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Collision and Confluence: How Chinese Youth are Localizing the Global Lolita Subculture

With the proliferation of the Internet, the burgeoning youth subculture thriving within its realms and across social media platforms has evolved into a significant facet of Generation Z’s cultural consumption and creative endeavors. Amidst the backdrop of globalization, myriad youth subcultures, such as two-dimensional culture, hip-hop culture, Shamut culture, ghost culture, and Lolita culture, have emanated predominantly from the Western sphere. Consequently, one must ponder: might these Western-rooted subcultures, replete with distinct ideological paradigms and value orientations, exert an influence on the ideological constructs and cultural identities of our nation’s youth cohorts? How do Chinese youths perceive and assimilate these foreign subcultures? In what manner shall they recalibrate and reimagine these foreign cultural artifacts within the context of their indigenous cultural and social milieu? These are inquiries that warrant scholarly deliberation. Notably, certain academics have delved into hip-hop culture, observing that its introduction into our milieu saw the attenuation of its conspicuous Western attributes such as defiance and individualism, supplanted by the implicit conservatism inherent to Eastern ethos. Consequently, a ‘new’ iteration of hip-hop, neither wholly indigenous nor Western, emerged, emblematic of the localized choices and creative adaptations espoused by the Generation Z demographic to fulfill their cultural predilections and exigencies.

The Lolita clothing subculture, in its synthesis of cultural traits from disparate nations, serves as a quintessential case study elucidating the processes of subcultural propagation and cultural identity formation amidst the currents of globalization. Lolita stands as one of the foremost embodiments of contemporary Chinese sartorial subcultures. Originating in Japan, its stylistic lineage harks back to the Rococo artistry of 18th-century Europe, intertwined with Japanese Harajuku fashion sensibilities and the ethos of Kawaii culture. Upon its transference to our shores, it underwent a metamorphosis, acquiring distinct Chinese sartorial nuances. Beyond mere garments, Lolita attire is revered by aficionados as a ‘way of life,’ a conduit for the younger generation to articulate their emotions, value systems, and even deeper societal mores. Employing a hybrid methodology melding online ethnography with comprehensive interviews, this study conducts prolonged observations and data accrual within online Lolita communities such as Douban Groups, Weibo Super Chat, and QQ Communities. Additionally, in-depth interviews were conducted with five Lolita enthusiasts to complement the lacunae in ethnographic observations. The saturation of interview data lends robust support to this investigation.

Collision and confluence: the cross-cultural genesis and dissemination of Lolita

‘Lolita,’ derived from the English term, traces its etymology to the eponymous novel penned by the Russian-American scribe Nabokov. The novel’s eponymous protagonist embodies traits of naivety, romance, allure, and premature sophistication, entangled in a taboo liaison with her stepfather. Its global impact culminated in ‘Lolita’ becoming synonymous with alluring, nubile femininity. However, the sartorial manifestation of ‘Lolita’ burgeoned in Japan during the late 20th century, concurrent with the advent of two-dimensional culture, thereby fostering a more expansive subcultural enclave—the Lolita community. Throughout its gestation and dissemination, the interplay and amalgamation of diverse cultural currents birthed an array of stylistic incarnations: classical/classic Lolita, sweet Lolita, Gothic Lolita, Japanese Lolita, and Chinese Lolita, among others.

(1) Emergence in Japan: Lolita’s refinement, allure, and individuality

The genesis of Lolita attire can be traced to Japan during the 1970s and 1980s, where it first surfaced as a discernible sartorial trend. The 1987 edition of Japan’s ‘Fashion Yearbook’ heralded ‘Lolita’ as a fashion category, characterized by tutu skirts bedecked with ruffles, lace, and complemented by corsets and petticoats—a sartorial repertoire exuding girlish charm, often accessorized with bows, ribbons, headbands, hats, and handbags. Wikipedia aptly delineates Lolita Fashion as ‘a fashion subculture from Japan.’ While its genesis lies in Japan, the prototypical aesthetic of Lolita attire draws inspiration from the courtly garb donned by young ladies during the European Rococo and Victorian epochs. Japanese youths adopted Lolita garb as a form of self-expression and reinterpretation, amidst a milieu suffused with aspirations for Western aristocratic opulence.

