I’m sitting in a cosily cluttered sitting room in Breiðholt, a suburb of Reykjavík about twenty-five minutes from downtown. The coffee table in front of me is spread with cream, jam and pancakes three ways: paper-thin Icelandic crepes, baked Finnish pannukakku and the classic American buttermilk variety, each a nod to the nationalities of the three women bedecked in flounced skirts and perched like iced cupcakes around me.
Mya shuttles between the kitchen and the living room, delivering fresh pancakes as they come off the griddle. As everyone claims to have stuffed themselves before my arrival, I’m the only one eating, precariously balancing my plate on one knee as I scribble notes. I’ve been invited to this intimate pancake party to learn about Lolita fashion culture, its vibrant online forums, and the fledgling Elegant Gothic Lolita community here in Iceland, which now boasts 22 members (10 of whom are active).
The current discussion is centred on the petty criticisms sometimes levelled at fellow Lolitas within “seedier” online forums. I’m told these sub-par message boards are where “the scum of the earth” lurk to dispense judgement on members whose eyebrows, for instance, might be too thick.
“Of course, that’s the secret requirement for Lolitas,” Mya says, sighing with a wave of her spatula. “They have to be total bitches.”
I laugh, but it is a bit hard to take this statement seriously, standing as she is, in a chocolate-striped, knee-length pinafore dress layered over a cream turtleneck and a frilly bell skirt, a pearl necklace and white silk roses in her hair for adornment. She’s covered the ensemble with a red flowered apron and tucked her feet into two oversized slippers, which look like teddy bears wearing strawberry hats. I’m more inclined to believe the assessment of Aino-Katri, who Mya sometimes affectionately calls “Auntie Aino.” Like most subcultures, she says, Lolita “has its elitists,” but in countries like Iceland and Finland, “we are kind to a fault.”
The lonely Icelandic Lolita
It’s Aino’s home we’re all gathered in, and from her seat under shelves of miniature clocks and floral teacups, she tells me how the Iceland Lolitas got together.
In general, Lolitas connect via online forums, mostly hosted through Live Journal (as if, Mya jokes, “it’s still the ‘90s”). These are strictly monitored websites—one I visited featured a page on which dozens of site moderators posted their daily hours of availability to chat, offer feedback, and intervene in member disputes—and they provide an important avenue of support, friendship and second-hand clothing sales for Lolitas worldwide, who may not know others who share their interests.
These forums prominently feature “Daily Lolita” pages where members post pictures of their recent ensembles or “coords” (Lolitas prefer “coordinates” over “outfit,” since the latter can imply that they are wearing costumes) and get feedback (nearly always positive) from other members. As chronically camera-shy Mya points out, it isn’t necessary for these photos to include the wearer’s face—some members photograph their coords on mannequins, and some Photoshop over their faces with hearts. “Lolitas are fairly private, especially because of how people might react to them,” she tells me. “So posting pictures tends to be more about what you’re wearing and your skill at coordinating the fashion.”
Apparently, it is quite common for Lolitas to receive aggressive or negative reactions to their clothing. So most forums also give members space to discuss such problems. One post I found detailed a young woman’s experience wearing her first Lolita outfit in public—one that she had spent months saving up to buy—only to have a can of black paint thrown over her by a passing car. “That’s why I have to give up Lolita all together,” she wrote. “I’m just so discouraged.” This post received over 200 unique comments, nearly all of which encouraged her not to give up, and many of which pushed her to file a police report (which she later did). “Wear that experience with pride,” wrote one commenter. “Turn your black-stained dress into a work of art to remind yourself that there are narrow-minded idiots out there and that you rise above their ignorance.”
For the Iceland Lolitas, approval isn’t a real problem, but finding each other was a convoluted process. When Sigga was studying abroad in Japan, she posted a message online, bemoaning the fact that she didn’t know any other Lolitas in Iceland. Mya, who was actually living in the U.S. at the time, saw the post and quickly contacted Aino: “I told her, ‘Quick! There’s an Icelandic Lolita who’s lonely and abandoned!’”
“It was a match made in heaven when we started talking,” says Sigga, a former fashion design student now studying Japanese at the University of Iceland. Things progressed easily once everyone was in the same country: the community has now expanded beyond an online group and has regular monthly meet ups in member homes and local cafes.
“The only trouble here in Iceland,” says Aino, reminiscing on her favourite group outings in Finland, “is that we can’t have picnics.”
“Maybe if we had a big tent we could have a picnic,” Sigga suggests. “Lolita camping!”
