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“Maiden's Armor”: Global Gothic Lolita Fashion Communities and Technologies of Girly Counteridentity

  • Michelle Liu Carriger

It starts with a dress, or dresses. Among a menagerie of rainbow variations, certain features are standard: lace and ruffle-decked blouses under jumpers, aprons, or high-waisted belled and crinolined knee-length skirts; more skin covered than bare; headwear including bonnets, miniature hats, or massive bows over ringlets and long tresses. So many ruffles; so much lace (Fig. 1). Beginning in the late 1990s, gothic lolitas—overwhelmingly young women in their teens and twenties, and overwhelmingly girly in their outsized bows, platform Mary Jane shoes, and petticoated skirts—stood out as defiantly, bizarrely out of place and time on the Tokyo street scene, all bright white and concrete in Harajuku, a built-up postwar neighborhood of Tokyo known as a youth haven since the 1960s. More than twenty years later, although most Harajuku fashions have died out in keeping with a fad's typically short life cycle, the gothic lolitas have persisted and even multiplied, thanks in large part to the Internet, which has helped muster an army of misfit girl aristocrats not just in Japan but around the globe.

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1. Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma monogatari), directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (Japan, 2004). DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles. San Francisco: VIZ Pictures, 2006.

2. See, for example, Explaining It Away” in Wilson, Elizabeth, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, 2d ed. ([1985]; London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), 4766.

3. I'm thinking here of works by Richard Schechner, for example, an antitheatrical habit of early performance studies ably explicated by Bottoms, Stephen J., “The Efficacy/Effeminacy Braid: Unpicking the Theatre Studies/Performance Studies Dichotomy,” Theatre Topics 13.2 (2003): 173–87.

4. Here I am borrowing an evocative term from Iwabuchi, Koichi's theorization of Japanese cultural exports in Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 27–8.

5. This elucidation of my method and concerns around how theorizing affects contemporary subculture is composed especially in dialogue with Evans, Caroline' work on subculture in Evans, “Dreams That Only Money Can Buy … Or, The Shy Tribe In Flight from Discourse,” Fashion Theory 1.2 (1997): 169–88.

6. For more exhaustive encyclopedic treatments, see Winge, Theresa, “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita,” Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human (2008): 4763; and An Nguyen, “Maiden's Fashion as Eternal Becomings: Victorian Maidens and Sugar Sweet Cuties Donning Japanese Street Fashion in Japan a North America” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Program in Anthropology, University of Western Ontario, 2012), Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository, 1042, accessed 20 July 2018,

7. David Graham, “Gothic Lolitas: Goth Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!” Gothic eZine, n.d. [2003], accessed 3 May 2018,

8. Wilkins, Amy C., Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and Status (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 44.

9. For example, ibid., 25; Hodkinson, Paul, Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture, 8th ed. (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 79; Goodlad, Lauren M. E. and Bibby, Michael, “Introduction” in Goth: Undead Subculture, ed. Goodlad and Bibby (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 137, at 12–13; Baddeley, Gavin, Goth Chic (London: Plexus, 2002), 19.

10. Vera Mackie, “Transnational Bricolage: Gothic Lolita and the Political Economy of Fashion,” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 20 (April 2009), accessed 31 August 2018,, ¶25.

11. Kawamura, Yuniya, Fashioning Japanese Subcultures (New York: Berg, 2012), 72.

12. Ibid., 29. “Style tribes” is a contested term for fashion subcultures used by Caroline Evans and Ted Polhemus, among other influential fashion and subculture scholars.

13. Valerie Steele et al., Japan Fashion Now, exh. cat., Museum at FIT, New York City, 17 September 2010–8 January 2011 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 96.

14. “Moi-même-Moitié: Elegant, Gothic Lolita, Aristocrat, Vampire, Romance,” accessed 3 May 2018,

15. We might think of this process as roughly analogous to but predating the phenomenon of the “social media celebrity”—many examples of which, of course, have also created their own spaces not just through the knack of crafting viral images, but through savvy combinations of institutional assistance and framing, which is usually obscured.

16. Caroline Evans describes the analogue dynamic in the the street style-inflected British magazines The Face and i-D in Evans, , “Dreams That Only Money Can Buy … Or, The Shy Tribe In Flight from Discourse,” Fashion Theory 1.2 (1997): 169–88, at 176.

17. There is much to be said about Japan's “Cool Japan” and other soft-power campaigns. See Miller, Laura, “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology 20.1 (2011): 1829, at 19–20. Also Iwabuchi, e.g., 32–4.

18. Robertson, Jennifer, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 66; Anan, Nobuko, Contemporary Japanese Women's Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls’ Aesthetics (Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 33.

19. See, for example, Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan, ed. Freedman, Alisa, Miller, Laura, and Yano, Christine Reiko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 6.

20. Isaac Gagné’s 2008 article on linguistics and gothic lolita contains much more on the subject of language, writing, and gothic lolitas: Gagné, , “Urban Princesses: Performance and ‘Women's Language’ in Japan's Gothic/Lolita Subculture,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18.1 (2008): 130–50.

