47-63.
Monden, Masafumi. “Transcultural Flow of Demure Aesthetics: Examining Cultural Globalisation through Gothic & Lolita Fashion.” New Voices 2 (2008): 21-40.
Younker, Terasa. “Lolita: Dreaming, despairing, defying.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Studies (2012). 97-110
Hinton, Perry R. “Returning in a Different Fashion: Culture, Communication, and Changing Representations of Lolita in Japan and the West.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013). 1582 – 1602
Kamikaze Girls film (sometimes available in full on YouTube)
Hello Lace - a website with a great overview of the fashion, substyles, dos and don’t’s, etc.
If you can’t find these, talk to me and I’ll get you a PDF