Gothic Lolitas Presenting the Extraordinary Secret Self

Anne Peirson-Smith

Anne Peirson-Smith

In this article, I will first address the Gothic Lolita trend in terms of the notion of dressing up and the presentation of the spectacular, non-normative presentation of self or multiple selves. Next, I will examine this specific dressing up activity by the fashion tribe of Gothic Lolitas in terms of their assumed Gothic inspired identities. Finally, I will fuse these themes together by suggesting that although quintessentially Japanese in origin, the Loli-Goth or Goth-Loli tribes in South East Asia, as a form of cultural hybridisation, have significant connections and share parallel universes with their global Goth-Loli sisterhood and other neo style tribes, whilst adopting their own unique cultural take on their appearance and lifestyle underpinning this distinctive sartorial practice.

In doing so, the Goth-Loli trend masquerades as pure entertainment, yet can be seen as a form of dark fun, and as a counterpoint to the postmodern pressures of the human condition in contemporary Asian Cities and specifically within the city spaces of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

The wearing of an extraordinary costume connected to a theme symbolically transforms the identity of the player enabling them to represent their ordinary self in a new guise through role play.

Costume, therefore. Becomes a kind of magical instrument. Stone’s analysis of the transformative quality of fantasy costumes adopted by children at play during their early phases of socialisation has relevance to the process of dressing up in costume as a general activity amongst people of all ages across a range of contexts from theatre, festivals and masquerade events to fan based subcultures.

Dressing up in the guise of a Gothic Lolita enables the player in their spectacular presentation of self to transcend the acknowledged roles first encountered in the fantastic socialisation phase of childhood development.

Here, the costumed player appears to be projecting the secret self into the public domain, adapting Eicher’s typology of the three personas manifested through dress via public, private and secret selves.

In communicating an identity the public persona is revealed to everyone, signalling the demographic features and professional garb of the wearer, whilst the private self, familiar to friends and family, is based on the clothing of relaxation and leisure, and the secret self or bedroom self is a restricted zone reserved for the individual and intimates based on the wearing of fantasy dress.

This tripartite model also has gender implications, according to Eicher, who proposed that women were more at liberty to pursue their fantasies and dress up as their secret selves, whilst men were more confined, as a rule, to expressing themselves only in public and private dress.

Certainly, there seem to be more females involved in the Lolita dressing up brigade, constituting a visible sisterhood. Yet, males are becoming increasingly involved in the Goth Loli scene, pointing to a queering of the genre. Whilst many female Goth Lolis interviewed passed this cross-dressing trend off as mere mimicry and appeared intent on denying any notion of transgender subversion, this development also mirrors the performative androgyny, gender subversion, and gender fluidity of the wider Goth neo-culture.

The creative and spectacular excesses of Japanese youth fashion on the streets of Tokyo and its style and fashion vortexes in Harajuku and Shibuja, is often seen as the source for style tribes such as the Goth Lolis.

The rationale behind this profusion of eyeball popping street fashion may be located in the changing socio-economic landscape. Japanese youth street culture has ironically flourished as an expression of creative individuality where fashion is being used to challenge the traditional conformist and collectivist value systems.

A sense of belonging and self have become invested in an assumed Gothic persona, and its connection to a potentially anti-social, subculture, is often at odds with traditional Asian cultural values.

Amongst the profusion of style tribal groupings, enter Gothic Lolita from the late 1990s — or Goth Loli, for short. This is a fandom fixated by fashion and which also continues the Gothic preoccupation with clothes or costume in the search for self. The “look” then is depicted by a hyper-feminine take on the Victorian porcelain doll whose outfits comprise a black and white knee length dress or skirt in cotton or taffeta and a ruffled high neck blouse decorated with ribbon or lace trim with under-petticoats or bloomers, worn with long knee socks, black platform shoes or boots and a black and white lace headdress.

To complete the look, a black parasol, crucifix, black lace gloves and black lace or grosgrain/silk handbag often in the shape of a bat or coffin may be donned. In terms of bodily appearance, hair is worn long and curled, often in the form of a dark wig; make-up is minimal but based on death-mask-like, white foundation, red or black lipstick and kohl or black eyeliner — all sparingly applied and only worn when dressing in character (in stark contrast to contemporary Western Goths).

In essence, for the Goth Loli style tribe the blending of sources and styles all add to the aesthetics of the look which is slavishly authentic in its stylised black and white lacy clothes and accessories as directed by the Gothic and Lolita Bible providing insider knowledge about Goth Loli clothes, accessories and make-up with advice on how to buy or create the Lolita look at home or off the shelf.

This leads us to question — what is the real connection between Goth-Lolis and the Gothic? Also, in the true Gothic tradition, what, and how much if anything, has been borrowed or plundered from the past and how does this visually manifest itself across cultural boundaries?

Gothic styles across art, architecture and literature have always been about Visi-Goth-like “plundering the past for artefacts and ideas that will anachronistically express current tastes” in various revivals that sought to articulate a mythic nostalgia for an imagined past. As a consequence, the Gothic, across time, space and place have always been based on multi-levelled meanings articulating various cultural ideologies.

In this way, Goth Lolis continue the trend of utilising familiar Gothic motifs — black clothes, crucifixes, coffins, bats, pale skin and dark looks — to signal and enact their identity in a liminal, performative and material manner, whilst also reflecting the shadow-like aesthetics and sensibilities of a Gothic world inhabited by the youth followers of global Gothic style and fashion trends.

The Goth Loli connection with traditional Gothic sources resides more at the aesthetics of the surface than perhaps do other Gothic subcultures or neo-cultures, in the sense that it is really all about the visual presentation of the secret self. Most Goth Loli respondents in this study, when questioned about the meaning or source of the Gothic, related it to Gothic Lolita trends, and failed or refused to connect outside of this frame. Yet, they did appear to aspire towards a mythical vision of, and a longing for, an imagined past of a historic romantic Rococo or Baroque European traditions, despite the fact that they appeared to mix and match their outfits irrespective of historical knowledge or authenticity.

The surface expression of Gothic-ness at the corporeal level also aligned with a seeming avoidance of deeper ideological or intellectual articulation, unlike other Gothic neo tribes as related by one informant who insisted that Gothic Lolitas in Hong Kong came together at weekends, “just to share costume ideas and gossip about life in general, and never, talk about work or heavy stuff like that” (Winnie, Gothic Lolita).

Back at street level, there is also a growing number of Gothic transnational global followers who access Goth Loli websites and blog sites, appearing to have an insatiable desire for this “look,” and in the absence of access to prescribed Goth Loli brands make their own outfits guided by online advice from the virtual Goth Loli sisterhood.

Such evidence of a growing, globally oriented fandom supports the notion that an exchange of transnational sub-cultural capital is founded on affinity rather than the darker forces of exoticism or Orientalism.

This global following of Gothic Lolita look alikes also supports Appadurai’s belief that transcultural flows do not emanate from one fixed point, but are part of a more complicated, multi-layered ebbing and flowing of a tidal wave of cross-cultural capital. According to this notion, it is almost impossible and maybe irrelevant to locate the authentic source(s) of the Goth Loli style in any definitive manner.

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