21. Douglas Quenqua, “They're Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve,” New York Times, 27 February 2012, accessed 26 August 2018,

22. The plural of Japanese nouns is the same as the singular: one shōjo, two shōjo.

23. Quoted in Treat, John Whittier, “Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: Shōjo Culture and the Nostalgic Subject,” Journal of Japanese Studies 19.2 (1993): 353–87, at 363.

24. Freeman, Elizabeth, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.

25. Anan, 2.

26. Ibid., 7.

27. “Justine,” a Japanese lolita, in an interview with An Nguyen, 1 May 2010. Nguyen, 213.

28. Anan, 9.

29. Mai, Jane and Nguyen, An, So Pretty/Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture (Toronto: Koyama Press, 2017), 15; Kyla Daniéll Robinson, “Empowered Princesses: An Ethnographic Examination of the Practices, Rituals, and Conflicts within Lolita Fashion Communities in the United States” (honors thesis, Georgia State University, 2014), 96, accessed 20 July 2018,; Hinton, P. R., “Returning in a Different Fashion: Culture, Communication, and Changing Representations of Lolita in Japan and the West,” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 15821602; and Kathryn Adèle Hardy Bernal, “The Lolita Complex: A Japanese Fashion Subculture and Its Paradoxes” (M.Phil. thesis, AUT University, 2011), accessed 20 July 2018,

30. Mackie, ¶24.

31. Gagné, 135.

32. Ngai, Sianne, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 4.

33. Frances Richards, “Fifteen Theses on the Cute,” Cabinet 4: Animals, accessed 4 May 2018,, ¶IX.

34. Plourde, Lorraine, “Babymetal and the Ambivalence of Cuteness,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 21.3 (2016): 293307, at 295.

35. Kinsella, Sharon, “Cuties in Japan,” in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, ed. Scov, Lise and Moeran, Brian (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon, and Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995), 220–54, at 222.

36. Anan, 22–3.

37. “Kamikaze Girls” is a choice of “translation” that has nothing to do with lolita fashion or Takemoto's narrative. Shimotsuma is a town in Ibaraki prefecture, about two hours outside Tokyo by rail; Shimotsuma monogatari simply means “Shimotsuma Story” and comes off as a tongue-in-cheek nod to classical Japanese titling conventions—e.g., Genji monogatari for The Tale of Genji.

38. Kamikaze Girls, DVD subtitles.

39. Mai and Nguyen, 9.

40. Michelle MacKay, Rufflechat Facebook post, 21 August 2018; accessed 27 August 2018,

41. Cf. Nguyen, 262–3.

42. These are paraphrases from the Rufflechat community on Facebook; the same dynamics typically hold everywhere where lolitas get together to discuss. A convenient ethnographic bonus to the rise of the Internet is how many frank conversations among subjects are now preserved complete with timestamps. Rufflechat, accessed 27 August 2018,

43. Kondo, Dorinne K., Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 149–50. Honne and tatemae also correspond neatly with Erving Goffman's sociological concepts of front- and backstage in The Performance of Self in Everyday Life.

44. Although numerous videos offering gothic lolita–specific advice for posing exists if you search, here is one that recaps the 2015 RuffleCon posing workshop, accessed 28 July 2018:

45. Here, for example, is the permalink to an in-depth conversation among Anglophone lolitas regarding their personal impressions of the overlap between non-Japanese lolitas and queer identity: Rufflechat, Facebook, accessed 28 July 2018:

46. Kathryn A. Hardy-Bernal, “Novala Takemoto's Shimotsuma monogatari: Kamikaze Girls and the Japanese Lolita,” posted 1 September 2009, accessed 24 August 2018,

47. Nguyen, 275.

48. See, for example, Rufflechat, Facebook, accessed 28 July 2018,

49. See Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990); and Chow, Rey, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

50. Secrets Post #239, Behind the Bows, accessed 27 August 2018,

51. Quoted in Keiichirō Nakagawa and Rosovsky, Henry, “The Case of the Dying Kimono: The Influence of Changing Fashions on the Development of the Japanese Woolen Industry,” Business History Review 37.1–2 (1963): 5980, at 62.

52. In other work I address the Meiji Restoration and adoption of Western fashions thoroughly. See Michelle Liu Carriger, “Theatricality of the Closet: Clothing Controversy in Victorian Britain and Meiji Japan” (Ph.D. diss., Theatre and Performance Studies, Brown University, 2013), and my forthcoming first book (working title, Modes of ReDress).

53. Meech-Pekarik, Julia, The World of Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1986), 151.

54. Takemoto, Novala, Kamikaze Girls, trans. Wegmüller, Akemi (San Francisco: Viz Media, 2002), 111.

55. Ho, Elizabeth, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London: Continuum, 2012), 9.

56. Ibid., 11.

57. “‘オシャレな子が撮れなくなった’: スナップ誌「FRUiTS」が月刊行を終了した理由,” accessed 24 August 2018,; translation mine.

58. Marc Bain, “Japan's Wild, Creative Harajuku Street Style Is Dead. Long Live Uniqlo,” accessed 3 May 2018,

59. See, for example, numerous Internet clothing sales with the tag “Leaving Lolita” as a headline.

60. Takarano, Arika, “Oh Maiden, Advance with a Sword and a Rose,” Gothic & Lolita Bible 4 (Los Angeles: TOKYOPOP, 2008), 1011, at 11.

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