Japanese Street Style

Sweet Lolitas at the V&A, May 2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sweet Lolitas at the V&A, May 2012. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lolita fashion emerged during the 1990s as a radical form of street style born out of the Japanese taste for Hello Kitty cuteness. Whether dressed in pink, powder blue, red, white or black, Lolitas are immediately recognisable by their doll-like make-up, frilly skirts, fanciful headgear, ribbons and lace.

Although the term ‘Lolita’ has sexual connotations in Western culture due to the book of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov, in Japanese culture it refers to ‘cuteness’, ‘elegance’ and ‘modesty’ and has little to do with allure. It is more akin to a kind of aggressive femininity, is meant to be confrontational, and is often a reaction to the overtly sexualised representation of women in Japanese culture.

Lolita street fashion, particularly Gothic Lolita style, has been popularised by the Visual Kei (Visual System) movement in Japanese popular music. Visual Kei is a combination of a flamboyant style of dress, make-up and hair styles with a particular music genre, often inspired by Western glam and punk rock and heavy metal.

A striking feature of Lolita fashion is the extent to which it is influenced by British culture: Alice in Wonderland, Glam Rock, the New Romantics, Gothic, Punk and Vivienne Westwood. Although the attitude and aggression of Punk and Gothic have no place in the world of the Lolita, the movement represents a similarly powerful rebellion against the conventions of contemporary society.

Sweet Lolita

Sweet Lolita is the most instantly recognisable and widespread of the Lolita looks. It is also the earliest, having its origins in the old-fashioned, little-girl image marketed in the 1980s by companies such as Pink House and Shirley Temple. Its subsequent popularity owes much to the boutique chain Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, which opened its first shop in 1988. Dolls, cuddly toys and references to Victorian children’s literature, most notably Alice in Wonderland, are key characteristics of the look.

Innocent World

Innocent World is an Osaka-based design house founded by Yumi Fujiwara. The clothing is sometimes Sweet Lolita and at other times, as with the relatively sober outfit displayed here, what is called Classic Lolita. The company’s concept statement speaks of ‘elegance and cuteness’ and of ‘a simple world without dirt or blemish’ that reflects ‘the pure and innocent hearts of young women’.

Baby, The Stars Shine Bright

Baby, The Stars Shine Bright was established in Tokyo in 1988 by Akinori and Fumiyo Isobe. Its clothes are regarded as the epitome of the Sweet Lolita look. The company was launched to fame by the 2004 screen adaptation of Novala Takemoto’s novel Shimotsuma Monogatari, in which the heroine dresses throughout in outfits by BTSSB. The film was re-released with English subtitles as Kamikaze Girls.

Alice and the Pirates

Alice and the Pirates is the sub-brand of Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. It was launched in 2004 to cater to a growing demand for Gothic and Punk inspired clothing. The overall effect is still sweet, but there is a dark edginess to it. The combination of Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and Pirates (Vivienne Westwood’s 1981 Pirate Collection) in the brand name is revealing.

Gothic Lolita

Gothic Lolita emerged during the 1990s, inspired by the theatrical outfits worn by members of Visual Kei rock bands. One of the most influential of these was Malice Mizer (1992–2001), whose leader Mana established the 'Moi-même-Moitié' fashion label in 1999. Visual Kei and Gothic Lolita owe much to the 1980s British Gothic Rock scene and the androgyny associated with David Bowie, Marc Bolan and their New Romantic successors. Despite their often ghoulish appearance, Gothic Lolitas are no less concerned with innocence and cuteness than their Sweet Lolita counterparts.

Moi-même-Moitié

'Moi-même-Moitié' is one of the best-known Gothic Lolita labels. It was established by Mana of Malice Mizer in 1999 with the strap-line ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita Aristocrat Vampire Romance’. It has two main lines: Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL) for women and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat (EGA) for men. The use of dark ultramarine blue in combination with black is a distinctive feature of the MMM look.

Alice Auaa

Alice Auaa was established in 1995 by the self-taught Osaka-based designer Yasutaka Funakoshi after he had spent two years importing Punk, Fetish, New Wave and Gothic clothing from London. While Alice Auaa promotes itself through magazines such as the iconic Gothic & Lolita Bible, its concern with S&M, bondage and Gothic horror set it apart from mainstream Gothic Lolita labels.

Punk Lolita

Of all the Lolita looks, Punk Lolita is the style most obviously rooted in British street culture. Chains, spikes and safety pins accompany wild hair cuts, bondage trousers and in-your-face T-shirts. Vivienne Westwood, doyenne of 1970s Punk, is the goddess and heroine for Punk Lolita designers and her hallmark use of tartan is de rigueur. As with Gothic Lolita, the incorporation of cutesy motifs and cuddly accessories gives the look a sugariness very different in spirit from its British antecedents.

Putumayo

Putumayo opened its first shop in Harajuku’s Laforet department store in 1990. It specialises in mid-range teenage and young women’s clothing which mixes hard-core Punk with whimsical girliness. On the outfit displayed here, an alley cat with an eye-patch and spiked collar sports a British-style crown, while playing card motifs on the frilly skirt recall Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts.

Sixh, and MINT Neko

This unisex outfit is a compelling example of 21st-century sartorial hybridisation. It combines a Westwood-inspired tartan top, an Asian layered-skirt bottom and the whacky cat of the MINT Neko label. Sixh. and MINT Neko are two brands owned by the KINCS clothing group. The company owes its runaway success largely to the Punk, Gothic and Visual Kei designer, Naoto Hirooka, who joined the company in 1999.

Japanese Lolita

The Japanese Lolita look differs from its better-known Sweet, Gothic and Punk counterparts because its starting point is native rather than foreign dress traditions. At one end of the spectrum there is the demure kimono look explored by designers such as Mamechiyo Modern. At the opposite end there are the over-the-top creations of designers like Takuya Angel, for whom samurai armour and ideas of machismo are the main points of departure.

Takuya Angel

Takuya Angel was established in 1995 by the self-taught designer, DJ and musician Takuya Sawada. Sawada makes all of his outfits himself, working at a sewing machine in a small second-floor shop in the heart of Harajuku. Much of his clothing incorporates recycled kimono fabric, of which he has built up a large collection.

Mamechiyo Modern

Mamechiyo of Mamechiyo Modern spent several years dealing in vintage kimono before establishing her own label in 2003. She has set out to reinvent the kimono as an affordable, everyday form of clothing, and to experiment with the incorporation of non-Japanese elements such as the headdress, choker and decorative lace collar that can be seen on the outfit displayed here.

 

The Lolita fashions held by the V&A were purchased in 2011 in preparation for 'Kitty and the Bulldog', a display that highlighted the connections between British and Japanese street style, complementing the exhibition 'British Design 1948-2012', 31 March-12 August 2012.

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