Pretty in Pink
My introduction to Lolita culture happened about 10 years ago. One of my Japantown rituals was to spend an hour flipping through all the pricey, cutting-edge Japanese fashion mags that I couldn’t afford at Kinokuniya Stationery. Among them was FRUiTS , the iconic Harajuku street fashion mag that introduced Japanese fashion subcultures to the world, and for me, inspired an era of experimenting with loud, crazy clothes and hairstyles in my 20s.
I never dabbled in Lolita, though – which at its inception was mostly of the Gothic persuasion – but I appreciated it for its wacky boldness. In 2005, I made a couple of trips to Japan and saw Lolita in the flesh on the streets of Tokyo. It didn’t phase me, but if you had told me that five years later, I’d see American girls in Lolita hanging out in San Francisco, I would’ve said you were nuts. The extreme fashion trend seemed like one that would get lost in translation.
But lo and behold, last fall I started noticing small gaggles of mostly non-Asian girls in their late teens and early 20s decked out in puffy baby doll dresses, knee socks, bows, bonnets, and crazy platform-heeled Mary Janes indulging at Sophie’s Crepes and posing for purikura (Japanese photo booth pictures) at Pika Pika in the Japan Center. At first, I assumed there was some kind of convention going on nearby, but after several sightings, I realized that a local population of Lolitas had quietly established a community – a real-life Field of Dreams .
I wanted to know more about this San Francisco branch of Lolita and decided that the first step to understanding it would involve getting into a frilly petticoat. And if I was going to do that, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright in NEW PEOPLE was the place for it. The Japantown Baby location – its only retail location in the U.S. – is the epicenter for San Francisco Lolita. The label is one of the main Lolita fashion brands in Japan, specializing in the subset of Sweet Lolita fashion, a style noted for over-the-top child fantasy themes and a pastel palette; it’s like Sanrio had a baby with a seven-layer cake on the set of Home Shopping Network’s “The Doll Shop” hour.
Decked out in a simple red-and-black Gothic-inspired Sweet Lolita outfit, Baby store employee Angelica Lyons greeted me with a smile when I stepped off the elevator and entered the store. I would be trying on four different Lolita looks that morning. Although Angelica personally prefers the Elegant Gothic Lolita – or “EGL” as its referred to in the scene – styles over the Deco-Loli look (rainbow pastels, heavy makeup, and over-the-top accessories), she had no problem when I suggested we go Deco for my first outfit.
Angelica handed me a busy strawberry and cherry print jumper and a long-sleeved white blouse with a lace-rimmed Peter Pan collar. I easily stepped into the white petticoat that would help fill out my skirt, but found that I needed help putting on the dress. Even after loosening the corset ties and halter straps, I wasn’t sure how to put the darn thing on. Fortunately, Angelica, who helps customers in and out of these outfits all day, was more than willing to give me a hand. After squeezing me in and zipping me up, she topped me off with a floppy lace headpiece, like a cherry on a sundae.
Other looks I tried included Gothic Lolita (complete with a killer black-brimmed dress hat that would make Jan Wahl envious), the more masculine Aristocrat look (tasseled platform shoes and flowy corset-tie bell-bottoms – and in case you’re wondering, not a good look for me), and the less-blingy Classic Lolita style (Estella Havisham, eat your heart out). Angelica sounded completely sincere when she said that Lolita suited me. I had to admit, she was right; I made a great baby doll.
Now that I had literally walked in the shoes of Lolita, I wanted to get personal with the members of the community. A little googling brought me to Carousel of Crowns , a San Francisco–based Lolita fashion blog run by Umi, the bass player in J-Rock band akai SKY. Umi invited me to meet up with four other Lolitas for brunch at Samovar Tea Lounge in the Yerba Buena Center.
My research on Googs also brought me to a bunch of Lolita sites that outlined strict fashion guidelines. Because many Lolitas are in their mid-teens, some of the sites were filled with snarky comments and haughty IMHO statements. With most complete outfits going for $500–$700, I wondered how these teens afforded their clothing. I was worried about finding myself in the midst of an awkward meeting with a group of catty, bratty Veruca Salt types whom I’d have nothing to talk to about, or worse yet, who’d snub me for being too old.
I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out that Umi’s Lolitas were in their mid-20s to late 30s. All of them are established members of the community: Umi’s got her blog , Sarah Ruth owns Lolita clothing company Pink Macaroon , Lydia Chen is a professional photographer, Jennifer Kao runs Lolita clothing import site Clothing-Drop , and Lynda Leung is CEO of the Angelic Pretty resale site StarryCandyBox and the nonprofit fashion event organization Cosplay Oneesan .
When we entered Samovar, the staring began. A woman and her child came up to admire the girls, but most people just gawked. I felt the eyes boring holes into us (well, them), but the Lolitas were doing a good job of being nonchalant about it all. When a woman asked, “What are you guys all dressed up for?” The girls casually said, “A gathering,” and left it at that.
Actually, the brunch was entirely normal, aside from the bonnets and crinoline. Now that I come to think of it, it was kind of like being in a bizarro episode of Sex and the City . Sweet Sarah (the girly Charlotte type) talked about being pregnant. (I had no idea Sarah was carrying until she told me. Celebs take note: Jumper skirts are a perfect way to hide a baby bump). Umi, the Carrie, announced her engagement. Lynda, the 36-year-old “Business Lolita,” aka Samantha, referred to herself in passing as the “Osama Bin Laden of Lolita” because of her knack for taking on ambitious projects that many would consider risky.
So I got that they were older, had real jobs, and could afford all the gear, but I still wondered what motivates them to wear the style. These successful, business-savvy women have nothing to prove, so why do it? Lydia was quick to point out that they are not “Lifestyle Lolitas,” or people who dress in the style every day. They wear it when they go out on special Lolita outings and meet-ups, whether it’s to Lolita-friendly shops like Crown & Crumpet tea salon at Ghirardelli Square, shopping at Baby, or outings at the San Francisco Zoo.
If you’re going to wear Lolita in everyday situations, it’s a look you have to own. As Sarah explained, it’s “empowering and subversive to wear Lolita.” Like punk, mod, or other distinctive fashion styles, Lolita is not a costume. In fact, if you really want to piss off a Lolita, just ask her if she’s into cosplay, or the roleplaying subculture that’s known for dressing up as anime characters.
Aside from the cosplay thing, the Lolitas I met didn’t follow any rules about what is and isn’t Lolita. Maybe because they’ve been doing it for so long, they’re open to other comrades who are doing something different. According to Lynda, a “Lolita gold rush of the west” is taking place, and the scene is starting to carve out its niche in new places, thriving most successfully in metropolitan areas where difference is celebrated. So I guess it’s not so nuts that a tribe has taken root here, in this weird, welcoming wonderland, after all.
You don’t have to fly out to Japan to find the latest Lolita looks. Go to Baby, the Stars Shine Bright in the NEW PEOPLE mall. If you’re looking for new Lolita enthusiast friends, a group will be gathering in Japantown at the Cherry Blossom Festival on April 11th for the Gothic & Lolita Fashion Contest at 1:30 p.m. at NEW PEOPLE. You can also join the Lolita Lunch, which takes place at San Francisco State on Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. at the quad. Find other Bay Area Lolita on Facebook and Livejournal .