1. Refinement and decorum—the aristocratic lineage of Lolita attire

Lolita attire predominantly mirrors the sartorial ethos of European Rococo-era maiden attire. Diverging from the grandiose and solemn Baroque stylings of the 17th century, Rococo aesthetics veered towards ethereal delicacy and finesse, often employing pastel hues and abundant floral motifs, accentuated by lace embellishments and butterfly motifs adorning exposed skin. Thus, Rococo art emerged as an ode to feminine aesthetics—a repudiation of Baroque masculinity and a nascent foray into transcending the strictures of Western classicism. Subsequent to the Rococo epoch, the Victorian era witnessed the crystallization of sartorial trends akin to contemporary Lolita aesthetics. The ascendancy of the British Empire facilitated economic hegemony, which, in turn, precipitated a cultural renaissance and heightened levels of consumerist indulgence. Victorian women, with their alabaster complexions, donned intricately layered lace dresses, bedecked with resplendent headgear and wielding dainty parasols—pivotal elements informing subsequent Lolita fashion iterations. Thus, the lineage of Lolita attire epitomizes a cultural reverence for aristocratic elegance and femininity.

Lolita attire, transcending its mere sartorial function, embodies a cultural emblem replete with references to and integration of Western etiquette mores. Predominant amongst these is attire etiquette and social decorum. The aristocratic echelons spawned an intricate tapestry of courtly etiquette—an emblem of power, status, and discernment, reflective of cultural profundity and spiritual ethos. Rococo-era attire etiquette, designed to accentuate the static allure of feminine curves, facilitated an upright and graceful posture, replete with corsetry and voluminous skirts—a manifestation of etiquette’s role in reshaping feminine physiques and disseminating decorum. Concurrently, the burgeoning salon culture and burgeoning female artistic expression in the 18th century precipitated the proliferation of ‘ladies first’ banquet etiquette, catalyzing a societal paradigm shift. Hosting nobility and literary luminaries in domestic settings heralded a newfound avenue for female intellectual exchange, emblematic of women’s aspirations for autonomy and cultural agency. Banquet etiquette, a hallmark of French aristocratic milieu, finds echoes in Lolita’s reverence for afternoon tea culture, encapsulating enthusiasts’ yearning for the opulence and refinement of palatial aristocracy.

2. Allure and escapism—the Japanese cultural underpinning of Lolita attire

So, why has this resplendent European courtly garb experienced a resurgence in Japan after nearly a century? Primarily, it resonates with the human pursuit of refinement and a life replete with exquisite charms. Given conducive living conditions or social milieus, this innate yearning resurfaces. The genesis of the Lolita attire coincided with Japan’s post-war economic rejuvenation, marking initial strides towards prosperity. Preceding this epoch, the dismantling of isolationist policies during the Edo period and the dawn of Westernization in Japan’s Meiji era laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Lolita fashion subculture. In 1976, the world bore witness to the inaugural Lolita clothing boutique on the bustling streets of Japan. Concurrently, amidst the rapid modernization and urbanization of 1980s Japan, the phenomenon of ‘hyper-modernization’ surfaced. The precipitous economic and financial liberalization, culminating in Japan’s 1988 bubble economy, engendered an era where luxury and decadence persisted amidst burgeoning material affluence. Lolita culture emerged as a favored avenue for young individuals to articulate their aspirational lifestyles through hedonistic consumption.

Deep-seated gender norms have long held sway in Japanese society. Entrenched notions of gender roles and societal obligations, compounded by workplace discrimination against women and familial indoctrination from childhood, compelled females to prematurely embrace matrimony and familial responsibilities. For young girls, Lolita offers a utopian refuge—a transient respite from the harsh realities of society. In their opulent environs, they defy the societal strictures imposed upon them, shunning the traditional familial roles ascribed by society. Refusing the transition from carefree adolescence to encumbered adulthood, they seek to perpetuate their youth. Against this societal backdrop, Japanese female adolescents pioneered the ‘kawaii’ culture. Though ‘kawaii’ translates simply to ‘cute,’ its implications are profound. In Japan, ‘kawaii’ serves as a means of evading the exacting demands of adulthood. Japanese girls cultivated this cute culture as a means of expressing a romanticized nostalgia for childhood, gradually developing a fervent interest in adult and popular Japanese culture, exerting a profound influence. Lolita epitomizes a cultural amalgam forged amidst divergent social, historical, and aesthetic contexts. It represents the intersection of Western classical fashion with Japanese Kawaii aesthetic sensibilities. The ‘loli’ in the Japanese term ‘lolicon’ is a transliteration of ‘Lolita.’ However, juxtaposed with the Western conception of ‘Lolita,’ the overtly sensual aspects are attenuated in the Japanese rendition, imbued instead with quintessentially Japanese traits. The ‘loli’ image in Japanese parlance is synonymous with petite, endearing femininity. Within Japanese two-dimensional culture, ‘loli’ imagery proliferates, evident in titles like “Magical Girl Nanoha,” “Cardcaptor Sakura,” and “Smile Pretty Cure!,” among others.

