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Empowerment…Lolita style?

Recently at the Women in Film Vancouver Film Festival, Icaught a short documentary called “LoliGirls: The Story Behind the Frills and Bows”. LoliGirls is a precursor to an upcoming feature film and it follows three girls who “wear Lolita”.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Lolita fashion came out of Japan in the 1980s and draws its general aesthetics from Victorian and Rococo-era influences. Now Lolita style has followers all over the world, including the 3 American subjects of the film. Check out the trailer:

But to some of the subjects of the movie, wearing Lolita is more than just fashion; it’s a lifestyle.

Lolitafashion.org says that those who live Lolita as a lifestyle “may try and live like a princess, surrounding themselves with things of beauty, and taking part in a number of ‘proper’ feminine activities such as baking, embroidery, sewing and other old-fashioned ‘women’s’ activities.”

So the movie really struck me at one point when one of the girls said that she considers Lolita lifestyle an expression of feminism because it’s a rejection of wearing “sexy” and revealing things that men want to see. The other girls avoided the feminist label, yet agreed that Lolita fashion is about rejecting sexiness and choosing to feel beautiful.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this. On principle I believe women should be able to express themselves by wearing pretty much what they want. But what we wear also sends a message, and I’m not sure the message Lolita fashion sends is about empowerment.

For one thing, although some Lolitas sew their own clothes, buying the new outfits costs a lot. One of the big Japanese designers mentioned in the movie, Angelic Pretty, sells Lolita dresses for over $250 US. Their hats go for over $100 US, and then there are still shoes and accessories to attend to.

That’s because there are rules for dressing Lolita, which the film’s subjects acknowledge are stricter in the US than in Japan. Lolitafashion.org is one of the sites that lays out the guidelines for dressing Lolita. Here’s what they say about legs:

“Though a lolita’s skirt may scandalously reveal her knees, a lolita tends not to expose her legs too often, as this would be improper. It is generally good practice to cover one’s legs at least up to the knee, which means wearing knee-length socks.”

It certainly seems like some Lolita girls are investing a lot of time and money into a fashion/lifestyle that regulates not only clothing, but also behavior, if indirectly.

I’d encourage you check out the film’s website and let me know what you think. Is it possible to borrow fashion and lifestyle elements (for some) from the Victorian and Rococo periods without bringing along that time period’s attitudes about women, like the idea that the ideal woman must hide her sexuality and only engage in “feminine” activities?


16 thoughts on “Empowerment…Lolita style?

  1. While I agree that women should be allowed to wear what we want, I feel that part of the Loli image falls hard upon infantalization. The dresses, despite the rules to ‘cover the legs’, are still short-ish. Lolita imagery in manga that I have seen (and I am way out of touch with this these days) often sexualizes the characters in such dress.

    I feel more and more, that despite what we wear, we are not immune to catcalls or any other form of harassment. While lolita fashion pays lip service to this, I think it is a very dangerous thing, indeed, to assume that this clothing rejects the male gaze.

    I also agree with the rigid definition of femininity being limiting, despite the argument that these women have. While I respect their choices, I just wanted to throw caution on the idea they present about sexuality and the rejection of the male gaze.

  2. I am happy that About-Face has posted an article on this topic, which I’ve been wondering about for a couple of years, ever since I heard of Loli. Personally, I think that the Lolita style of clothing is absolutely adorable–however, a lot of your points are well-made. Many girls who dress in this style are as obsessed with the superficial elements, along with the makeup, clothing and accesories that go along with those elements. However, a lot of Lolita girls also create clothing and accesories for themselves, from scratch, and often from their own designs.

    It is a terribly expensive hobby, even if you make your own clothes–however, its manner of embracing the ideals of beauty that are no longer as popular in our society is very refreshing. Especially in Goth-Loli and wa-loli subcultures, the creative expression involved skyrockets into the stratosphere. I think that for many, Lolita is a very freeing, very empowering style which allows for artistry to be incorporated into everyday life.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Jarrah. I’ve only got a minute, but I think it’s great that you are brining attention to this, as it seems to contradict the entire notion of feminism. I mean, c’mon… Grown women dressing like little girls, identifying themselves as part of a lolita movement??? How is this not supporting the sexualization of girls and encouraging women to look like girls to be sexy. It seems like it is using innocence as an aphrodisiac, which while not new, is certainly not something I want to encourage.

    Why is it that so often women caught up in sex culture feel like their willingness to be a part of it is an expression of feminism? /facepalm

  4. I’m trying to figure out where I fall on the Lolita fashion issue. On one hand, yeah wear what you freaking want — it’s all about choice, right? On the other hand, how is desexualizing oneself empowering? Even if it’s about rejecting the male gaze, isn’t that just another way of defining one’s clothing choice through men? I buy the choice argument. I even buy the argument that our negative reaction to Lolita clothing is filtered through our association with fetishitic imagery, which isn’t their intention at all — I mean really, if we blame them for the reaction of a bunch of sweaty middle-aged men named Humbert Humbert, we’re engaging in victim-blaming all up in here. But Lolita as an act of feminism? I dunno about that one.

    I wonder if these Lolitas really know the history of their clothing style, and of the implications for women in the Victorian era. Like how crinolens got so big, they sometimes caught women on fire if they walked by an open fireplace. Like how the ideal image of a woman was a gentle, decorative “angel of the house”. Like how desexualized equaled good/virtuous/ideal to the extent that any act of premarital sex by a woman in any Victorian literature meant death. (What up, Lit majors).

    Mind you, my reaction to Lolita culture is also filtered through the fact that I find it all so disgustingly superficial, so there you go. Impasse.

