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  • Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita
  • Theresa Winge (bio)

Every Sunday in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, the Sangūbashi pedestrian bridge becomes a stage for style sukos, or tribes, to gather, share, and present revolutions and evolutions in music, technology, fashion, and other areas of pop culture. A busy pedestrian crossing during the work week, on weekends the bridge is transformed into a space for Japanese youth to express and establish subcultural identities, primarily through the visual display of dress. One of the groups that has gained increasing attention over the last two or three decades is the Lolita subculture, which today plays an integral role in Japanese subcultural fashion.1

Lolitas, also known as “Lolis,” are young women and men who dress as anachronistic visual representations of Victorian-era dolls, covered from head to toe in lace, ruffles, and bows. In the West, the term “Lolita” is often associated with the title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel,2 an adolescent girl who has a sexual relationship with her middle-aged stepfather; and in Japanese, “Lolita complex” refers generally to older men who are attracted to young girls. But in the 1980s in Japan, the term “Lolita” (Roriita) gained new associations within fashion subcultures. Japanese Lolitas are usually young women (not girls), who dress in cute, childlike, and modest fashions [End Page 47] without the overly sexualized appearance typically associated with Nabokov’s Lolita. Or so it would appear at first glance, but perhaps this is but another form of sexual display.

The Lolita aesthetic emphasizes features of Victorian-era girls’ dress, such as lace, ruffles, high necklines, and voluminous skirts, similar to the clothing worn by the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.3 These are combined in turn with aspects of Japanese culture, such as Hello Kitty, manga, and anime. The Lolita subculture occupies a complex place within both Japanese culture and international popular culture. Within Japanese culture, Lolitas occupy a subcultural space where young women and men are empowered by the Lolita aesthetic to present themselves anachronistically in order to escape the trappings of adult life and with it the culture’s dominant ideologies. But while they exist on the margins of Japanese culture, Lolitas also have had an impact on global popular culture: their traces are surfacing at global cosplay events, in American music videos, and even on the streets of New York City.4 This exposure has led to much scrutiny of the name and the style, as well as some unintended associations and appropriations, such Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls.

The Japanese Lolita communicates nonverbally through a highly complex visual appearance that requires close examination to understand. This paper focuses on the Lolita aesthetic as something that has created a space for the expression of a unique Japanese subcultural identity. I begin with an introduction to the Lolita subculture and its place within the context of a global popular culture. I then “undress” the Lolita by presenting three examples of Lolita genres and related aesthetics. I conclude by “dressing” Lolita with discussions about the aesthetic as a ritualized performance, a kawaii phenomenon, and a transnational object (global commodity), in order to understand the impact and importance of the Lolita identity.

Lolita Subculture

The Lolita subculture emerged from the fertile ground of the kawaii or cute craze that began in the 1970s. This started when Japanese youth adopted a kawaii handwriting style, which included not only horizontal writing with loopy letters but also hand-drawn flourishes, such as faces, hearts, and stars, [End Page 48] inserted into the text.5 By the 1980s, Japanese mainstream culture became obsessed with all things kawaii,6 and cuteness has become a significant part of the Lolita subculture, as seen in the use of stuffed animals as accessories and childlike silhouettes.

The 1980s also ushered in the vijuaru kei (visual-kei, or visual style) rock bands, such as Buck-Tick, who wore elaborate make-up and costumes that explored the Lolita look. In the 1990s, visual-kei bands like X Japan and Malice Mizer gained popularity in Japan and helped bring attention to the Lolita subculture...


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pp. 47-63
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