Drawing by Jane Mai, from the cover of So Pretty/Very Rotten.
Have you ever seen the Japanese movie Kamikaze Girls (aka Shimotsuma Monogatari)? It came out back in 2004 (released in the United States in 2006) and was based on the 2002 novel by Japanese author Novala Takemoto. The story is about an unlikely friendship between two high school girls—Ichigo, who is a member of a Yanki girl biker gang, and Momoko, who wears a niche fashion style called Lolita fashion.
In Shimotsuma, a rural town in Ibaraki prefecture, Momoko stands out in her Rococo-inspired Sweet Lolita outfits with lots of lace, frills, ribbons, and colors like pink, red, and sax blue from her favorite brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (BTSSB). On the weekends and holidays, she makes a two-and-a-half-hour train trip to Tokyo so she can go clothes shopping in the Harajuku and Daikanyama neighborhoods. Being a high school student, she does not have a job, so she swindles money from her dad by telling fake sob stories about friends in distress or trying to sell bootleg “Versach” merchandise, through which she meets Ichigo.
It’s been a long time since I last watched the movie in its entirety, but one of the scenes has stuck with me through the years. At the end of Momoko’s monologue about her life up to that point, she floats slowly into the sky as she says, “So what if I was deceitful? My happiness was at stake. It’s not wrong to feel good. That’s what Rococo taught me. But actually my soul is rotten.”
Momoko talks about how Lolita fashion is connected to the romantic, decadent, and aristocratic parts of the Rococo era and tries to find happiness through material things. She has decided to devote her life to clothing, but her connection to other people is lacking. Even though she wears pretty clothes, she feels that deep down there is a part of her that is rotten.
I remember the day I encountered the novel by chance in a Japanese bookstore. The movie had just been released in Japan, and the Japanese version of the novel had a photo of the live-action film version of the two main characters. Having no idea what the book was about, I bought it because I thought Ichigo looked cool—I had always been interested in Japanese delinquent culture that was big in mainstream pop culture back in the 1980s. However, it was through Momoko that I gained an awareness of the power of clothing. For someone who didn’t really care about what she wore or have any interest in fashion, I guess you can say that novel changed my life.
What is considered beautiful or cute in Lolita fashion is separate from mainstream tastes and trends. It’s about dressing for your own enjoyment, not dressing for others. In other words, it is a self-centered undertaking, an activity of adornment that is not connected to socially productive presentations of self that achieve a goal such as dressing to get a job, dressing to get a boyfriend, dressing to go to school, dressing to fit in, et cetera. Well, I suppose the goal here is to feel happy and beautiful on your own terms.
Momoko, as a fictional character, embodies an idealistic Lolita spirit. She uses Lolita fashion as the basis for her values and principles in life. She learns from the clothes and improves herself through and for her clothing. Her individualism and independence come from her aesthetic principles, which differ greatly from the people around her. It’s not that she is purposely going against conformity, she is just completely unapologetic about liking the things she likes and refuses to waver in her aesthetic policies. I think it was that uncompromising attitude and sense of awareness that I found attractive. The ability to define what makes you happy, regardless of what others around you might believe, is a kind of power.
Nonetheless, Lolita is a material-oriented subculture, even if it is a niche fashion. Clothing brands typically release new collections every season, and some of the larger fashion houses within the subculture occasionally seem to be in tune with mainstream trends while also staying true to the stylistic principles that separate Lolita from regular feminine clothing.
While it can be freeing, there are also limitations in trying to find solace in material objects and consumerism. Buying too much, never feeling satisfied, searching for the next object and the next feeling, more and more. Though being involved with other people in a subculture interest group has many positive elements—shared interests, a feeling of sisterhood, and a celebration of beauty—it also can lead to issues such as competition, misunderstanding, and ignorance. With disenchantment comes the feeling that the promise of happiness is being challenged and ultimately broken.
