Tokyo’s Lolita scene all about escapism

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

The look is weird, and very Tokyo.

Growing up — forget it. Looking sexy, too. And appearing as though you might have a pulse? Better to glow blue like porcelain. Or to break out the black lipstick.

Check out any place where young women hang out in Tokyo, and you are likely to find Lolitas. In fact, it’s hard to miss them.

“People notice us — we stand out,” said Sachi, the lead vocalist for Black Pansy, a two-woman band whose look, from poufy wigs to bright purple stockings, has made them the darlings of the Tokyo Lolita scene. “The pure, girl-like world inside of me, that is what Lolita is all about.”

Tokyo can compete with any city in the world in terms of how many upscale boutiques sell the creations of the stars of fashion, the Versaces, the Dolce and Gabbanas, the Chanels and Pradas. Japanese designers have made it in Paris, and, at home, Japanese are among the world’s biggest consumers of brand-name fashion.

But Lolita thumbs its nose at Japan’s fashion establishment.

The look is little girl, tea party cute, starting with black hair ribbons or tiny bonnets and moving to frilly dresses and thick platform boots or Mary Jane flats, often augmented with a lace umbrella to protect the as milky as possible complexion on sunny days.

And it has swelled into a full-fledged subculture, one established enough to have spawned several sub-subcultures, each with its own very precise nomenclature, starting off with the classic Gothic Lolita — pale with dark lips in heavy makeup — and progressing through Elegant Lolita, Sweet Lolita — a poufy, doll-like look — Punk, Country and Black Lolita, wearing almost exclusively black from head to foot.

Designer Naoto Hirooka, whose brand h. Naoto is one of the main creative forces behind Gothic Lolita, said the whole Lolita look — like much of the “anime” (animation) culture with which it is intricately entwined — is an escape into a childish world of cute.

“I think many Japanese women feel intimidated by high fashion in the West and feel that they can never live up to the refined beauty that they feel Western women strive for,” he said. “So, instead, they shoot for a cute look, one that doesn’t require tall, curvaceous bodies and instead emphasizes girlishness.”

Hirooka said the escapism of Lolita is also a reaction against conformism and the expectations on young Japanese women to quietly assume their adult roles as wives or workers in this country’s male-dominated society.

“One of the salient points about Lolita is that it is really a fashion that is not intended to attract men,” he said. “The women are creating their own world into which they can get away from the pressures of the larger society.”

In a very prissy way, Lolita is street fashion. Fumiyo Isobe, cofounder of Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a major Sweet Lolita brand name, said the style is inspired by Victorian porcelain dolls.

The idea, she said, is to dress as a child might have in London circa the late 1800s. Very little skin is exposed and the dresses tend to be about knee length, with long sleeves. Stockings or gloves cover legs and hands.

The variation spirals off from there, though the pursuit of cute — a recurring theme throughout Japanese youth culture, from Hello Kitty to French Maid cafes — is at the core of any Lolita look.

Lolita took off sometime in the 1980s and has gotten real traction in the past five years. But it has never moved far beyond its roots on the streets, or at tea parties and underground conventions, where its young faithful feel free to experiment with an eclectic variety of divergent Lolita elements that range wildly from the babylike to the frighteningly ghoulish, a genre called Grotesque Lolita, featuring makeup or bandages to give a wounded or sickly look to symbolize their victimization by society.

Although there is an Erotic Lolita style as well, revealing a lot of leg, it is seen by many in the Lolita establishment as a kind of sellout — most Lolita looks are decidedly staid and prim, underscore the androgynous sexuality of children and are strongly intended to cater to the tastes of women, without worrying about the eyes of men.

By far the best known Lolita subset is Gothic Lolita, which brings in a strong emphasis on black, ribbons and lace. The ensemble may — but doesn’t have to — be set off by capelets, boleros, heart-shaped purses or hooded coats bearing bunny ears.

“It is very ambiguous,” Hirooka said. “Sometimes I’m not sure what qualifies.”

In large part because of the growing popularity of Japanese anime, there is an increasing interest in Gothic Lolita abroad. Isobe’s brand is now preparing for a show in San Francisco, and Hirooka, who dressed Evanescence lead singer Amy Lee for the 2004 Grammys, is testing the waters of Los Angeles.

The Gothic & Lolita Bible — a quarterly magazine with a circulation of more than 100,000 — began an English edition for sale in the United States this year.

But Lolita isn’t looking to take the world by storm.

Iconic as they are here, Lolita brands aren’t designed for export — they are too fine-tuned to the frustrations of women in Japan, and their rebellion against them.

“I don’t know if we can ever really hope to conquer foreign markets,” Isobe said. “But I think Gothic Lolita is the best example there is of the ‘Tokyo look.’ We are really on the edge.”