Lolita as we know it today has only been clearly defined for around a decade. Obviously, a bunch of designers didn’t just decide to one day create an entirely new style. So, where did Lolita come from?
The answer isn’t so straightforward. It is nearly impossible to say exactly what happened and when, because there isn't very much information around on this subject. However, this seems to be the most likely exaplanation, based on the few resources out there.
Japan in the 1970s was experiencing a ‘cute’ revolution. Popular magazines were encouraging young women to embrace not only youthfulness, but specifically more child-like and infantile aesthetics. Women's clothes were generally white or pastel colours, and were feminine to the extreme. They were commonly embellished with lots of lace and ribbons. Out of this was born Pink House, a brand that pioneered the natural kei (natural style) look in the late 70s. Their inspirations were romantic interpretations of historical western clothing. They took particular inspiration from adaptations of Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie, which were popular in Japan at that time.
The next style that we need to consider is otome, or ‘maiden’ fashion. Otome is synonymous with brands such as MILK (who have been around since 1970), Jane Marple and Emily Temple Cute. It’s likely that you may have seen lolitas wearing clothes or accessories from these brands, however they aren’t lolita brands. What separates lolita fashion from otome fashion is that a lolita strives to look like a princess, or a porcelain doll, whereas an otome looks more like an upper class young woman. Rather than the historical influences of lolita, otome is a much more modern take on fashion for rich, well brought up young girls. When Baby, the Stars Shine Bright was created in 1988, their early designs resembled otome style more than the clearly lolita style they produce today.
Otome and natural kei are still around today, although they are nowhere near as popular as lolita is. However, the lolita brands still draw influence from both these earlier styles, making them even more obvious as influences to the style that would eventually become lolita.
Which brings us on to the 1990s, an era with which you will probably be more familiar. During the mid to late 90s, visual kei enjoyed a massive surge of popularity, both in Japan and overseas. Visual kei refers to bands who wore increasingly elaborate and flamboyant costumes to perform. The most famous visual kei musician amongst lolitas is Mana, from the band Malice Mizer. In 1999, he founded the brand Moi-meme-Moitie, coining the terms ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita’ and ‘Elegant Gothic Aristocrat’ to describe the feel of his clothes. The gothic lolita style that became popular in the late 90s and early 00s can be mostly attributed to the influence of the gothic themes that were prevalent in visual kei. Fans would copy the stles of clothing that were worn by their favourite bands, thus leading to the creation of 'gothic' lolita.
Another factor which relates to Harajuku fashion in general is the fact that mainstream media had begun to recognise the area as a hotbed of independent fashion. Because of this, the popularity of styles like lolita sky-rocketed, meaning that the small, independant groups started to set up some of the brands we know today, and lolita fashion could begin to be sold on a much larger scale.
So now, at the beginning of the 21st century, lolita is a clearly defined fashion. However, it doesn’t end there. In the early 00s, the predominant style was gothic lolita. Sweet lolita was available from places like BTSSB, Metamorphose and Angelic Pretty, but it was nothing like the sweet lolita we know today. In fact, some might go as far as to call it classic lolita. The style in general was less about prints, and more about solid colours accented with a lot of lace. Rectangle headdresses also enjoyed popularity during this time. The emphasis in this era was more on looking like a life-size Victorian doll.
However, in the mid 00s, sweet lolita gradually overtook gothic as the iconic lolita style. Prints became more popular than solids, and a lot of the defining features of the old look were considered ‘ita’ and ‘cosplayish’. This was perhaps due to the popularity of lolita characters in comics and other media, or quality control, because the older style required much more careful coordination which was harder to police with the surge in popularity. The old rectangle headdresses and mini-hats were replaced with headbows. Skirts became shorter, above the mandatory knee-length. The plain hime cut was replaced with hairstyles involved lots of elaborate curls. Angelic Pretty were the brand to have. Their bright pastels, and prints featuring cakes, cute animals, and other sweet motifs became synonymous with the term ‘ott deco loli’.
That isn’t to say though, that the other styles died out completely. In the past year or so, ott sweet lolita hasn’t been quite so prevalent. It seems that the days of sweets jewellery and fluffy pastel wigs may be nearing their end. But why? Some might say that AP’s prints lack the creativity and freshness they had when they first became popular, which is why slightly more creative brands such as Alice and the Pirates have been incredibly successful, with prints such as vampire requiem selling out very quickly. There is also a theory that the girls who became interested in AP’s bright pastels have grown up, and are thus seeking out more subdued and mature styles that they can wear as adults. With newer, more subdued fashions such as mori girl (forest girl) and dolly kei (dolly style) gaining interest around the world, perhaps that is having an effect on the popularity of AP. Increasingly on daily_lolita, you may see combinations of lolita and mori or lolita and dolly.