Lolita Fashion History – Social and Cultural Influences in Japan

I think I’ll also make this post in video form, so if you’re not much of a reader please stay tuned, I’ll probably record it next week because I basically have all the info ready! I actually wrote my masters dissertation on Lolita Fashion in the UK so I have a lot of the history books sat around my bedroom; I don’t claim to be any sort of expert but I have read a lot of books so I’ll do my best to pass on what I’ve learned. I particularly recommend “Fashioning Japanese Subcultures” by Yuniya Kawamura. Her writing style is so intuitive and easy to get into you’ll find yourself getting through the whole book in no time. (Links to some books you can read on line at the bottom of this post!!)

The first thing to understand about the origins of Lolita fashion is how the Japanese fashion system works in comparison to the western system.

Trickle Down Fashion System = Class Based

The western fashion system is what we call a trickle down fashion system. That means designers pull their inspiration from a concept, design this concept and present it on the runway. From there, it will literally trickle down designer collections until it eventually reaches the consumer on the high street. By this point the concept is usually watered down to a level that is socially acceptable for everyday wear. The aim of trickle down fashion is that you should aim to climb the social ladder, adhere to trends and aim to appear as someone higher on the social scale.

Bubble Up Fashion System = Personal Identity Based

The prevalent fashion system in Japan is a bubble up system that works in the opposite way. It can be a bit difficult to understand from a western perspective because a bubble up system takes influence from the streets and feelings around what people are already wearing or a general social mood on a consumer level to design the collections. Sometimes this can travel up to high fashion; such as punk style leather jackets appearing on the runway, but then the idea of class and aspiration is given to items which did not initially represent that system. Bubble up fashion is about people trying to find their individuality outside of moving up a class system and instead moving around their personal identities.

I cannot speak for how Japanese society runs day-to-day, I can only talk about what I have heard and read from Japanese authors so please excuse me if I am a little vague writing the next part since I don’t feel as though it’s appropriate for me to speak with any level of authority. However, Japanese society seems to have very rigid rules for behaviour and social etiquette and many have said that the old adage “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is still relevant. However, the youth of Japan have decided that they wanted to take their lives for themselves and not fit into the rigid roles society had set out for them.

I feel as though this is encapsulated particularly well by the adoption of “maru-ji” handwriting; cute, round writing which was quickly banned in schools for illegibility. Japanese writing is a lot about using the correct forms and strokes in the right order, so to deliberately misuse the forms and “write badly” was very rebellious.

There are a few reasons why cuteness might have become a form of self expression for Japanese people:

1. Innocence and youth are considered virtuous and good in society – You might have noticed in Japanese media such as films or even pop groups, people will “graduate” from subcultures or groups in order to move on to a more adult life and perspective, or to settle down and have a family. Until that time of graduation they are allowed that youth and that is accepted as part of the society.

2. The island itself is small, peoples’ general living spaces are small so perhaps they feel an affinity with small items – I am slightly critical of this theory because I live in the UK, which is also a small island, similar island and there are a lot of resplendent mansions and huge buildings here and seemingly no urge for anything to be small. Unless you consider actual body size, where there is a lot of pressure for women to be small sized.

3. Women suddenly had a lot of buying power – Apparently Japan is still quite a sexist society in that there is a lot of workplace inequality and fewer benefits for women to start families. Upon realising this, women felt less pressure to fit into the roles that were previous prescribed to them and instead started to explore their identities and buying the things that appealed to them. They could just enjoy being girls and they bought a lot of girly stuff to appeal to the new lives they wanted to live.

4. The demilitarization of Japan – It would be impossible to say that nuclear bombing did not affect Japan in the slightest. Some Japanese authors have suggested that after the bombing of Japan, and the fact that the country was no longer allowed an army they felt infantile and stripped of all their power. Since then it has reformed its identity as a child nation, attracted to childish things. Not entirely relevant, but interesting nonetheless; the reason we like babies and cute things is because cuteness is ingrained in our brains in some way as a defence measure, we don’t really want to destroy cute stuff.

5. The opening of trade to the world after years of seclusion –  Japan closed its borders for a long time and their culture developed independently from things that were happening in the outside world. When they opened again, lots of new and different things rushed in and lots of exports rushed out and people had to change their identities to reflect this changing society. People had money and buying power and instead formulated their identities around consumerism, as said before. Currently, the “Cool Japan” tourist initiative makes over £240 million per year for the Japanese economy when I last checked. It’s not only the Japanese who like cuteness, it’s the rest of the world too, so it only makes sense for the country to keep pushing it out.

This post has already taken me a longer than I would have liked to write, so, given that we now have a kind of understanding of the atmosphere in Japan when Lolita fashion was being created next time lets talk about the start and evolution of the style!

If you’re interested in this post and want to find out more, here are a couple of books you can read partially on line to get you started:

It’s not available to read on line but I would also recommend “Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed a more formal post from me and feel free to drop me a comment if you have any questions, arguments or suggestions for further posts!