n a cold day in February 2003, I was walking out of a little yakitori restaurant in a mall in Osaka. I’d had couple of comically oversized beers and a good dose of chicken, and as I staggered pleasantly around looking for a store selling Kogepan collectibles, I almost bumped into a gaggle of Goths.

But they weren’t Goths exactly. I’m no expert in cuttin’ wrists and eyeliner, but I know a Goth when I see one. There were three of these non-Goths; two girls wearing mostly black, and another girl who looked kind of like a cross between a fairy princess and Strawberry Shortcake. The black-clothed ones weren’t in Hot Topic gear, though… one had a corset on (not that she really needed it) and extremely high-heeled boots; the other had on typical Gothy bondage pants and a spiked collar, but she was wearing a little cloth hairpiece thing that looked like something a French maid would wear.

I was baffled; I had run into Japanese sub-subcultures before, but these almost-Goths blew my mind. They weren’t common, but once a month or so I would spot a pseudo-Goth or two glowering at me in a mall. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I figured out what exactly these girls (and a few guys) were; they were Gothic Lolitas.

A Gothic Lolita

Gothic Lolita is a uniquely Japanese style of dress. Inspired by the gaudy drag costumes of Visual Kei heroes, it is now growing rapidly in popularity around the world. Although it’s difficult to describe, it’s a combination of 18th- and 19th-century Western (especially French) designs with Victorian, gothic, and even bondage-esque themes. Think ruffles, petticoats, maryjanes, and bizarre, cute little caps and hats. Oh, and a hell of a lot of crucifixes.

Here’s the 411 on Gothic Lolita, at least a few weeks before some major Amerikan media icon co-opts it and blows it all out of proportion.

First, let me dispel one common misconception. Gothic Lolita has little or nothing to do with roricon or lolicon—the Japanese contraction of “lolita complex.” Roricon usually means hyper-sexed manga or anime that would probably violate child porn laws in most countries but is apparently legal in Japan. It’s targeted mostly (but not exclusively) at middle-aged businessmen, whereas Gothic Lolita is a fashion for the young and the decadent. Many online aficionados of Gothic Lolita are angered when it’s suggested that the fashion is sexual, rather than “cute.” I would say that the reality is that the line between cuteness and sexiness is blurred: while Gothic Lolita certainly has sexual undertones, it’s not about child porn, and the two are too frequently confused.

Gothic Lolita’s precursor is Visual Kei, the Japanese rock genre that features heavily made up and dressed up young men playing smarmy power ballads and glam/punk fusion. Visual Kei bands like X Japan, Luna Sea and Shazna took the clichés of American metal and reworked them into elaborate costumes. Band members would usually only appear in public in their garish outfits, with no clothing style being taboo. Even famous heterosexual lead singers and guitarists would appear on stage wearing expensive women’s dresses and long hair extensions. These pretty-boys had thousands of female fans that would cosplay when attending their concerts: that is, they would dress up like their cross-dressing heartthrobs. Japanese culture has traditionally tolerated flamboyant transvestite entertainers, no matter what their sexual orientations; this is evident in the Kabuki tradition, where troupes were exclusively male. And the geta was sometimes on the other foot, too; the town of Takarazuka is still famous for its all-female musical revue.

And like all American subcultures, gothic music and fashion gradually filtered down into the Japanese consciousness in the 80’s and 90’s. Manga like Perfect Girl Evolution, Pet Shop of Horrors, XXXHolic, les Bijoux, Goth, and the bizarre Mr. Fredward’s Duck (note: the duck can talk and do housework) all contain morbid themes, ghostly encounters, disgruntled youth and plenty of black clothing. Their plots are often borrowed from Western and Japanese romantic horror stories. Many gothic-themed manga feature effeminate teenaged heroes obsessed with death and heavy metal. Western conceptions of femininity and masculinity are dissolved in an acidic, androgynous bisque; neither men nor women feel obliged to wear their respective costumes.

J-rock singers in music videos; sexy, depressed bishounen boys in manga; the hallucinatory visions of American industrial/gothic music… people only wore outlandish, frilly attire in these fantasy worlds of the media and the mind.

At first.

Then an obscure Visual Kei group replaced their original vocalist with a 450-year-old Norwegian vampire, and shot from subterranean crypts to mainstream stardom. Malice Mizer combined classical organ and harpsichord riffs with romantic French melodies and nut-busting metal. Their new lead singer was the horrifyingly handsome Camui Gackt: their main composer, choreographer and guitarist, the silent lich-genius Mana.

Malice Mizer’s performances were unreal. Don’t take my word for it; watch the DVD’s. Songs had meticulously choreographed prancing and rondeaux. Costumes were changed frequently. Every element of a show was carefully weighed and calculated. Mana himself was the architect of all of this; he designed clothes, laid out sets, arranged choirs, and wrote many of the band’s best songs. Mana himself almost never spoke in interviews: he was the only member of the band to wear women’s clothing rather than men’s.

Mana of Malice Mizer

I would love to fill up a few more pages with Malice Mizer platitudes, but that’s not why I’m here. The crux of my argument is this: Malice Mizer was the band that took gothic fashions from the stage (and the cosplayers in the audience) to the clothing shops and the streets of Tokyo. Think of it this way: a band like Kiss dressed in wacky clothes, but most of their fans wouldn’t dress like them—except perhaps at one of Kiss’ concerts. Earlier Visual Kei heroes like Izam and Sugizo are analogues of Gene Simmons. The gothic costumes of Malice Mizer, on the other hand, evolved into the fashions of Gothic Lolita.

