Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why is Lolita called "Lolita"? Does Lolita Fashion Have Anything To Do With Nabokov?

One of the most long-running debates in Lolita fashion, and certainly one of the biggest arguments between Lolitas and people who are not Lolitas is the name. Every few years in the Western Lolita community this debate pops up, usually filled with lots of alternative suggestions and at least one person who wants to take it upon themselves to change the name of the fashion for everyone, which has lead to a few terms, such as the awkward "Little Big Girl" in the early 2000's, and the tongue twisting "Quaintrelle" of a few years back. However, it is pretty obvious that none of these have managed to stick!

For those on the other side of the argument, the ones accusing Lolitas of being up to something deviant because of the name, they often cite things like the more infamous Angelic Pretty dresses that look quite a bit like nursery room wallpaper, even though things like this are even niche within in the fashion as a whole, and definitely not your average Lolita's definitive style in the fashion. So, why is Lolita called Lolita, if it's just caused so many problems over the years? The short answer is: no one really knows! But let's look into some of the possible reasons why Lolita managed to snag such a name for themselves, and why it has less to do with the book than your average person on the street thinks, and maybe a little more than your average Lolita is willing to admit.

THE ROOTS OF THE FASHION: WHAT LOLITA WAS BEFORE IT WAS CALLED "LOLITA".Before we can really answer this question, I think we need to take a quick look at the sort of aesthetic movements that most likely caused the Lolita fashion to eventually happen. This is a little bit of pre-history here, even going further back in time than I do in about very old school Lolita!

A volume of , heavy on the Victorian romanticism.

As any Lolita who knows her stuff will tell you, one of the precursors to the Lolita style, probably the one where we get most of our aesthetics from, is . Natural Kei was, in part, a result of the romantic Victorian inspired designs that first popped up in the late 1960's and spread to popular culture from things like bohemian trends. This Victorian revival was a massively wide-spread thing, not just limited to young women's fashion trends! Men and women of all ages were all the sudden taking inspiration from a very romanticized ideal of a simpler Victorian inspired life. You can see it's inspiration in every thing from music, to furniture, to clothes, to the post-hippie DIY movement.

I believe that it is from this trend, particularly the rose-tinted view of a more innocent and simpler "prairie life" and the , was one of the major influences in Natural Kei. Now, what exactly does this have to do with "the other Lolita" and Nabokov? You guessed it, absolutely nothing. These things are Lolita's direct roots, roots that are still obvious from everything from the choice of fabrics, to placements of lace and details in modern day Lolita clothes, and it has nothing to do with Nabokov's Lolita novel.

Little House on the Prairie: A charming TV show loved by millions because of it's romantic depiction of an innocent and simpler time? Or devious sexual fetish practiced by psychologically broken young women with the intention of tricking dirty old men into buying them expensive frilly clothes, to fuel their mentally unstable psycho-sexual consumer lust?

Like most things, especially aesthetic driven subcultures, the style came before it's name, and was already well developed before it was given the name "Lolita". I don't think I have to explain that at no time in the early 90's did anyone site down and write the word "Lolita" on a piece of paper, followed by the phrase "sexy baby fashion" and then started to list how to go about making a fashion based on that idea. However ridiculous that sounds, many outsiders to the fashion act like this was the case!

SO HOW DID THE NAME "LOLITA" STICK TO THE FASHION?This is the real mystery here! The term "Lolita" wasn't used to describe this fashion until the early-to-mid 1990's. From everything I had ever seen, by this point Natural Kei was beginning to diverge into a separate style, less romantic and more girly. The My Fair Lady of the Victorian revival had been filtered out and slowly replaced with Laura Ingalls. Perhaps the target audience was getting younger as well. Many sources talking about the golden age of Natural Kei will include a mention that it was "housewife" fashion, fashion for the 20-30 something fashionable young woman who wanted to wear something cute and girly while tending house. Whereas Lolita is known for being fashion for the late teen to mid-20's set. It was probably sometime in the early 90's that what we now might recognize as a proto-Lolita was probably starting to branch off from Natural Kei and develop into an even more girly style adopted by a younger audience, as well as start to become influenced by other girly and youthful fashions such as and even other pop culture phenomenon such as idols, manga, and musician's stage wear.

From . A very old styled Metamorphose outfit.

I think it's very likely that it was an outsider to the fashion,after all, it's usually an outside mainstream media source that ends up popularizing the names of things like this, that referred to these very girly fashions that were associated with things like Little House on the Prairie and a general care free childishness (which, again, was largely a carry over from a massively popular aesthetic trend, as well as a cultural obsession with youth) and gave it a name that was within the popular culture at the time to refer to both romanticized and fetishized childish things: Lolita.

