Cupcake couture: The cloistered culture of Chicago’s Lolitas

By+Rena+Naltsas
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Cupcake couture: The cloistered culture of Chicago’s Lolitas

By Rena Naltsas

By Rena Naltsas

By Rena Naltsas

By Rena Naltsas

When Lauri Eggert, a 30-year-old 2004 Columbia theater alumna, gets on the bus to meet her girlfriends downtown for tea, people can’t help but stare. For their monthly meet-ups, Eggert transforms herself into a life-sized porcelain doll. Her Easter egg-colored dresses are worn with poofy petticoats and lace stockings up to her knees. Her modest Mary Janes and long, curled wigs are appliquéd with fanciful bows, pearls and plastic accents of candy, hearts, flowers or unicorns. She carries a matching parasol and a heart-shaped plastic purse adorned with even more pearls, lace and bows. 

Some ask where she’s going or why she’s dressed in such a funny costume; others quietly sneak a photo with their cellphone. Some even ask her to pose with them for a picture. 

Eggert is part of Chicago’s Lolita fashion culture, and she’s tired of people staring. 

“I think a lot of people look at [Lolitas] and they think we’re just weirdos,” Eggert said. “I do have to admit that something that grinds my gears especially is when [people] will see me sometimes with my outfit on and they’ll be like ‘Oh, you’re Strawberry Shortcake!’ and I’ll be like, ‘I’m just Lauri, and I dress cute.’ If you asked someone who dresses in all Abercrombie & Fitch, they’d say they wear it because they like it, and it’s the same thing with us.” 

The major difference between Abercrombie & Fitch and Lolita fashions, however, is that while Abercrombie & Fitch has become a socially acceptable, mass-produced brand, Lolita veers far from typical fashion, causing many onlookers to gawk. The Lolita community also carries an unfortunate name, sharing the title of a novel about a pedophile’s obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. And while Vladimir Nabakov’s infamous heroine was portrayed as a seductress, Lolita fashion devotees adamantly herald the trend as a return to modesty. 

Lolita fashion came to fruition in the 1990s as a subset of street fashion in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district, streamlined by designer h.NAOTO. The fashion quickly became a cult favorite, spreading its intricate styling with TOKYOPOP’s Gothic & Lolita Bible, a cleverly termed mook, a magazine and book hybrid, that has helped launch Lolita communities across the world. The Lolita look then crossed the Pacific, landing in San Francisco in the early 21st century, according to fashion sociologist and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York professor Yuniya Kawamura. 

Eggert explains there are three main Lolita sub-styles: “sweet,” the most feminine, harking to a childlike age of cupcakes and pastels; “gothic,” a darker side of Lolita with a punk flair; and “classic,” Lolita with more antique and floral prints. And while many more sub-styles have appeared, Chicago Lolitas tend be more “sweet,” according to Eggert. 

There are more than 100 people in Chicago’s central Lolita community, and they vary in race, age, sexuality, class and culture, Eggert said. Once actively connecting and conversing online through Livejournal, the Chicago Lolitas are now exclusively on Facebook, allowing members to screen and even protect the community. 

“The Lolita community can have this downside of not wanting to explain what Lolita is, they can be a little stuck-up,” said Julie Ford, a longtime Lolita. “[They aren’t always helpful with] explaining to other people what Lolita is.” 

The community congregates once a year at a mega-meet-up, where Lolitas from neighboring states such as Michigan and Wisconsin travel to the city to go shopping or have picnics in Grant Park with other Lolitas, Eggert said. Although the clothing leans toward feminine dress, she said there are a few male Lolitas, or “brolitas,” who also wear Lolita fashion and are welcomed by the community. 

Eggert describes Lolita as inherently girly and almost childlike. The Victorian-inspired fashion echoes “Rococo stylings” that honor the style’s main purpose: modesty. The rules governing Lolita fashion are numerous and intricately detailed to the point of signifying membership in an elite club—a club with a uniform that champions antiquated, heightened notions of femininity. 

“Some [women argue] that Western fashion is too sexy, too provocative, so if you want to be feminine in the West, you [have] to express your femininity [and] sexuality overtly,” Kawamura said. “But there are some women who don’t want to do that, and these are the girls who are attracted to Japanese Lolita. They’re very girly, very feminine in a childish way… [but] they have stricter codes in the United States. It’s more rigid. It’s like a uniform.” 

Ford has led a panel discussion titled “Growing Up Lolita” at various gatherings and conventions to audiences of up to 100 for the past five years. Ford said she started giving tips on how to be a Lolita because there are so many rules and it can be tricky for newcomers to understand. 

“Either the skirt comes down to your knees or if [the skirt goes] down to the ground your skirt should touch the floor,” Ford said. “Anything shorter than that really isn’t Lolita; it has to have that length, because modesty is a really big thing for Lolita. Boobs should not be coming out of your dress, and showing the tops of your arms is usually a no-no.” 

Eggert said she was mesmerized by the Lolitas’ poofy dresses when she first saw them at Anime Central, or ACen, the Midwest’s largest anime, manga and Japanese popular culture convention, and was drawn to their tightknit community online, as that year, she needed somewhere to turn. 

