An Ode to Lolita Fashion: It’s Not What You Think
When countries outside of Japan started to realise that Lolita fashion was a thing, I was still a kid, busy tottering around the house in the shoes I called my Ruby Slippers – my mother’s red pumps.
I wasn’t supposed to wear those shoes. And certainly not over the wooden floorboards — something about leaving scuff marks and dents in the otherwise glossy veneer. But when my parents were out, and my brother was sleeping, I put them on, and then put on my blue-and-white gingham dress, and followed the wooden-board-road to meet the wizard only I could see at the front of the house. From my small, apple-sticky fist dangled a stuffed lion, and only a stuffed lion, because miniature stuffed scarecrows and tinmen were much more difficult to find. Especially for a nine-year-old who wasn’t yet allowed to use the shopping sites on the internet.
Fantasy had for me always existed alongside reality. If I wanted to explore Narnia, all I had to do was go poking around in my wardrobe. If I wanted to, like Snow White, get myself poisoned, all I had to do was take from the fruit bowl an impoverished apple, throw it against the floor a few times and eat it, relishing the incredible stomach ache that almost always came thereafter. If I wanted to be Dorothy and visit Oz, well, all I had to do was put on my dress and my mother’s shoes, and go outside and interact with Australia. Dressing up, in particular, was what I loved best.
But then I turned 13, and for the first time there weren’t any characters smiling back at me from the icing on my birthday cake. 14, then, and my mother offered to lend me her red pumps, thinking I might like to wear them to a job interview she’d arranged for me. 15, and the shoes were mine, and I was wearing them every time I went to work, along with a white shirt and black pants.
Numerous jobs came and went, each draining from me slowly my energy and free time, each wearing out further the shoes that had, some time ago, stopped sparkling.
And then on the left shoe, the fastener snapped. And I along with it.
I threw the shoes that had been my mother’s and mine into the trash can, making them no-one’s, watched them land amidst rotting apple cores and real-estate flyers. A few days later, I quit my job, and a few months later ran away – to someplace else, someplace I wouldn’t have to dress up in a suit and atrophy my creative muscles.
Japan was my target and my aeroplane an arrow, and soon enough I was there, there in Japan, a place that wasn’t home, behind the moon, beyond the rain.
I had been flirting with the cosplay community for long enough to know that from certain corners of Tokyo emanated the things I loved and cherished the most: manga; anime; video-games, even cosplay itself. Once in Japan, I chased past the suits and briefcases, ignoring them as best I could, eager to find a place where the uniform was a little less uniform. The place.
Harajuku has long been considered the quirky capital of Tokyo, Japan, and for good reason. Though popular amongst Tokyo’s youth for years, Harajuku rose to worldwide fame in the late ’00s, its fashion worn by the likes of Gwen Stefani and Lady Gaga. In 2011, emerging Japanese artist Kyary Pamyu Pamyu reclaimed its fame with her song and music-video PONPONPON, popularising again in Japan its somewhat-antique, eternally-iconic Lolita fashion style.
Limited was my understanding of Lolita fashion prior to coming to Japan. Despite having been a part of cosplay circles and having therein heard that some people “dressed in Lolita”, I had never really thought that they meant anything more than cosplaying as Vladimir Nabokov’s Dolores Haze. But once in the heart of Takeshita Street, Harajuku – where the footpaths sparkle with sugar; where petticoats bloom in big, colourful bouquets from the rafters of every store; where grown women squee over kawaii parfaits and crepe cafes – finally, I understood. Lolita fashion is rebellion.
For many Japanese women, to dress in Lolita fashion is to reject adulthood and all that Japanese society expects of its adults. It is being bright, colourful, and above all different, in a country that demands white collars and conformity.
Despite what critics may think, it is not cosplay, because it is not dressing up as someone else. It is not fetishisation, because it is not targeted to the perverted gaze. It is not – it cannot be – the sexualisation of children, because it is a style based primarily upon Victorian and Edwardian garb, famous for its modesty.
It is a fashion style designed by women, for women; for women who want to stop being women; for women who, for a little while, want to be a girl once more.
Women like me.
I wear the dress because when I am in the dress, I am a child again. I don’t have to think about taxes, nor about studying, nor about working a job that, like acid, eats away at my being. In the dress, I am again a denizen of every single magical kingdom. I can pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. I can once again wear my shoes as Ruby Slippers. I put on my tulle as a superhero puts on their mask – I become who I really want to be, who I, in the most private ventricles of my heart, am.