STOP RIGHT THERE, SO YOU JUST SAID THAT THE LOLITA FASHION IS NAMED AFTER THE BOOK?To an extent, it very well might have been, in a similar way that other subcultures such as Goth and Punk were not necessarily named by the people who were part of the subculture and were maybe not intended to paint the most flattering picture. For whatever reason, it became a thing and people rolled with it and generally took the name and made it their own. This happens time and time again in alternative subcultures, and most of them manage to shake the connotations of the original definition of the term and make it their own, but for whatever reason, although possibly due to the massively widespread popularity of Nabokov's book, those within the Lolita fashion have never managed to entirely separate themselves from the book, at least in the eyes of outsiders.

However, I do feel that a look into Japan's usage of the term to mean "the other Lolita", is really needed to grasp the full extent of exactly what it meant to be labeled a Lolita, as well as the world's relation with Nabokov's novel and even Lewis Carroll

1997's film adaptation of Lolita.

First and foremost: most of the world is wrapped up in a love affair with Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, as well as the two movies that have been made of it. Lolita is a classic piece of literature, that despite the actual events that go on in it, is heavily romanticized by just about everyone. I remember being younger and reading teen magazines that featured fashion spreads inspired by the movie, shilling everything from heart-shaped sunglasses to shirts with the book cover on it. The iconic styles associated with the story are often fodder for fashion designers and magazines alike, this is nothing new, and absolutely not unique to either Japan as a whole or the Japanse Lolita fashion movement. Many copies of the book are emblazoned with an excerpt from a Vanity Fair review proclaiming "The only convincing love story of our century", clearly love to romanticize this story, in fact, the book is so beloved because it's so expertly written that it makes you romanticize it. It seems like it would be unfair to accuse girls wearing Baby the Stars Shine Bright and Angelic Pretty as having an unhealthy obsession with a book that everyone else in the world seems to have the exact same obsession with. When Lolita is mentioned in mainstream magazines and news articles, it's often hinted at how wrong it is for having the same name as the novel, and what sort of connotations they feel are associated with the fashion because of that. And, frankly, I think this is total bull. It's a bit like someone reprimanding you for having bad eating habits because you ate a candy bar for lunch, while they've been eating potato chips for every meal for the past 59 years.

The back of Trainer's The Lolita Complex, a faux-psycological bit of trashy reading that was piggy backing off of the then recent popular book and movie, Lolita.

It's clear the world loves this book and it's movies, but what is Japan's connection to this English-language novel and how did the title of the novel end up in their Language? Why did they decide to use it as a name for the fashion? This answer is a little less clear, but from everything I've ever read: as much as Lolita has changed over the years, so has Japan's use of the term Lolita. The term "Lolita complex" was first coined by in 1966 in his book by the same name. This book was something of a sensationalized, tabloid style, faux-psychological piece that was meant to titillate and was simply piggybacking off of a much more popular book. I actually collect vintage paperbacks and these types of books were incredibly common in that era (in fact, I just recently acquired one on the topic of witchcraft!), they present themselves as a serious reads, but are really just intended to be a titillating bit of R-rated reading, they're sketchy reality show of the literary world. It's not hard to imagine how some people mistakenly take them much more serious than they were intended to be taken.

Shinji Wada's Stumbling upon a Cabbage Field. An Alice-themed manga that first used the term "Lolita Complex".

Shortly after publication, this bit of trashy reading was translated into Japanese, the term was then referenced in the 1974 shoujo manga , an Alice In Wonderland parody. Already do we have Alice, the Lolita's patron saint, being mingled with the word "Lolita"! After this first usage, in the late 70's and early 80's, "lolicon", as it was then shortened to, was used in reference to fan-favorite girly characters. Many early anime characters that had the otaku term "lolita" aimed at them were often simply cute female characters, largely from shoujo series, and there seemed to be significantly less stigma against the term at the time. It seems to have had a much "tamer" definition than it is infamous for now. Although the Lolita fashion would not be named such until many years later, both of these ideals had their roots in this era.

16 year old Clarisse d'Cagliostro from Studio Ghibli's The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). One of the first characters to be considered "Lolicon". About a million degrees removed from the modern term.

But why was the term "Lolita complex" mentioned in, of all things, an Alice in Wonderland comic? Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll's other works have always been and the romanticization of the supposed Carroll/Alice relationship already existed within Japan (and indeed much of the world) for decades by the time Nabokov's Lolita, and the term "Lolita complex", hit Japan. I believe that many people felt that the romanticized Humbert/Lolita relationship was a modern take on the Carroll/Alice one, has actually . However, in contrast to the characters in Nabokov's Lolita, many argue that Carroll's youth obsession was and just an aspect of the common depiction of "angelic" children in the Victorian era. With the popularity of Nabokov's Lolita at it's very first peak, and the pop culture obsession with Alice already firmly cemented into place, it would almost appear that the two authors were simply muddled together to make a quirky reference in a mainstream manga of the day. It would almost seem that the original usage of "Lolita complex" is based more on a cultural and worldwide obsession with Alice in Wonderland than it is Nabokov's Lolita. It goes without saying that the Lolita fashion's connection to Alice is absolutely undeniable, perhaps if things were worded slightly differently in that apparently influential comic, we would be known as Alices instead of Lolitas.

A photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll.

While, as far as anyone seems to be aware, the term "Lolita" for the fashion didn't get placed on it until the early-to-mid 90's, the aesthetic connection between these cute young shoujo heroines, Alice in Wonderland, and these young women wearing romantic and childlike dresses was already there. While nowadays outsiders to the fashion like to make the connection from the extremely OTT Sweet Lolita outfits to the risque otaku term neither of these things were as extreme as they are now when the fashion first got it's name.

WHY DID LOLITA'S ACCEPT THE TERM IN THE FIRST PLACE?This is another unknown, but Lolitas in Japan are frequently as annoyed as Lolitas in the west are for the connotation. Lolitas in Japan even to the word to differentiate themselves, at the very least online. While Lolita is normally written "", many Lolitas choose the variation "", in which the usual "i" is substituted for a more archaic "i". However, many publications and webshops use the typical "". This practice reminds me of years ago, when in the west Lolitas would frequently refer to the fashion with the Japanese pronunciation/spelling of "rorita" for exactly the same reason.

It's clear that your average Lolita is well aware of the other meaning of the word, and will often go out of her way to make the difference between the two known. However, I feel that, ultimately, Lolita is often about disregarding the social norms and doing things because you want to. In any alternative fashion it's often difficult to get any large chunk of it's members to care about what the average person thinks of them. If they cared that much about what sort of , they probably would have never ventured into the fashion in the first place.

Carroll's Alice is one of Novala's perfect "bad natured princess".

In fact, there are some Lolitas who do a bit of reveling in this lurid connection between themselves and the book. For a very long time there has been a very obvious morbid streak within Lolita fashion. This "Broken Princess" was often the opposite side of the same coin as the . Novala Takemoto, perhaps our leading expert on the Broken Princess/Pure Maiden coin, specifically mentions Nabokov's Lolita in this way in an essay entitled (link only functions if you're a member of EGL):

Bad nature is the fundament of a young lady. Whether Alice in Wonderland or Nabokov's Lolita, magnificent young ladies are all bad natured. This doesn't necessarily mean that Lolitas were going out there and actively living up to their namesake, it was simply part of an all-over aesthetic that was popular for many Lolitas for many years. Even popular Lolita publications, such as the Gothic & Lolita Bible, frequently showcased curiously morbid art by people such as Trevor Brown, Mihara Mitsukazu, and Koitsukihime.

I had once seen it mentioned that this idea of a Lolita who is not as perfect as her image might make her out to be as something akin to the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, which is a difficult term to translate, but can largely be summed up in the idea of finding beauty in imperfect. Perhaps this idea is a bit lofty for a street fashion, or at least for the average Lolita on the street, and the acceptance, and even reveling in, of the unfortunate connotations of the name Lolita is more likely just a little bit of dark juxtaposition similar to the ones that are prevalent in so many fashion movements, not just something limited to Lolita fashion.

Art by Mihara Mitsukazu, one of the most iconic artists in Lolita fashion and subculture

When asked how Lolita got it's name, there are many Lolitas who will often say it's a total mystery, or claim that the name was picked in an entirely arbitrary fashion, and without any real understanding of what the book was about. But I personally think differently. I feel that the connection between the book and the fashion is apparent, although not crystal clear. However, I do not think that the name of the fashion has any real bearing on the actual aesthetic of the fashion, and certainly not the sort of activities members of the Lolita community are up to. To assume that just because the Lolita fashion and Nabokov's Lolita have a common ancestor, several decades back, that all Lolitas are Nabokov devotees in the most deviant of ways, is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how words work, as well as how the average interacts with both literature and fashion.

Many Lolitas have faced years of total outsiders to the fashion telling them that they know more than them about the fashion and accusing them of being up to something devious just because of the name, therefore it's understandable that many members of the Lolita fashion deny all associations with the book and the other Lolita. However, I think it's important to know the connection between the terms, and to be aware that just because some things share a common name that it doesn't necessarily mean they have any sort of solid connection to each other. People will always have their problems with fashion that's outside of the mainstream, and they're almost always going to think people who're dressing weird are up to something devious. I think we just have to remind ourselves sometimes that we're not wearing these clothes for the approval of other people, we're wearing it for ourselves.
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