Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lolita vs. Lolita - Dismissing Sexual Connotations Associated with Japanese Streetwear

Angelic Pretty look, from Tokyo Fashion Festa

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to model Japanese street fashion in a show called Tokyo Fashion Festa, held at the Museum at FIT. This show capped off New York Fashion Week but was also a promotional tool for MFIT's exhibit on contemporary Japanese fashion, to be staged in the fall. Japan has always been a place of interest to me, but in the back of my mind because a) it's too expensive to visit on a student budget and b) it's so developed and freakishly beyond my technological comprehension, I think I'd have to spend a lot of time there (not just a week or two) in order to really grasp how their culture relates to their environment.

Mixed opinions on the fashions presented raised some questions for me. Some people were fascinated by the layers of clothing, accessories, sparkles and pink displayed (my press on nails were a big hit); others were put off by the seemingly "infantilized" message Lolita clothing sends. "Doesn't it seem odd that a forty-year old woman is dressing like a little girl?" "Don't you think it gives men the idea that it's all right to fantasize about women in such a juvenile way?" "How many pedophiles were in the audience?"

Look at them crazy nails! Like someone glued Lucky Charms onto acrylic tips.

Ethnocentrism stems from the idea that another culture's practices are wrong in comparison to the practices of your own country. Naturally, people from America would think this style of dress is a bit disturbing, because we don't walk around looking like babies and sexualizing youth.

Oh wait, that's not true. Miley Cyrus' 9-year old sister wants to start a lingerie line for children. My 5 year old cousin just bought her first "bra" because everyone else in her kindergarten class has one. I see children dressed better than I do, in mini-skirts and low-cut shirts, tights and Ugg boots, everyday. Tell me that's not disturbing, and I'll let you say whatever you want about the Japanese.

So it's important to understand the concept of Lolita fashion, because the claims made above do not fit with its overall philosophy. For starters, Lolita fashion has nothing to do with the novel by Vladimir Nabokov.¹ It is easy to assume the connection because at first glance, the fashion is almost like Westernized role-playing; people get off sexually by dressing up as scantily-clad maids, nurses, businessmen, even full-blown monkey suits. Who's to say that Lolitas don't dress up for the same reason?

Yet Lolita followers do quite the opposite, actually - modesty is key, and the aim is not to look "sexy" or "desirable", but to look "cute" "elegant" or "youthful." The Western association with the novel's concept can be explained through the Japanese concept of wasei-eigo or "Japanese-style English" by which there are some words in Japanese do not translate.² This is true for many languages, and is key evidence against any associated sexual connotations...(click to expand post)

Lolita fashion actually began as any subcultural trend is conceived - as a reaction. In this case, Lolitas react against the contemporary need to reveal the body as much as possible in order to be considered attractive; in an age where "less is more", Lolitas maintain a Victorian ethos regarding clothing.³ When analyzed carefully, Lolita fashion is not meant to be seductive - most if not all outfits consist of a fully buttoned blouse, pantelets, petticoats, stockings or knee highs and dresses that never traverse above the knee.⁴ It can be argued that there is a subversive side to Lolita style in that "what lies beneath" is alluring and stimulating, but Lolitas in particular disregard those sentiments in favor of what their clothing truly represents.

Gothic Lolitas in Japan. Wikipedia Commons.

I'd gone with a friend to the initial model call for the fashion show, where we were given outfits to try on in lieu of runway walking or posing. I seemed to fit the bill - 5'1", the chubbiness of my youth still visible in my face, chest flat as a pancake - whereas my friend was not cast, despite the fact that she looked amazing in the outfit the designers chose for her (she rocks the Gothic look).

"I saw them whisper something," she told me later on. "I think they said that I was 'too busty.' I mean yeah, the dress looked awesome, but there was no way my 'girls' [breasts] were staying put in that thing."

If Lolita fashion's ultimate goal is to seduce through dress, Jessica would have been the first model on the runway. I, on the other hand, am not a desirable object (and I am by no means offended by that) and therefore, I was able to strut the stuff appropriately.