Malice Mizer, like their drummer, passed away: but Gothic Lolita could not be killed so easily. It is now popular even among those who are not fans of Malice Mizer or Mana’s new band, Moi Dix Mois. (Don’t ask me to explain his mangled use of the French language.) Mana also has his own line of clothing, marketed under the name Moi-Meme-Moitie (Their actual motto: “Elegant Gothic Lolita Aristocrat Vampire Romance.”) He himself is one of the most visible icons of Gothic Lolita, and appears frequently in the defining publication of this fashion: the Gothic Lolita Bible.

Oh, Gothic Lolita Bible… you so crazy! Now, I’m not usually the bible-loving type, but I take careful care of my Gothic Lolita Bibles. They’re full of photos of cute and scary Japanese girls in amazing outfits—both professional models and amateurs. Most of the clothing is ludicrously priced. To that end, patterns are also included in the Bibles, but even buying the necessary fabrics is expensive. The Bibles are full of super data for aspiring young Gothic Lolitas; information on Visual Kei groups, make-up, profiles of designers, sometimes a few manga pages. One issue of the Bible even features Gothic Lolita wedding attire.

A casual observer may wonder how the hell these girls can dress so strangely in such an image-conscious country. Well, it seems that most Gothic Lolitas have no problem dressing like a timid little secretary during the workweek, but on the weekends, they let their hair down… or rather, put it up, and curl it, and put lotsa lace and bows in it, and put on a bonnet too. On the weekends, Gothic Lolitas can be seen hanging about between Yoyogi Park and Harajuku station in Tokyo. It’s not like in America, where if you say you’re a punk, you have to dress like a punk 24/7—or you’ll just look like a poser.

Perfect Girl Evolution

But it’s possible to be a Gothic Lolita poser, too. Guys can be Gothic Lolitas: many of them even wear long skirts or dresses. But there’s a lot of debate about whether non-Japanese can “do” Gothic Lolita correctly. (My guess is, when this fashion eventually takes off outside of Japan, this will be a moot point. Photos of non-Japanese people in Lolita-gear have already appeared in the Bible.) And there are a few things Gothic Lolita’s don’t do: for example, they don’t wear glasses, and few of their outfits are revealing. Not much cleavage or bare midriffs.

And within Gothic Lolita, there are already specific sub-styles that can be mixed and matched. The most noticeable differences are between the “cute” outfits and the scary ones. Often, Gothic Lolitas are seen in pairs: one girl will be wearing dark, spooky gear, perhaps with fetishist undertones, or with some of the material ripped and ragged. Her partner will be wearing white, pink or red fabrics, and her clothes will look lacey, babyish and antiquated. She may accessorize with a teddy bear. The former emphasizes the Gothic: the latter, the Lolita. But even those distinctions are too simplistic. It’s hard to keep track of all the newest subdivisions without subscribing to the Bible (and learning a lot of Japanese). But some of the categories that most Gothic Lolitas agree on include “Classic Lolita,” “Elegant Gothic Lolita,” “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat,” and “Industrial Lolita.”

There’s one piece of bad news for Americans who want to turn themselves into Gothic Lolitas, or Goths who want to upgrade. Very few Gothic Lolita clothing lines are available outside Japan. I believe that Mana’s clothing line, Moi-Meme-Moitie, is available in Paris. As of now, almost no designers (that I know of) will ship their products overseas, nor are many websites in English. But it’s only a matter of time. I have compiled a list of links below for those who wish to point their browsers in a new direction.

It’s been a long time since I was in high school and cared about the distinction between “punks” and “skaters” and other irrelevant fashion cliques and demographics. Perhaps that’s the strongest endorsement of Gothic Lolita I can give: this fashion has completely redrawn the way I think about clothing. It’s exciting and invigorating, even for a fashion abecedarian such as myself. For the first time, there is actually a fashion I would love to adopt wholeheartedly. Now all I have to do is figure out my dress size.

Related Links

The Originator
Moi Dix Mois (official site English for Mana’s band)

Official Designer Homepages
metamorphose temps de fille
Moi-Meme-Moitie (Japanese only)
Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (Japanese only)
H. Naoto (Japanese only)
Black Peace Now (Japanese only)

Ordering The Gothic Bible

By: Francis Henville

Log In to Post Comments
Posted 02/21/2005 - 01:43:24 PM by childstarc:
 my god... they're YEARS ahead of us!
Posted 02/23/2005 - 04:17:18 PM by KeithKawaii:
 Hey, I'm glad to see some coverage of Japanese music/culture going on at Stylus. I also thank you for settling an internal arguement I was having: Yes... Mana is, in fact, male.
Posted 02/24/2005 - 04:41:01 AM by tropigalia:
 As someone who identifies as a western gothic lolita (with whatever weight that carries...which is ostensibly none), I've been really getting frustrated with many online articles that frequently misinterpret the style and whatever psychology they think goes with it. That having been said, I'm very impressed with how well-researched this article is and how it presents the facts without a lot of driveling about sexuality and how the wearing of the style is attributed to a disturbed psychosis. All too often that is how the style is presented. Thank you for not being a pretentious jerk!
Posted 02/24/2005 - 02:13:40 PM by GavinM:
 Wow, I never thought listening to my friend's Malice Mizer CD singles in high school would have any worth at all. NEVER SELL YOUR CDS KIDS!
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