As the Lolita attire evolved, it underwent the influence of disparate Western cultures. In the crucible of tradition and modernity, it underwent diversified, personalized development, spawning an array of Lolita styles. The most prevalent stylistic classifications—classic Lolita, sweet Lolita, and Gothic Lolita—emerged, reflecting the collision and synthesis of tradition and innovation.

3. Unorthodoxy—the spiritual underpinnings of Lolita as a subcultural phenomenon

The genesis and self-expression inherent in Lolita attire among Japanese youth bespeak a deeper spiritual resonance. Though disparate epochs birthed distinct cultures, Lolita’s roots in European antiquity, particularly the Rococo era, exuded a spirit of indulgent revelry and festive abandon. Against the socio-cultural backdrop of Japan, Lolita attire was endowed with analogous spiritual connotations—resistance against prevailing societal mores, a quest for liberation, and a fervent embrace of individualistic self-expression.

In 2004, the cinematic success of “Kamikaze Girls” propelled Japanese Lolita attire into the public consciousness, garnering widespread acclaim within mainstream society. Adapted from the eponymous novel, the film’s protagonist, Momoko Ryuzaki, embodies the rococo ethos and rebellious spirit cherished by Japanese youth. Taozi, an ardent aficionado of Lolita skirts, epitomizes a leisurely, decadent lifestyle imbued with a ‘joy-first’ spiritual ethos. Through her personal interpretation of the Rococo ethos, Taozi articulates: “With the Rococo spirit, one can reconcile contradictions seamlessly. Amidst desolation and incredulity, contradictions dissipate, and one’s capricious heart reigns supreme—a law unto itself.” Taozi epitomizes Lolita’s amalgam of childlike innocence, asexuality, and a nuanced interplay of independence and self-possession—attributes that resonate profoundly with Japanese youth. Many young women emulate Taozi’s appearance and attire, seeking refuge in the idyllic Rococo dream world she embodies. Within this independent realm, they challenge societal strictures and articulate their dissent and disenchantment. As Taozi asserts, “The more others dissuade me—’Dress less conspicuously and conventionally to make friends easily and attract boys—the more resolute I become in embracing my Lolita soul, steadfast on this unconventional path.” This self-awareness and unyielding spirit, impervious to external ‘conventional wisdom,’ stand as cardinal tenets of Lolita culture.

(2) Introduction to China: Assimilation and resistance to foreign cultures

The localization of foreign subcultures entails a series of initial rejection before eventual acceptance by the populace. Analogous to the protracted journey of hip-hop culture from underground dormancy to mainstream prominence, Lolita culture traverses a trajectory of perpetual acceptance and negotiation—from esoteric vestments once misunderstood to stylized attire embraced by youth.

In the early 21st century, Lolita made inroads into China via Japanese ACG (animation, comics, games) culture, as evidenced in animated series like “Sailor Moon,” “Cardcaptor Sakura,” and “Rose Girl.” Characters therein donned attire replete with Lolita elements. The impetus of commercial capital propelled the erstwhile niche two-dimensional culture into the public eye through media dissemination. Early adopters in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and other urban enclaves gleaned insights into ‘Lolita’ through new media platforms, congregating in online fora, blogs, and forums. These virtual havens coalesced into offline activities, including comic and cosplay exhibitions, where enthusiasts emulated characters from animated works, often incorporating Lolita elements into their attire and hairstyles—a pivotal means through which enthusiasts interfaced with the Lolita aesthetic.