More importantly however, the Japanese do not always associate clothing and sexuality as Westerners do. Japan is known for its androgynous dress practices, as evidenced in their Kabuki theater, history of uniforms , even to the basic design of the kimono. This often confuses Western tourists into thinking that Japanese males are metrosexuals or drag queens.⁵ Accordingly, Lolita fashion is not limited to women. Ōji is known as the male version of Lolita dress, compromising of fashions emulating Victorian boys. Interestingly enough, this style is worn by both men and women, downplaying any associated sexual contexts as well.6 Many young men adopt Steampunk styles of clothing also, spending as much time perfecting their hair, makeup and accessories as their female counterparts.

Example of Ōji fashion, Spooky

This quotation from a practicing "Gothic" Lolita has been cited many times, but I think it is a succinct representation that separates this unique fashion culture from associated sexual notions:

"We certainly do not do this for the attention of men. In fact, the fashion frequently alienates them. Frequently, female sexuality is portrayed in a way that is palatable and accessible to men, and anything outside of that is intimidating. Something so unabashedly female is ultimately kind of scary—in fact, I consider it to be pretty confrontational. Dressing this way takes a certain kind of ownership of one’s own sexuality that wearing expected or regular things just does not...It’s not, as some commentators have suggested, some sort of appeal to men’s expectation that women should be childlike, or an attempt to pander to pedophiles. Pedophiles like little girls. They don’t like grown women who happen to like dresses with cakes on them. I’ve never been hit on by a pedophile while in Lolita. We don’t get into it because it is some sort of misplaced pedo complex or anything..."7
Many "looks" lie beneath the umbrella of Lolita fashion, as were portrayed at Tokyo Fashion Festa. There are some sub-fashions that do base clothing choices around promiscuity, but these are definitely the minority. Compared to the Gothic, Punk and Classic Lolitas, as well as the Lolitas who combine their outfits with traditional elements of Asian dress (such as the Waloli or Qi), it is easy to see that Lolita fashion is an expression of deeply inert feelings representing personal identity in several forms.

I'm surprised that Lolita fashion has not been analyzed by social scientists or fashion theorists in-depthly. There is a lot going on here - gender, power, identification, traditional costume usage, reactionary clothing, etc.- that is worthy of more research in order to be fully understood as well as debunk the myths involved. I scoured the internet for articles or literature but could only find self-published prose by Lolitas or Wikipedia information. Even the newspaper articles I found associated the fashions more with sexuality and less with the actual cultural meanings and reactions originally intended.

If you have any further information regarding the role Lolita fashion plays in society and within the wearer, send them my way. I'd love to develop further research and definitely need more reliable sources.


1) Jimenez, Dabrali. "A New Generation of Lolitas Makes a Fashion Statement". The New York Times. (26 September 2008).

2) Y-N, Ken.
"English words, but Japanese meanings". What Japan Thinks. September 24, 2007.

3) "Lolita fashion." Link to page here.

4) "Anatomy of a Lolita Outfit." Link to page here.

5) Robertson, Jennifer. "The Politics of Androgyny in Japan: Sexuality and Subversion in the Theater and Beyond," American Ethnologist, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Aug., 1992), pp. 419-442 and
same author, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. (University of California Press) 1998.

6) Seagrave, Amber, "Style: Kodona," La Vie en rose, vol.2, p.18

7) MacDonald, Heidi (1 October 2008). "A Gothic Lolita Speaks". Publishers Weekly.

Further Reading

Evers, Izumi, and Patrick Macias. Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook. New York: Chronicle, 2007.

Godoy, Tiffany, and Ivan Vartanian. Japanese Goth: Art and Design. Universe, 2009.

_________. Style Deficit Disorder Harajuku Street Fashion--Tokyo. New York: Chronicle, 2007.

Lane, Dakota. Gothic Lolita. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2008.