Making the cake
Lolita, which takes its inspiration from Victorian and Rococo aesthetics, began as a street fashion in Japan in the 1980s, and has since gained worldwide popularity. While there are many different styles of Lolita—including Sweet (a frilly, child-like aesthetic), Aristocrat (a more “mature” style, with long skirts and corsets), Classic (English garden party meets Lewis Carroll) and the Gothic (dark, rich colours, puffed sleeves, and elegant, Victorian-styled details), which the Iceland Lolitas’ prefer —Mya is quick to point out that it is absolutely possible to “do it wrong.”
Aino, Mya, and Sigga obviously share an aesthetic, but their own taste and stylistic preferences are clear. For instance, while Mya and Sigga are wearing “brand” clothes, Aino is wearing a frock of her own creation: a pinafore dress made from black checkerboard fabric with all manner of cakes happily striping across it. To this, she’s matched a sheer tie-collar shirt, opaque black lace tights, and a pair of white patent leather Mary Janes. A talented seamstress, Aino loves unique and textured fabrics and makes most of her own Lolita clothes. Her dresses, along with made-to-order bonnets from the U.S. and stacks of elegant kimono, fill a large wardrobe standing in the entrance of her apartment.
Contrasting with Mya’s demure, cream-toned outfit, Sigga is dressed in black from head to toe. Her own pinafore has a Victorian-style tie bodice and is patterned with dark red and pink roses; she’s tied a modest black lace headdress (much like a wide, rectangular headband) atop her hair. Both she and Aino are wearing hairpieces—clip-on bangs they bought online from a Korean wig company and which, they show me, comb quite indistinguishably into their real hair.
As the ladies explain, although Lolitas each have their own styles, there are a whole host of rules—strict rules—that one must adhere to in order to be a proper Lolita. The basic elements of a Lolita outfit, I discover later after some intensive Googling, include headwear, a bell-shaped skirt or jumper which covers the knees, a blouse, bloomers and/or petticoats, high socks or tights, and closed, rounded-toe shoes. “Coordinating a Lolita outfit is a bit like making a cake,” explains the website lolitafashion.org. “You can take away or replace a couple of ingredients, but if you take away the butter, the sugar, and the milk, it just stops being cake.”
When I ask how they get their skirts to be so poofy, all three women stand up, as if on cue, and lift their skirts to display ornate petticoats and bloomers. “This is the only time you’ll see Lolitas do this type of thing,” Aino laughs. “If someone has a really good poof, sooner or later, there’ll be a Lolita peeking up her skirt.”
It might be tempting to see Lolita culture as nothing but dress up, but Aino, Mya, and Sigga all see it as something legitimately meaningful and deeply integral to their growth as individuals, and if the name “Lolita” brings to mind over-sexed underage girls, á la Nabokov, think again. (I’m told that this connotation simply didn’t occur to the first Japanese practitioners.)
Lolitas vehemently eschew modern fashion trends, which they perceive as being unnecessarily revealing. “It’s a modest style that lets you be super, super feminine without looking cheap,” explains Aino. Additionally, Lolita basically reverses Western female beauty aesthetics, exaggerating the hips, and minimizing the breasts. “The dresses tend to flatten you on top,” said Aino. “It can be difficult for Western women, we tend to be quite boobsome. But if your breasts are too obvious, you just look like a ‘50s housewife.” Where modern fashion focuses on sexiness, Lolitas instead devote themselves to elegance, both in fashion and daily life.
Tucking away another pancake and cream, I’m reminded of Oulipian constraints: poems composed according to mathematical equations, books written without using the letter ‘e.’ Lolita culture is beholden to all sorts of rules and formulas and internal scrutiny, but it is also fanciful and playful and, as they freely admit, incredibly hermetic—replete with acronyms and terms and status symbols which are virtually unintelligible to the uninitiated. The three women cheerfully bandy about sentence-length brand names and spritely vocab while describing coveted haute couture dress styles, which many Lolitas rabidly track down as collectors’ items. I’m left with the fashion equivalent of a sugar high, dizzily grasping at the kaleidoscopic words and phrases as they float by: Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. Puppet Circus. Vampire Requiem. Twinkle Mermaid. Alice and the Pirates. Sugary Carnival. Revolutionary Revolution. Colorways. Fragrant Rose Memories.
But, lest you think Lolitas are in any way exclusionary, the ladies also point out that they welcome men as well as women. One of Lolita’s main celebrities is a man: Mana, a Japanese musician and designer who has his own clothing brand and coined the term “Elegant Gothic Lolita.” And there are plenty of regular “Brolitas,” as well—both transgendered women and also men “who just really like to wear dresses.” Provided that you are an earnest and rule-abiding member, Mya says, you’ll be accepted in the Lolita community: “If you’re doing it right, we want you.”
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