When happy things can make you feel unhappy—how do you achieve a balance? What are we trying to reach for? It is these contradictory notions that drove Jane and me to make this book, as we too grapple with them day to day. How can something so beautiful also make you feel so sad, angry, and detached? The awareness of mortality and the pain of physicality. That can be said about so many things in life. Though our starting point is a peculiar niche fashion, we worked on the book with the aim of connecting it to things that lie beyond that.
There is a famous poem in Vietnamese about lotus flowers growing from the mud and dirty water of a fishpond. You can say that even amidst the dirt the lotus can maintain its pure beauty. You can also say that because of a process of transforming the dirt that something so beautiful can emerge.
So pretty yet still rotten and always working towards the beautiful and sublime.
Drawing by Jane Mai.
What is Lolita fashion? It is a street fashion originating from Japan in the 1970s typically associated with the Harajuku neighborhood in Tokyo. The fashion has evolved and changed over time but continues to be a celebration of femininity, modesty, cuteness, and beauty that does not fit into mainstream fashion trends. As a style, Lolita is different from other Japanese girl-centric street fashions because it draws from Western history, fairy tales, and children’s literature, creating a unique sense of cute. In addition, there is a focus on new clothes by Japanese designers as opposed to styling with vintage clothing from abroad. Nowadays you can find Lolitas, or people who wear Lolita fashion, in many major cities around the world. Though Japanese designers remain important in defining the fashion, there are designers in Korea, China, North America, and Europe working within the Lolita aesthetic.
Is Lolita fashion related to the 1958 novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov or the film directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1962? The simple answer is no, not at all. Here is a more complex answer: On hearing the word Lolita, many English speakers tend to think about the film or novel and thus make an association to the sexual and erotic aspects of these works. Many people who wear this fashion in North America are often asked if “Lolita fashion” is in any way sexual. Even when told it is in no way connected to the novel or the film, the cultural association is so strong that some have a difficult time processing this information.
It is important to remember that the novel is told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert. Dolores does not have voice—the reader does not know her thoughts or feelings. Humbert tells the story, Humbert is the one who sexualizes Dolores when he calls her Lolita and a nymphet. Prior to the novel, Lolita was the nickname for Dolores and did not have the nymphet connotations.
During a conversation I had with Nagisa, a Japanese Lolita from Osaka, we talked about the differences between Lolicon, Japanese for “Lolita complex” or the sexualization of young girls, and Lolita fashion, a youthful street style worn mostly by women. The “Lolita” in these two different concepts are considered unrelated and are defined and approached differently by men and women. The “Lolita” in Lolicon is defined by male gaze and desire that is directed toward prepubescent girls. Men project their sexual desire upon Lolita, wanting to take advantage of and control her. In contrast, for women Lolita fashion exists as a domain removed from the sphere of cis-male influence. Lolita has agency, feelings, and power. She is a reminder of a woman’s own precious childhood memories growing up as a girl.
Actually, there are quite a number of Japanese Lolitas who do not know about the Nabokov novel. I remember explaining it to someone and she was completely disgusted.
Lolita is a modest style. Lolitas dress for themselves. It is clothing that reminds us that not everything has to do with trying to attract or please men.
What are the basic elements of a Lolita outfit? A bell-shaped or A-line skirt supported by a petticoat or pannier and worn with bloomers. A blouse under a jumper-skirt with over-the-knee socks or tights, rounded-toe shoes, and a hair bow, beret, or headdress. Dresses are expensive because of the high-quality lace and fabric with intricate construction and details. Some people sew their own dresses or accentuate their outfits with handmade accessories. Also, nerves of steel are a plus as it’s tough going out there dressed in something so eye-catching, especially when alone!
An Nguyen is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Ottawa, Ontario, best known for her romantic comic series Open Spaces and Closed Places.
Jane Mai is a freelance illustrator and comic artist from Brooklyn, New York.
So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture, by Jane Mai and An Nguyen, is published by Koyama Press.
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