I was merely 11 when I discovered the subculture of Japanese fashion broadly referred to as “Elegant Gothic Lolita.” I was then addicted to America’s Next Top Model, the combination of beautiful women, clothes, and world travel made my tiny, newly-adolescent heart beat rapidly.
In the third season of the show, the “International Fashion Destination” chosen for the contestants to visit was Tokyo, Japan. The models-to-be were forced to participate in various culturally cringe-worthy challenges, including bastardizing the tea ceremony and performing a Campbell’s Soup commercial in Japanese. A highlight of the trip, however, was a street style challenge that sent the contestants into the shopping districts of Harajuku and Shinjuku. One contestant, Amanda, wandered into Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, one of the most famous Lolita brands both past and present.
Researching this store on my Windows 98 desktop quickly revealed a land of ruffles and frills, lace and petticoats. Girls around the world were dressing in a style reminiscent of the French Rococo period, hanging out and having tea and macarons together. At the time, the style was steadily gaining ground in the United States. LiveJournal communities served as hubs for discussion and clothing trades.
In the early 2000’s, one of the most difficult elements of EGL (a common abbreviation for “Elegant Gothic Lolita”) was how difficult the clothes were to access outside of Japan. Most brands’ websites contained no English text and no online ordering capabilities. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright was one of the only brands at the time to accept overseas orders. Even then, one had to pay by money order and the timeline from initiating the sale to receiving your frilly glory in the mailbox could be quite extended. If you wanted other brands, you would have to use a shopping service or purchase re-sale items from others in the community.
I haunted the EGL community for several months before delving in and making my first purchase. As pre-teen, this presented a variety of problems. The foremost of those problems being that I had no money. Acquiring money would involve asking my parents. Asking my parents would involve a long and detailed explanation that the name of the style being “Lolita” had nothing to do with the Nabokov novel of the same name and thus wasn’t some elaborate scheme to make young women objectify themselves. It’s a speech that anyone involved in EGL fashion becomes all-too familiar with.
My parents, fortunately, didn’t take too much offense to the idea of dressing myself like a porcelain doll. Perhaps it was a viable alternative to the mall-goth wardrobe I usually sported, or the Limited Too couture of my classmates. A combination of saved allowance money and shrugging parental support gave me the capacity to order an on the cheaper side dress from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright.
A month later, I received a heavily taped and stamped package that contained a knee-length pink frock and an off-white parasol (for good measure). An old tutu, elastic stretched to its maximum level, served as a petticoat. I wore this with knee-high white socks which, now that I think about it, might actually have been old folks’ compression socks. My shoes were from Wal-Mart and clearly intended for Catholic church. By all means, I was a rather unfortunate looking Lolita. Yet, when I put on my ensemble I felt insanely fabulous.
So fabulous that I was possessed enough to dress this way to school. Middle school at that. The haven of bullying. I wasn’t even at my locker before a teacher came up to me and asked me if he had missed the memo about a costume contest. Miraculously, these comments failed to faze me. Before life beat it out of me, I really liked the attention I got for being “different.”
I love Lolita fashion because there is something inherently subversive in dressing so delicately. In recalling aspects of Rococo, the Victorian era, the 1950’s, it’s a style that draws on standards of female beauty that have long been abandoned. There is power in reclaiming these concepts, in embracing modesty purely as an individual rather than a societal choice.
When I was involved in the Lolita community, the variety of those interested and active in the style never ceased to fascinate me. There were women of color, androgynous men and women, people who loved heavy metal, people who loved rap, people from the city and the suburbs, people who loved anime and people who had never seen a single second of Sailor Moon. The uniting factor was simply the clothes.
Lolita fashion was just one of the many victims of my high school apathy. I gave up on the style after a few blissful years of frills. Yet, unlike other interests that fell by the wayside, I’ve managed to maintain tabs on the EGL community. It’s been fascinating to watch Lolita go from the fringes to a viable style in the U.S. There’s even now a Baby, The Stars Shine Bright boutique about five minutes from my apartment in New York City. Fate?
I’ve also held onto all of my Lolita clothes and never bothered to pawn them off, despite the fact it’s been over 10 years since the last time I pulled on a petticoat. Yet I revisit them from time to time in the depths of my closet. Sometimes I’m even tempted to indulge in the style once more. Lace or no lace, I’ll always be a Lolita at heart.
Illustration by Devyn Park