    P.S. Liz: “Why is it that so often women caught up in sex culture feel like their willingness to be a part of it is an expression of feminism?” Brilliant. Could not have put it better myself.

  5. I believe that sadly woman’s sexuality is today used as some way to seal stuff. I think it is cool that these girls are rejecting being seen as sex objects but I do not think that means that they have to go as far as they do. For example if a woman likes make-up and cooking that is fine but I do not think that should define what it means to be a woman. What it means to be a woman is a far more complicated then was a woman does to pass time. Since I lost my mother to cancer when I was little I have been trying to understand what it really means to be a woman and it has been a challenge to not have my mother there to talk about stuff like that. About.com has been helpful in trying to understand that more and I am glad that people are speaking out angst sexism.

  6. Lolita is a style of clothing, what people use it for can be very different. We can’t go blaming someone else for being a pervert over a cute girl, and we can’t blame a style of clothing for someone being shallow, or materialistic, or obsessed with the way they look…feminism, or other views.

    I for one like the gothic lolita style and implicate it on some of my clothing choices. I like cute things yes, I dress rather “dark” you could say. Am I obsessed with myself? No. Are my clothes revealing? No. How would I treat an outright pervert? A bitch slap to the face.

    I wear what I like, so I hope that you don’t mix one clothing style with all these different things about the people who wear them. I know we like to see things as a whole, but not everything is one way.

    Maybe that group of girls did it for that reason, but I do not. I choose to be beautiful in the way I want with no consideration to men. I’ve had lots of mean comments for dressing the way I do, and they just prove what low lives they are.

  7. I do see lolita fashion as empowering. These girls are dressing and in some cases living in a way that is fulfilling for them, despite popular culture’s beauty ideals.

    If they want to borrow some Victorian fashion I don’t see anything wrong with that. Fashion of all kinds borrows from different time periods and different cultures. Everything old is new again, and style is constantly being reinvented. Can you pick and choose the parts you like? Of course you can, we aren’t slaves to the past. We’re the students and survivors of it.

    I also didn’t necessarily see anything “sexual” here. Sure, some people could alter it to be that way, but that’s their choice. Though it obviously does take inspiration from the kind of clothing little girls used to wear, along with porcelain dolls, there’s really nothing inherently sexual about the style itself.

    I think it’s important to remember that there is more than one way to be a feminist, especially today.

  8. I don’t think there is anything demeaning or restricting about lolita, mainly because it is a CHOICE. Not only that, but those who dress lolita are not actually required to wear it constantly or to conform to the lolita “lifestyle.” Lifestyle lolitas are such by choice, and there are many who only embrace it as a style. As for the “rules” of lolita, it’s basically just what makes an outfit lolita. It doesn’t mean that you have to wear exactly that, but if you’re going to declare your outfit as lolita, those are the elements that go into it – you can still wear something different and call it “lolita inspired.”
    Lolita is a more conservative fashion, and again, that is a choice. It’s not focused on being unsexy, it’s focused on being cute, elegant, and proper. This doesn’t mean that all proper ladies wear only bell-shaped skirts to their knees, and bake and knit and have perfectly crafted curls. All of the hobbies associated with lolita are just things that many lolitas find to be fun, once again, by choice.
    Regarding the price of the outfits, that’s just the big brand name stuff. There are brands for every style of clothing, just think of all those expensive boutiques downtown with tops and jackets typically costing $500 a pop. Yes, brand clothing is overpriced, but not any more so than with any other brand clothing. And, like other styles of clothing, there are cheaper alternatives in lolita. Many learn how to sew because it’s more cost-effective and you can make clothing to your own tastes and measurements. Besides sewing, there are also cheaper sources such as Bodyline and Anna House. The only unmistakeable downside in purchasing lolita clothing is the lack of availability – lolita stores located outside of Japan are rare, so you’d usually have to pay outrageous shipping prices to get your goods (most sites have deals for things like large orders and group orders though.)
    So basically, the lolita fashion and lifestyle isn’t meant to be demeaning to your sexuality or gender equality or anything. It’s a choice for those who think that stuff is fun and cute, and we don’t judge people who have different tastes.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments and feedback. I would be really interested to learn more about the different genres of Lolita. Clearly there’s not a simple answer to whether or not it’s empowering – it may vary on an individual basis. I look forward to the planned feature film and hope it will address some of these issues in greater detail!

  10. Thank you for that comment Chera, you said exactly what I wanted to say. I love Lolita, and while it may entice perverts, blaming the girl in the clothing is the same as blaming the child he molests. If Lolita is using innocence as a sex symbol, how can wearing a skin tight, belly-baring halter top not?

  11. I am an Amaloli (Sweet Lolita) and I live the Lolita lifestyle. I agree about the feminism thing. I love Lolita and the modesty it provides and the innocence. It is not at all about sex, nor should it be classified a sex symbol.

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  13. I’m super-late to the party, but I’m a longtime Lolita who really loves being policed by others. My favorite part is the handwringing above, wondering if I “really understand” the inspirations of my fashion and if I am able to really know what I’m presenting.

    I thank you for your patronizing bullshit, but I know very well the origins of my fashion, how others perceive it, the wider implications of dressing like this, and so and so forth. Surprisingly enough, in my empty bow-wearing head, I have a college degree and several years of work experience, as well as being an activist and strong feminist.

    And lastly– I am not a girl. I am an adult woman who makes well-researched and well thought out fashion choices. I hazard that I even may have put more thought into lolita that you, gentle commentators. I mean, I’ve only been into the subculture for several years.

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