McVeigh, Brian J. Wearing Ideology State, Schooling and Self-Presentation in Japan (Dress, Body, Culture). New York: Berg, 2000.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Airline Art Shipping Fiasco

Blue fur-lined coat during shipment process.

According to a recent NYTimes article, airline standards pertaining security handling of art and museum objects will soon become as mainstream as those procedures used to evaluate your (overpriced) checked-luggage.

As if the airline isn't in enough trouble budget-wise, officials say that due to rising security threats, museum, gallery and private dealer shipping procedures must be changed. Art handlers and registrars had it relatively simple in terms of sending objects across the country and around the world. Intricate housing of objects occurred prior to being dropped off at the airport, without airline security personnel needing to reopen crates and evaluate package contents.

Now however, airline security has the authority to go into a courier package and check for breached items. Although the nation's security is the number one priority, the whole point of packaging a museum or gallery object in the way it is packaged is so that it will not be disturbed or stressed in-transit. Also, arts personnel are trained to unpack valuable objects once their destination is reached - airline personnel, aren't. Placing an object back in its crate even slightly out of place can prove detrimental in the long run. What's more, airline security are not required to fill out condition reports, so if an object is damaged upon arrival, there is no documentation to prove its mishandling.

Larger institutions who are fortunate enough to develop travel plans years in advance will not be as affected by these newly implemented measures as smaller museums, galleries and private dealers will be. Many times, priceless artifacts are shipped overnight or the day of an exhibition - these new security plans will certainly present a challenge concerning time management.

Object mishandling is a greater threat concerning historic costumes and textiles . Even the least trained of security officials can recognize the fragility of an ancient vase. Society is brought up to disregard the value of clothing however; we fold our clothes, stuff them haphazardly into suitcases, crumple them, place heavy objects over them and even get them dirty when the shampoo bottle accidentally explodes due to cabin pressure - all because clothing is replaceable, clothing is cheap, and clothing is probably the most pliable object carried on board...(Click here to expand post)

Thus, I fear for costume and textile museum exportation. To untrained personnel, who's to say they won't treat a rare dress or suit the same as they treat their dirty laundry? A 13th century Nordic weapon is made of materials that hold up well, even under the clumsiest of hands - a 16th century silk gown, already in fragile condition, will crumble under the slightest touch. Registrars pack their possessions with a purpose, recognizing the risks that come with travel. Will these new regulations cause their shipping methods to be all for naught?

This is exactly why specialized advanced degree programs began - to train people in the correct handling of garments and rare, fragile pieces of textile art.

Perhaps this is one solution to the uneven ratio of trained museum personnel-to-available jobs. It would make sense for airlines to staff one or two skilled art handlers, in order to deal with situations such as this. Conservators and others familiar with artifact housing methods would be able to recognize an object's needs, efficiently check for security breaches and rehouse the object in a timely manner, keeping up to pace with customer security checks occurring simultaneously.

Airlines have little money as it is these days, how are they going to hire more people to work for them? Well, maybe it's the federal government's job to instill a certification and contract system. They could either recruit existing specialists or train new ones to visit facilities before the item is shipped, watch the packing and crating process, and provide official documentation to bypass any further handling until the object has reached its destination.

This would be a huge initiative, but would save time, money and damages in the long run. The goal would be to certify personnel already employed by the museum, gallery or private dealer, to avoid contracting costs and ultimately, speed up the process even more.

But of course, why would the airline industry do something sensible? They will probably end up charging public and private art industries for this extra (unnecessary) examination...

Although national security is top priority, there has to be a better way of handling these procedures. Putting valuable pieces of art into the hands of novices is not the answer. With enough backing from the art industry, I hope these security measures will be regulated enough to ensure the safety and security of not only those flying within the cabin, but below it as well.

