It’s common for fashion not to be taken seriously as a medium, but even more so when the genre of fashion is mostly made by and for women. Lolita fashion is a feminine style in which appealing to the male gaze isn’t even a factor. At Tekko, an annual Japanese pop culture convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (April 11-14), Lolitas from all across the country will converge to show off and celebrate their love of the fashion.
“Tekko is one of the few conventions that takes its fashion track seriously,” says Puvithel Rajan, a local designer who creates Lolita fashion and other J-fashion (Japanese fashion) styles under her brand, Puvithel. "We have a major problem right now where conventions don't value fashion — Japanese style fashion — at all." Rajan attributes the problem to the fact that conventions are often run by men who don't necessarily understand the value or popularity of the fashion.
Emma Bottari, who runs Lolita Collective, an online store that sells dozens of independent Western designers out of Chicago, and helps bring designers and personalities to Tekko, has similar feelings about the convention world. "We, on the whole, don't find that people take this content seriously and part of the problem is that, historically speaking — and this is definitely a larger conversation about handiwork and women's labor and stuff like that — convention fashion tracks have been entirely volunteer labor," says Bottari.
According to Sara Mariacher, J-fashion manager at Tekko, the convention is "currently the only convention on the East Coast with consistent high caliber fashion guests." As part of her role, Mariacher coordinates fashion shows, tea parties (big in the Lolita community), and other logistics.
Lolita fashion began in Japan, before expanding to the United States and other Western countries. The fashion draws inspiration from European Victorian-era fashion, relishing in ruffles, petticoats, bows, and other details to make up carefully coordinated outfits. The aesthetic can vary from cutesy to Goth, but the color palettes often veer toward lighter pinks, whites, and pastels. (And to clear up any confusion, Lolita fashion has no correlation with the Vladimir Nabokov book.)
Lolita fashion is known for its distinct hyper-femininity. The outfits are intricate, elaborate, and costly, all things that are the antithesis of the current minimalism fashion trend and fast-fashion production. But these aspects are also what Lolitas value so much about their community.
While the outfits can seem expensive — a full look can easily cost over $200 — the price reflects the amount of labor and material that goes into each piece, something the average person would rather not consider when buying clothes. "It's not actually that expensive, just fast fashion has trained us to not know what actual clothes are worth anymore," says Rajan. Whereas fast fashion relies on cheap labor and clothes that are seemingly disposable, Lolita fashion celebrates independent designers and a way to dress deliberately, while also creating an aesthetic that can feel freeing to those who wear it.
Many Lolitas find comfort and safety in the way the Lolita fashion allows them to express themselves. Rajan notes that many Lolitas have a similar origin story of growing up hating dresses and other "girly" clothing, but pivoted when they discovered Lolita fashion. "It's about femininity and girliness but for women's gaze, not for the male gaze," she says. "I think at the time I had never seen anything like that before."
For Bottari, who says she wore baggy clothes growing up as a protective mechanism, finding Lolita fashion gave her an outlet. "It really was a way to be hyper-feminine and be comfortable with being female, [and] be comfortable with a lot of different aspects of being a woman that I hadn't really felt safe in before, and Lolita created a safe space for me," she says.
A standard Lolita outfit includes a dress or jumper skirt, a blouse with sleeves, a petticoat or crinoline (bloomers are suggested), a headpiece, over-the-knee socks and/or tights, and any variety of accessories. While Lolita fashion has historically had rules about things like skirt length and color coordination, Bottari says many of those rules have softened in the years since she grew up in the community, and those wanting to become part of it shouldn't be intimidated.
"The most important part of Lolita to me has always been self-expression, like finding a way to live your life how you'd like to and express it through clothing."