In the era of globalization and consumerism, diverse media contents experience transnational dissemination. The individualistic ethos of the West, the rebellious spirit inherent in Japanese Lolita, and the postmodern ethos collectively facilitated the propagation of Lolita in China. Unlike modernity, postmodernity accentuates the diversity and fluidity of individual identities, advocating tolerance and coexistence amid differences. Faced with the alien culture of Lolita, domestic enthusiasts embrace an attitude of acceptance and tolerance. While adhering to mainstay clothing styles and behavioral norms within the group, they honor traditional dressing conventions. For instance, when donning Lolita attire, enthusiasts ensure no body skin beyond the face is exposed, maintain skirt lengths around the knees, and adorn high socks—conservative standards preserving traditional clothing aesthetics. In terms of demeanor, Chinese Lolita enthusiasts, observed on city streets, often exude an elegant and poised demeanor reminiscent of European courtliness. In more progressive coastal cities, enthusiasts convene for tea parties—a nod to aristocratic gatherings—donning full Lolita regalia as they indulge in tea and delicate pastries, exemplifying an embrace of diverse cultural practices.

However, due to regional cultural disparities, the niche style of Lolita inevitably collides with local culture upon introduction to China. Unlike rock and hip-hop culture, Lolita encounters relatively subdued acceptance and recognition among the Chinese populace. This is primarily attributed to underlying national cultural conflicts, geopolitical tensions, and patriotic sentiments. For instance, in December 13, 2015, Baby, a Japanese Lolita brand, hosted a tea party in Shanghai, coinciding with China’s National Memorial Day for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre—an act that elicited vehement condemnation from numerous Lolita enthusiasts. They perceived it as a slight against Chinese dignity, prompting some to disengage from the subculture. Additionally, aesthetic disparities between China and Japan contribute to Chinese audiences’ ambivalence towards Lolita. Japan’s aesthetic sensibility embodies a melancholic, delicate, and introverted sentiment known as “mono-sei”—tempered by Japanese cultural nuances, it underpins a unique national aesthetic consciousness. In contrast, China’s traditional thought espouses optimism and open-mindedness, creating a stark contrast. Such cultural and aesthetic divergences render the process of Chinese youth embracing Lolita arduous and intricate.

In light of the dynamic interplay between local and foreign cultures, contemporary youth exhibit a nuanced approach when confronted with foreign phenomena, eschewing blind acceptance or opposition. They display a discerning willingness to integrate diverse cultural elements while infusing them with national essence, thereby infusing Lolita with renewed vigor.

Enchantment, collage, and assimilation: the cultural renaissance of the Chinese Lolita community

The Lolita subculture fosters distinct characteristics and behavioral norms, wherein enthusiasts imbue Lolita culture with personal interpretations and significance—a practice tantamount to cultural reproduction. Within this milieu, enthusiasts enchant and reinterpret culture to suit their needs, constructing an exclusive cultural domain.

(1) Enchantment: The self-expression and emotional catharsis of the urban princess

Lolita aficionados ascribe multifaceted meanings to Lolita culture, utilizing attire as a conduit to assert their identity and articulate their emotions. Through donning Lolita attire, they express their identity and unburden their innermost feelings. Enchantment bestows divine allure upon attire that may otherwise lack intrinsic value or significance. For enthusiasts, this allure epitomizes the pursuit of an idealized self and the realization of a princess-like dream.

Charming Lolita serves as a means for enthusiasts to fortify their identity and foster a sense of belonging. Attire becomes a means of demarcating group boundaries and asserting influence over social dynamics. Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers posited that every individual harbors two selves—the actual self and the ideal self. For Lolita enthusiasts, wearing a ‘lo’ (short for ‘Lolita’) skirt serves as an external manifestation of their idealized selves. They imbue these skirts with profound meaning, resonating with their innermost aspirations and transforming attire into an extension of self. In a society that often imposes rigid aesthetic norms, particularly regarding women’s social status, donning Lolita attire represents an act of defiance—a testament to their courage and confidence.