Photo Credit:

Blue Velvet Wrapper, in a sling ready for shipping. From Mary C. Baughman's, Slings and Arrows: Safe Costume Transport

Friday, February 12, 2010

Battle of the MA Degrees: the Question of Parsons' New Fashion Studies Program

First, there was NYU. Then came FIT. A dozen or so other universities have also adapted their curriculum to include courses exposing students to the world of fashion, on a scholarly level. Now Parsons The New School will debut a Master's program in Fashion Studies in Fall 2010 - and it's creating quite a buzz.

So far, many outsiders have used the words "competition", "rival" and "copy-cat" in reference to its conception. An upcoming symposium entitled Workwear seems to be the most recent threat to similarly established MA fashion studies programs. With lectures featuring world-renowned designers, conferences exposing the work of fashion studies professionals, and even an exhibit, is there really room for such a specialized program in a developing field?

To some, the answer is "no". People studying the cultural side of fashion, museum curatorship, conservation, publishing, and teaching know that the post-grad world is a battlefield. Many jobs are contract or part time, if available at all. What makes Parsons' Fashion Studies program different and unique? What do they think has been lacking from other programs for them to create this new addition in an already concentrated geographic area?

The MA program at FIT in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice exposes students to conservation and curatorial methodology, with classes in fashion and textile history to round out their experiences. NYU's Visual Studies program focusing on Costume Studies concentrates more on fashion history, culture and theory. Many students from both universities go on to become fashion historians, curators, collections managers, conservators, archivists, teachers and researchers, but both provide different strengths, suiting specific student needs. These differences have allowed the two programs to work harmoniously together for the past twenty or so years, creating cooperative competing for available positions.

The conception of Parsons' Fashion Studies MA seems to combine the philosophies of NYU and FIT. According to their curriculum description, the core courses include introductions to fashion history, theory and culture, with electives in museum studies, media studies and culminating in advanced thesis development. There does not seem to be an internship component; there does appear to be increased exposure to professionals affiliated with Parsons, as described in the topics of study (especially as lecturers), and there is a strong emphasis on thesis development.

All in all, it seems that those graduating from Parsons will receive extremely similar training formerly composed by NYU and FIT's Masters programs.

How bad is competition when it comes to fashion studies? In a field which struggles to gain acceptance amongst academic society, there is something to be said about establishing similar programs. It provides more opportunities to show the world just how important fashion culture and history really are. By establishing their program, Parsons is adding to a list of reputable universities aiming for the same goal - to be taken seriously as a form of academic study.

The Fashion Studies degree will invite more people to study fashion in a scholarly way, increasing the field's credibility, as well as allowing under-researched topics to surface and be explored. The more people become aware of fashion culture, theory and history, the more we can discuss and promote its study.

Not to mention, New York has some of the greatest costume and textile collections in the world. It can't be helped that The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, the Cooper-Hewitt's collections and exhibitions, and various designer archives - not forgetting the world renowned Fashion Week(s), leading fashion publications, designer showrooms - are all located in the Big Apple. Even though there are already two Masters programs in New York devoted to a greater understanding of fashion culture, there still is much left to be discovered.

I hope that Parsons will influence fashion studies development in other parts of the United States, however. Programs are slowly creeping into universities in LA, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston, and it will be enlightening to watch them develop over the years.

What do you think of Parsons' new program? I'd be interested to hear your opinions on this hot-button issue, whether you are thinking of applying, how you think it'll stand out from previously established programs, etc. Even though it may pose as a "threat", I think that collaboration will strengthen the world's understand of scholarly fashion, in the long run.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Scholarly Writing: Formulating your Topic

Examples of Pantoufles from Boucher's, La Toilette (1742)

In light of my professors emphasizing the need to start developing our writing and conference presentation skills, I thought it would be helpful to create a regular column devoted to writing for fashion studies. And presenting at conferences is a great way of exposing your work to people who could potentially support it.

CHOOSING A TOPIC (Developing a Thesis)

Some consider this to be the most daunting task of scholarly writing. The more you practice thesis construction however, the easier it becomes to formulate them.

First, find something you like, something that has always piqued your interest. It will not only make the process enjoyable and provide motivation for research, but will broaden your knowledge of a subject in a scholarly way.

