Monday, July 26, 2010
A young girl on the trolley wears an a-line plaid skirt, 50s style, and a giant red satin bow in her short pageboy-cut hair. We're on our way to downtown San Diego for Comic-Con, so an oversized bow is a minor anomaly. The woman in the seat next to us is wearing a wedding dress and fangs, and Boba Fett just boarded. A big bow hardly stands out, but I ask her about it anyway.
Bridget Fitch, 17, tells me she dresses in Lolita style, though she's quick to clarify it has "nothing to do with the book." Fitch says it's a style of dress that emerged in the late 90s in Tokyo, Japan, and has since found a small and devoted following with young women – late teens, early twenties - throughout the US.
"There's a Lolita meet-up tomorrow at Comic-Con and you should come," she eagerly extends an invitation. Curious, I agree to be there and we part ways at the Con, immediately swept up in the throngs of fans with their oversized plastic bags moving toward the convention center.
As I walk around the Con that day, I notice a bow here, and a printed, puffy skirt there. A set of pink knee socks and a white shirt with a bound collar catch my eye. I ask a girl if she's dressed in the Lolita style and she nods with a smile. I'm thrilled I got it right.
The name Lolita comes with cultural baggage. Since the 1955 publication of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel, the name Lolita has become synonymous with sexually precocious teenage girls. The protagonist of Nabokov's novel, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed, and sexually involved, with a 12-year-old girl. The pop culture version of the term Lolita assumes that a young woman could be a seductress.
At the Comic-Con Lolita meet-up on Saturday, the Lolita girls insist again that the style has nothing to do with the book. Christine Ta, 20, says the style is not about sex at all. "If you look at the style, it's the exact opposite." Ta says it started in Japan with young girls trying to subvert expectations men have for the way women dress. According to the young women standing around gathered at the Con, the Lolita style is meant to emphasize "cute" or "playful," not "sexy."
Sara Breuer, 19, says there are generally three kinds of Lolitas: Sweet Lolitas (of which these girls are representative), Gothic Lolitas and Classic style (which is more Victorian looking). Each of these styles is at the mercy of trends and fads, so a certain shirt may be in style for a few months, and then suddenly out. The timeless Lolita accessories that Sweet, Gothic, and Classic Lolitas all incorportate are knee length skirts, petticoats, knee socks, and headwear of some kind, especially bows.
Courtney Riley is 19 and lives in San Diego. She organized the Lolita meet-up at Comic-Con. Riley has long, white-blonde hair (I couldn't tell if it was a wig), wears bunny ears, and pink eyeshadow that perfectly matches her dress. She says Sweet Lolita's are all about girly, playful prints, with things like "crazy hyper bunnies" on skirts and jumpers.
She and the other girls admit that dressing in the right Lolita style is not cheap. A dress like the one Riley wears costs around $300, and then there's the accessories: bows ($35-50), shoes ($150 or more), petticoats, knee socks, jewelry, etc. Fitch says she does a lot of babysitting to afford the style.
And getting the style right is key. Christine Ta said she did "a ton of research" before she "rocked" the style because it's so intimidating. In fact, there's a term for getting the Lolita style wrong. A girl trying to be Lolita but failing can be called "ita," which translates as "hurts my eyes."
San Diegans Riley and Fitch say San Diego's Lolita community is composed of roughly 20 girls, whereas San Francisco has a community closer to 50.
Outside of conventions like Comic-Con, the main socializing force for Lolitas is the internet. There are online stores and how-to sites for creating Lolita outfits. There are also very active online forums for the Lolita community. Fitch says the forums are how everyone stays in touch, but they "can be also be full of drama." In fact, Fitch insists that the Lolita style "could have been as big as steampunk, but there's just so much silly drama."
Deidre Funk shows up to the meet-up in what's known as boy style or dandy in Lolita culture. Wearing a top hat, black pants, a Victorian blouse and vest, Funk explains that one of the greatest misconceptions of Lolitas is that they are wearing costumes. "It's not a costume! People in costumes are trying to be someone else and we're just ourselves. This is the way we want to dress."
Funk is from Iowa. She says there are - maybe - 6 other Lolitas in the entire state, so coming to Comic-Con gives her a chance to share her love for the style.
Another trolley ride and I spot her right away - a black and white poofy skirt, a slight bow in her hair. I confidently ask her if she's going to the Lolita meet-up. Her name is Laura Mosqueira and she lives in Tijuana where writes a blog called Cute Latte and moderates a Spanish language forum for Lolitas. I take her picture, and I notice she puts her fingers up to her cheek, as if to emphasize her dimples. She's not the first Lolita to do this when my camera comes out, so I ask her where it comes from. "Probably all the pictures of the Japanese girls on the internet posing that way. We try to do it too." With that, she skips off toward Comic-Con, looking like a spark of girlish frills in a sea of fanboys.