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Royal or not, extreme dress-up is all about transformation

In popular culture, clothing is not just for looking nice: It's about inhabiting mythical roles.

A good half of the media's obsession with the recent wedding of two English people was sartorial in nature. Each outfit at that wedding, whether expressly military or not, was essentially a uniform, bearing markers of status and knowledge just like badges and gold braid. (David Beckham's fashionable wing-collar variation on morning dress, for example, was basically a placard around his neck proclaiming him to be "non-U" - the opposite of posh.) The entire history of the empire was contained in those clothes.

A couple of days after the wedding, a young relative showed me photos of a dress-up party of her own - a picnic in a park in Toronto that a group of like-minded young women had arranged for the public exhibition of some elaborate dresses. The outfits were like those you might find on Victorian dolls: puffed skirts with lace petticoats; shawls; patterns and embroidery on every fabric; childlike double ponytails done up with ribbons. The images on the dresses often referred to childish obsessions: kittens, unicorns, castles. It was a highly textured, fastidiously created and expensive look, and had no function other than to show other girls. Collecting these clothes is a bit like collecting art.

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The look comes, of course, from Japan, where it is known as Sweet Lolita (not to be confused with its darker sister, Gothic Lolita - although I could be missing some nuance here. The visible influences are also, I am told, from the fairy-tale-heroine Dolly-Kei movement, not to be confused with the forest-girl Mori trend).

Japanese street-fashion subcultures are tough to keep up with unless you're in Japan: There are many of them, with specific names and codes, and each has a sub-genre or two. And they mutate fast. They look extreme to Western eyes. The Ganguro girls, for example, were the ones who, in the 1990s, tanned themselves to a caramel crisp and painted their eye sockets and lips white in a nightmarish tribute to blond Westerners. The desire to look freakish seems stronger in a culture renowned for its conformity.

These uniforms are sometimes associated with a particular fantasy narrative. The Mori girls, for example, imagine themselves as spiritual forest dwellers straight out of fairy tales. The Dolly-Kei, who also dress like pre-20th-century dolls but in eclectic and slightly more adult styles, also say they are inspired by fairy-tale heroines, from the Brothers Grimm in particular. (Dolly-Kei is largely the invention of a Tokyo vintage clothing store called Grimoire, which means "book of spells"; the word Grimoire is also now being used to describe the fashion itself.)

However, there is no particular artistic activity associated with any of these images. The young women don't play in any specific kind of band or play any specific kind of role-playing game. It's not quite the same as cosplay. The mythical narrative's only function is to inspire clothing. The dressing itself is the hobby. And now that Japanese popular culture has such a global reach, we are going to see more of these hobbyists on Canadian streets.

The first thing you might notice about the Sweet Lolitas is how carefully they have desexualized themselves. They evince no desire whatsoever to attract the gaze of men. Indeed, straight men are totally excluded from the universe of these alternative fashionistas. Their discourse and their clubby meetings - like the one I saw pictures of here in Toronto - are among women only. It has been suggested that this male-excluding obsession, doll-like though it may be, is a channel for a kind of feminist independence. It is a defiant and rebellious ignoring of male tastes and desires.

It's hard at first to get your head around the idea of a fashion as an end in itself, fashion with no ulterior motive such as seduction or social combat. But consider the masculine Western equivalent of the Japanese girl-fashions: something like the Edwardian tweediness of The Chap magazine. It too has no place for sex appeal, no possibility of a role in seduction. It's an aesthetic exchange among men.

Every sartorial obsession is a recreation of the self, a transformation into a fantasy role. There is never a categorical difference between outfit and costume. When I wear a suit and tie I am enjoying playing a different version of myself, and I am just as obsessed with the details (cuffs, buttons, angles) - with the verisimilitude, you might say - as the Lolitas are.

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The Lolitas' fastidiousness reminds us of the mythical paradigms represented by all fashions. And really, no one can think the Lolitas weird after having seen the hats at the most respectable wedding on Earth.

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