The inherently childlike and endearing aesthetic of Lolita attire imbues it with the mantle of “princess.” Lolita’s popularity stems from its alignment with girls’ fantasies of childhood and the princess archetype. This longing to recapture childhood innocence has long lingered in Japanese girls’ hearts. By fusing European princess garb with Japanese cute fashion, they birthed the iconic sweet Lolita style. Similarly, among China’s Generation Z, Lolita culture resonates with a desire to reclaim childhood dreams—

“As children, we all harbored fantasies of being princesses and adorning ourselves in princess dresses. Yet, for years, I hadn’t encountered such resplendent and dreamlike attire. Rediscovering it reignited the girlish reverie I held dear, allowing me to realize my princess dream once more.” — Interviewee 1

“In my youth, I lacked the means and opportunity to don such exquisite and darling attire fit for a princess. Now, donning Lolita attire feels like rectifying childhood regrets and fulfilling long-suppressed desires.” — Interviewee 3

Lolita attire satiates girls’ yearning for nostalgia. Through its whimsical skirts, enthusiasts envisage the elegant, noble, and carefree existence of European princesses. Within the Lolita realm, enthusiasts assume diverse personas, seeking refuge from the tumultuous pressures of adulthood. One former Lolita enthusiast recounts being mocked—”Do you fancy yourself a princess because you wear Lolita?” Yet, she embraced the moniker, epitomizing a princess not of caprice and arrogance, but of resilience—a mindset embodying the conviction of being “deserving of beauty and affection.” If unappreciated, she vows, “I shall forever cherish my darling skirts.”

(2) Appropriation and collage: the Sinicization of Lolita culture

Chinese Lolita enthusiasts engage in cultural reproduction by integrating Chinese cultural elements into Lolita fashion, fostering cross-cultural understanding and bolstering local cultural identity. Through appropriation and collage, enthusiasts seamlessly blend Chinese style elements such as landscape paintings, giant pandas, Hanfu (traditional Chinese clothing), and cheongsam (traditional Chinese dress) into the Lolita aesthetic. This fusion has garnered international attention within the Lolita clothing industry.

The process of introducing Lolita to China witnessed a simultaneous process of Sinicization. In 2019, Chinese-style Lolita gained prominence, with many stores blending Lolita with Hanfu. This fusion resonated with enthusiasts, who found the resulting garments exquisitely beautiful. The integration of Chinese elements into Lolita not only enhances its visual appeal but also underscores its inclusivity and modernity.

Chinese-style Lolita represents a harmonious amalgamation of two distinct cultures, achieved through the incorporation of Hanfu elements. Hanfu, influenced by the Confucian principle of harmony between man and nature, boasts a unique formal beauty. By infusing Lolita attire with Hanfu-inspired designs such as double-breasted collars, wide sleeves, and traditional Hanfu accessories, enthusiasts imbue Lolita clothing with a distinctly Chinese aesthetic, enriching its cultural significance.

Similarly, the successful incorporation of cheongsam elements into Lolita attire birthed “Qi-Lolita,” a style that merges the femininity of the cheongsam with Lolita’s whimsical charm. With its stand-up collars, buckles, and tassels, Qi-Lolita exudes elegance and agility, reflecting a harmonious blend of traditional Chinese aesthetics and Lolita sensibilities.

Chinese-style Lolita does not merely create a new fashion trend; it cultivates a style imbued with Chinese cultural heritage. Through the appropriation and collage of clothing styles from different historical periods in China, enthusiasts foster cultural identity and confidence among domestic youth, thereby elevating China’s international cultural standing.

(3) Embedding: participatory expression in daily life

Enthusiasts adopt Lolita attire not only for self-presentation but also to integrate the style seamlessly into their daily lives, blending Lolita aesthetics with everyday clothing elements. This embedding of Lolita into daily life reflects a desire for recognition and acceptance from both self and society.

By incorporating everyday clothing items like windbreakers and denim jackets into Lolita ensembles, enthusiasts make Lolita fashion more accessible and acceptable in daily contexts. This blending of styles allows enthusiasts to reconcile their Lolita identity with societal norms and mainstream culture, negotiating public scrutiny while maintaining their unique aesthetic preferences.

The practice of embedding Lolita into daily life is akin to a performance—an act of self-expression and self-presentation. Enthusiasts navigate public perception and societal expectations, seeking to strike a balance between their Lolita persona and their everyday identity.

Ultimately, the reproduction behavior of embedding Lolita into daily life underscores the subjective motivation of enthusiasts to gain societal recognition. Informed by Lacan’s “mirror theory,” enthusiasts construct their identities through social validation, striving for an interactive unity between self-perception and public reception.

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