Although Japan is known for its uniform culture and social highly encouraged rules of social conformity, Tokyo has become the hub of exactly the opposite: youths participate in a wide range of strange fashion subcultures, ranging from Yamamba to Decoras, in order to resist the mainstream culture. Currently, the city remains to be a melting pot of a variety of styles, one of them being Lolita, a street fashion subculture that emerged in Harajuku in the 1980s, but gained popularity in the 1990s. This fashion group is inspired by the general aesthetics of the Victorian and Rocco periods and is still seen on the streets of Tokyo. The Lolita subculture provides insight into the idea of fashion being used as a form of resistance to oppose societal norms when we look at the social, cultural and economic context of Japan during the 1990s.
The structures of Japan remain to be rooted in Confucianism and Feudalism and as a result, the role of women has not shifted either: women are treated as second-class citizens. A glass ceiling exists in all the professional fields and therefore, parents’ pressure their daughters to secure full time jobs until they are wedded and can “retire” to become housewives. Moreover, various Confucian philosophies are also engrained into the culture, such as filial piety, a virtue of respect towards those older than oneself. Ultimately, these societal morals in addition to the major recession period that hit Japan in the 1990s, due to the crash of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, paved a way for the Lolita subculture to carry a meaning of rejecting the homogenous culture of Japan.
Resistance through fashion is to oppose societal norms through clothing and thus, the Lolita subculture emerged as a reaction to the Japanese uniform culture. In addition, this community resists the shift in sexualizing the female body and essentially uses fashion as a marker of their differences like the punks, anarchists and the zoot suiters. The fight to combat the homogenous image begins with visibility and the self-created spectacle. In “’I’m Not Joining Your World:’ Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation”, Portwood-Stacer writes, “By styling themselves in non-mainstream ways, some anarchists make a spectacle of themselves. They seem to invite the looks of others by consciously adorning themselves in ways that stand out from the crowd of more politically moderate subjects…this stylistic production is ‘spectacular’ in the sense that it is meant to be looked at, to be seen by others.” (52). In the same way, Lolita fashion is certainly “spectacular.” Adorned in bows, ruffles, hats and large petticoats, the clothing of this fashion group takes viewers back into the Victorian period, heavily contrasting the mainstream style of dress.
Like the zoot suits, the physically large size of the skirts generates visibility and claims an awareness of their existence in society—an escape of the feeling of anonymity of the densely populated Japanese cities. Refraining from the stylistic norms of Japanese uniform also ties in their resistance to the established values of up-keeping a proper image for the family name. In Japan, drawing attention, especially for females, is heavily discourages and thus, if a young woman is to visibly defy the traditional culture, she is immediately bringing shame onto not only herself, but also to her parents and family members.
In addition to the cultural rules, the economic context of the 1990s allowed this fashion group to reject the mainstream customs. The Tokyo Stock Exchanged crashed in 1992 and it was considered to be a “titanic real-estate bubble burst”. As a result, women were heavily encouraged to find stable careers in order to support themselves and their families from the recession. However, just as the zoot suits represented a resistance to wartime efforts and punk resists the traditional ideology of the working class, the Lolitas resisted entering into the adult world of financial safety—a commonality between the three subculture groups.
Hebdige writes in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, “[The punk subculture]… were, in short, challenging at a symbolic level the ‘inevitability’, the ‘naturalness’ of class and gender stereotypes.” (88-89). Lolita were escaping the corporate world of “career women” while avoiding “salary men” to display the rejection of marriage and the traditional path of becoming a housewife. These two routes were the most common paths for women to ensure economic stability and yet, the Lolitas resisted walking down either. Instead of pursing financial security during this time of economic turmoil, Lolitas were following a similar path of the zoot suiters by spending lavish amounts of money, $200-$300, to buy a Lolita outfit from brand names like Baby, The Starts Shine Bright.
But beyond the pursuit of money and career, the Lolita subculture resistance to the growing normalcy of sexualized dress, male gaze and male-created beauty is highlighted. Although Lolita is clearly a feminine style that is inspired by the Victorian period, it is so hyper feminine, especially the style of the “sweet Lolita”, that it transcends the patriarchal tradition of the original eras and becomes a form of rebellion instead. Japan known for its pornography and historical roots in prostitution, Lolita was a new form of Feminist resistance that emulates innocence, modesty and purity. There is also a definite rejection of other Japanese subcultures that emerged during this time, such as Ganguro, a group that follows a provocative aesthetic.
The Lolita’s use of hyper-feminine clothing to achieve a child-like appearance is clearly a display of the binaries that women are contained to; women cannot look too sexy or too modest. However, Lolita fashion breaks the standards of expressing femininity or sexuality that women are bounded to. In Hebdige’s Subculture, he writes, “These deviation briefly expose the arbitrary nature of the codes which underlie and shape all forms of discourse.” (91). Through the differences in styles, the Lolita resists these binaries of sexualize dress to achieve a girlish and delicate look; they break the standards in which they are boxed in. This aspect of resistance is what enables the Lolita fashion to go beyond Japanese culture and break into other nations as well. For example, the Lolita subculture has a large following in Amsterdam, a city known for its liberal views on sexuality and drugs. The Lolita community returns to demure clothing to dress for themselves and not the male gaze.
The Lolita aesthetic reclaims what defines femininity and allows them to take agency of their own womanhood. Their fashion choices are ultimately used to rebel against the expected norms of the Japanese culture, such as finding a husband and disobeying their parents. In a homologous culture, these defiant acts serve as what Hebdige calls “prison graffiti, merely paying tribute to the place in which they were produce.” (136). Through this we see that the Lolita community are primarily using their differences in order to create a visible resistance to the culturally expected norms. They are labeled as the “other” but by opposing the established regulations, they regain their power to make decisions for themselves.
Bernal, Kathryn. “The Lolita Complex: A Japanese Fashion Subculture and Its Paradoxes.” (2011). Print.
Friedman, Seth. “The Changing Roles of Women in Japanese Society.” The Changing Roles of Women in Japanese Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 2015.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World’: Performing Political Dissent through Spectacular Self-Presentation.” Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism Bloomsbury: 51-73. Print.