“[That was the year] my dad died and I got a divorce,” Eggert said. “I wanted to break out of my shell, and that’s what Lolita was for me. I [could meet] weirdos who like weird stuff like me.” 

When Eggert first started dressing in Lolita three years ago, she said her family wasn’t completely supportive of her polarizing fashion choices. 

“I grew up in a very conservative family,” Eggert said. “My mom was very iffy at first when I first started dressing in Lolita, because I think she was more afraid that I was going to get made fun of. Now, as I get older, she looks at me and says, ‘I don’t care, have fun.’” 

While some may view Lolita fashions as playing up the sexual precociousness of young girls—as the name may suggest— rather than its self-proclaimed Victorian-esque modesty, Minh-Ha T. Pham, assistant professor at Cornell University who specializes in cultural fashion and feminist media studies, wrote about the significance of female expression through fashion in a fall 2011 Ms. Magazine article. 

“If fashion has been used to introduce new ways of expressing womanhood, it has also been a tether that keeps women’s social, economic and political opportunities permanently attached to their appearances,” Pham wrote. “At a time when makeover reality TV shows suggest that self-reinvention is not only desirable but almost required, and the ubiquity of social media encourages everyone to develop a ‘personal brand,’ the pressure on women to be fashionable has never been more pervasive.” 

The Lolita community’s social media presence has fed into the spread of the culture and fashion. Many U.S. Lolitas have no choice but to purchase outfits and accessories online as the official brand name Lolita fashions are distributed solely through Japanese stores such as Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, Pink House, Milk and Angelic Pretty, running up to more than $300 a piece, Eggert said. Because of this, Japanese and U.S. Lolitas share tips and tricks on how to make things “Loliable,” or accepted as a Lolita substitute. Lolitas have also begun to hand-make their own versions of Lolita styles, distributing their personal designs nationwide while pushing the standard model of the fashion industry between consumer and creator. 

“In [traditional fashion business models], it used to be that there was a clear distinction between production and consumption, which means [a difference between creators] versus the consumers who actually adopt [and wear] that fashion,” Kawamura said. “But now that line is becoming blurry, and that’s very distinct in Japanese subcultures.” 

Chicago designers such as former resident Paradise Rose and Industrial Kitty have created more affordable Lolita clothing and accessories. Some take to Etsy.com, a popular website crafters, designers and artists use to sell their creations, to display their Lolita looks, while others host swap meets where they can share hand-me-downs with one another as Lolita fashions rarely change. Lolitas also resell styles through their online communities using pay plans. 

Amy Marie Couture has a Chicago-based Lolita fashion line called “Victorian Angel” created by Amy Fenderson, a 2009 fashion studies alumna. 

Fenderson has been a Lolita for two years, and her fashion line has been featured in various Lolita fashion shows at conventions such as ACen, where she first came across the style. She said she was at the convention one year to see other cosplayers when she came across adorable cupcake jewelry at the convention’s Artist Alley & Art Show, which she discovered was designed by former Chicago Lolita designer Paradise Rose. Her sister Heather then looked into the Lolita world, and now both Fenderson sisters are immersed in the subculture. 

At Columbia, Fenderson said she focused her senior thesis on a hybrid of classic 1950s housewife dresses and Victorian styles, which afforded her the perfect background knowledge to design Lolita-style dresses drawing from a mélange of vintage styles involving intensely vigorous tailoring and detail. 

Kawamura, who wrote “Fashioning Japanese Subcultures,” a theoretical and analytical study on Japanese contemporary youth and their subcultures’ fashion expressions, said Lolita falls in line with Japanese costume or cosplay, manga and anime because they all play to a strict identity. However, Lolitas hate the comparison to cosplay because they don’t view their clothing as a costume but a style, adding to the complexities of the subculture, Kawamura said. 

“Many [Lolitas have] said they’re feminist,” Kawamura said. “They say, ‘We don’t do this for boys or men, we do this to please ourselves and it’s very empowering to dress as Lolita. But it’s like they’re playing the role of something—it’s an armor [and] it’s essentially a form of escapism. They don’t like their real identity, they like themselves better when they’re masking themselves with Lolita dress.” 

Fenderson said even though she is often scared to show off her Lolita styles to coworkers or non-Lolita friends, she is most happy when she is wearing her Lolita clothes. 

“Why do I want to look like everyone else?” Fenderson said. “Why should I listen to what Bazaar magazine says is the top ten most popular fashion trends? I think that’s why it inspires me so much because it’s not what I’m used to seeing. And when I wear it, I feel like I’m an individual, I’m being myself. And I love the attention I get. To be honest, the attention I get is wonderful.” 

Since joining the community, Eggert has bonded with the Lolitas to the extent that four of her Lolita friends will be in her upcoming wedding, which, as expected, will be far more extravagant than a typical ceremony. 

“When you get dressed up, say you’re going to a wedding you put on like a formal dress, you have your hair all done up, your make-up’s just right, like you feel really pretty; that’s how I feel when I put on one of my Lolita dresses,” Fenderson said. “When I put on one of the wigs and my makeup is all done up, I just feel really pretty. So I have all this confidence and I’m not afraid to take on the world…. I would say I’m happiest when I’m wearing Lolita.” 

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