By Isabel Vazquez
Fashion speaks volumes about the kind of society we live in today. From Vogue runway shows to local beauty pageants, the fashion world has achieved an astonishing degree of financial and cultural success for an industry that was nearly nonexistent two hundred years ago. From magazines to television commercials, we are constantly bombarded with an idealized style of beauty that relies on the right clothes. Although, on the positive side, fashion can showcase a person’s individuality, it is also true that it plays a role in categorizing people; for example, different brands represent different classes of wealth and social status. If you do not conform to particular fashion norms, you are viewed negatively. The Lolita fashion is definitely viewed in a stigmatizing way.
Fashion is more than just human expression. It is a construct in itself, a creation by humans for humans that often parallels wealth. Though “expensive” clothes do not have inherent value, the fashion world associates a particular identity with certain brands and materials, which in turn creates a perception of social identity. For example, if a man is wearing an expensive, tailored suit, then this man will be perceived as higher in social status than a man who can afford only casual clothes. Similarly, while Lolita fashion expresses a certain identity, it also comes with value judgments for the wearer.
The Lolita style is essentially a mix of Victorian and Edwardian fashion, birthed in Tokyo around the 1970s, and, ever since, it has been steadily expanding as a style around the world. These Lolitas (as the wearers of this fashion are often called) focus on constructing a sweetened, delicate image. The goal of Lolita fashion is to showcase a sweet and doll-like look that can range from Victorian to Gothic to Old School. With an endless array of lace, ribbons and ruffles, the excessive style purposefully creates an almost overwhelming effect to onlookers (Orsini).
However, the Lolita fashion and lifestyle has not always been featured positively in the media. For example, TLC’s My Strange Addiction featured two girls who wear the style. The show freakified the girls by displaying them negatively (and therefore exploiting them) on television. The episode stigmatized and “othered” Emily, one of the two young women featured, focusing on the fact that she was unable to acquire a job because of her appearance. The entire episode quite literally showed a normal, young woman performing everyday tasks, but painted her as freakish due to her Lolita style. The portrayal of Emily functioned like the showcasing of freaks at the sideshow. Audiences paid to view a “freak” in order to define themselves in relation to the otherness on display. At the freak show, audiences not only received entertainment but also a justification of their own superiority over the freak. Audiences of shows like My Strange Addiction experience the exact same effect. As Victoria Suzanne pointed out in her analysis of this particular episode: “The fact that it seemed very scripted makes it even more damning in my eyes—it twisted alternative fashion to fit its own agenda of ‘weirdness’ and it used actual lolitas and fashion enthusiasts to be complicit in our own stereotyping” (Thomson, Suzanne).
In current fashion standards, a certain arrangement of clothing and accessories can create a purposeful “cute look” for the individual, but it is not as exaggerated as the “living doll” effect that Lolitas construct. Therefore, models and wearers of Lolita fashion are more than used to the stares they receive as they go about their typical day. As one article says: “Ashphord Jacoway is used to getting stares when she walks down the streets of her hometown of Los Angeles” (Orsini). Rosemarie Garland Thomson, in The Politics of Staring, describes staring as an objectifying and disciplinary gaze directed towards nonconformists (57). Passersby who perform this stare towards Lolitas do so not just out of curiosity, but with the intent, conscious or not, of controlling the outsider.
This same gaze is often sexual when directed toward Lolitas. Lolitas are criticized for resembling sexualized young girls. This makes them the object of a sexualized gaze that attempts to subdue the other, turning her into an object of pleasure for the gazer. Much like the freaks that had false perceptions thrust upon them on stage, the Lolita fashion is not necessarily an implicitly sexual fashion; rather, in the case of Lolitas, the constructed resemblance of grown women to young girls (who are often sexualized in society) creates this false impression. Inherently, girl clothing on a mature woman does not equate to erotica. Rather, this is a perception created by society because the Lolita is expressing herself in a way that society does not approve. In this society, there exists a stigma dictating that young women and girls should dress more sexually, while mature women should dress more conservatively. And if those boundaries are crossed, the Lolita is sexualized as punishment.
The main difference between freaks and Lolitas is consent. While freaks a century and a half ago were often coerced and exploited on stage for profit, the Lolita chooses how to express herself and yet is treated as a “freak.” As Thomson describes in Extraordinary Bodies, “The freak show is a spectacle, a cultural performance, that gives primacy to visual apprehension in creating symbolic codes and institutionalizes the relationship between the spectacle and the spectator” (60). Though there is no exploitation of this fashion on stage, the way it is presented by the media creates apprehension and instills societal ideas of what is normal and what is not. And regardless of its misrepresentation in the media (and by observers), my ending point for readers to take away is the following: the Lolita is simply a beautiful and fascinating alternative fashion that deserves its own place in the fashion world. Freakifying an entire fashion in order to control the “other” can do an incredible amount of harm.
Orsini, Lauren. “Why These Adults Who Dress Like Dolls Are Ready To Ruffle Reality
TV.” Forbes. Forbes, 20 Oct. 2015. 3 Nov. 2015.
Suzanne, Victoria. “My Strange Addiction: Living Doll.” Parifaitdoll. n.p., 3 Jan. 2014.
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Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in
American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in
Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Brenda
Jo Brueggeman, Sharon Snyder, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York:
MLA, 2002. 56-75.