Then try to narrow down the topic as much as you can. As you do so, try and think about if you have come across those ideas before, either in readings, class presentations, etc. Those thoughts will help you ascertain whether or not the topic has been "done" before.

For example, say you love shoes. "Shoes" is the broad topic - you can come to something more specific by asking yourself some basics: What kind of shoes are your favorite (platform, stiletto, mule, sneaker...)? Who is your favorite shoe designer or manufacturer (Louboutin, Choo, Nike...)? If you could go back in time and wear any kind of shoe, when would that be (Victorian, Renaissance, 60s...)? Is there a region of the world that wears an interesting pair of shoes you don't find where you live (Chinese foot binding shoes, Turkish slippers, Inuit Mukluks...)?

All right. So you're really interested in 18th Century French pantoufles - That's a good start. Now start asking yourself questions about the social contexts of the shoes. Who wore them? What role did they play in society? Who made them? What materials were they made out of? How long did that style of shoe last for? Who started the "trend"? What did people think of them at first, and how were they viewed by those who did not wear them?

It may also help to ask yourself what else was going on in the world during that time. What wars were fought? How was trade and commerce handled? What was going on within the government at the time? How were global relations with other countries? These questions help you set a frame for relating fashion to other areas of study, beyond mere aesthetics.

So now you would like to write about the role of pantoufles during the French Revolutionary War. Perfect. It's specific, and it's contextual.

Your next question is, "Has this been done before?" If the answer is "yes", ask, "How can I expand on this idea, what angle can I view it so that the information appears fresh and innovative?" If the answer is "No", that's an easy one - just get cracking!

Of course, fashion studies goes beyond just socio-historical research. Most areas of social science and the humanities are good places to start (Psychology - "Emotional Responses Regarding Pantoufles by Lower Class Members of French Society"; Theology - "Members of the Clergy Who Wore Pantoufles"). And don't rule out areas like Economics, Marketing, or Natural Science either - you could do a study about the economic impact of pantoufles sales, or look at pantoufles construction derived from fiber analysis.

Professionals from many fields attend conferences, and are looking to collaborate with you or publish interesting work. New ideas increase your chances for such opportunities; for example, there are a million books and articles about the corset, what makes your research different and desirable?

Any research begins with a question, even if it's merely, "Why hasn't this been written about before?" If you've got writer's block, asking questions may lead to the content you're looking for.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Fashion Studies Skills 101

An advertisement for a women's rabbit skin coat and a green wool suit, available at Eaton's College Street.

My seconds semester of Grad school beings tomorrow. To help me stay focused this time around, I've made a list...


1) Start assignments as soon as you are given them.
I'm no procrastinator. And usually, my projects and papers are finished well before they are due. This year I underestimated my time management abilities and I believe my papers suffered because of it. Knowing the academic standards of my professors also helps, and now I can prepare assignments ahead of time based on the amount of time it takes to put everything together.

Much of anthropology is based discovering new challenges and theories within cultures, whereas history relies on the old to enhance what has already been published. AKA before last semester, I never had to actually use primary sources, let alone know where to find them. I'm a little more comfortable with locating resources, but I need to sharpen my sense of smell. I also need to develop a better sense of what constitutes a reliable primary source.

3) Go to more lectures.
This is something I'm sure many of my schoolmates hope to accomplish this semester. There are so many wonderful (free) lectures in the City that I need to start taking advantage of. My schedule is more open this semester and hopefully I'll be more energized than I was last semester (I only have to wake up at 6am for one day!)

4) Dress better.
I believe that going to a fashion-related school means identity development via clothing is essential. How are people supposed to take me seriously in this field when I look like a garbage dump? In such a visual culture, a signature style is key. Expect to see fewer jeans and better kept hair.

If you are in school, what are some of your goals this year? What have you learned to do this time around that you wish you had known before?

Even if you're not studying, there may be things you hope to accomplish within the realm of fashion studies. Mentioning them might be helpful to others.