“Life was like candy. So what if it was deceitful?” says a girl clad in a Rococo-inspired outfit, after breezily explaining that the way she got her money for shopping was by telling her clueless father a bunch of sob stories; she has no friends but she doesn’t care: clothes make her happy. “My happiness was at stake. It’s not wrong to feel good. That’s what Rococo taught me. But actually my soul is rotten.”
This monologue, uttered by the Lolita fashion-obsessed protagonist of the cult movie Shimotsuma Monogatari (“Kamikaze Girls”) (2004) served as the inspiration for the title of the book So Pretty/Very Rotten, written and illustrated by cartoonists Jane Mai, based in Brooklyn, and An Nguyen, from Ottawa. Recently released by Toronto-based Koyama Press, the book is a collection of essays, illustrations, and short comics that attempt to give Lolita fashion a broader cultural and sociological context.
Lolita fashion quietly began as a subculture in the Tokyo district of Harajuku in the 1970s, but did not fully flourish until the ’90s, its outfits a synthesis of Victorian and Rococo styles (with Marie Antoinette and Alice in Wonderland being the ultimate muses). Pop culture took note. Manga artists, for instance, have drawn plenty of inspiration from Lolita fashion and so has the movie industry: other than Kamikaze Girls, notable movies include Gothic and Lolita Psycho (2010) and X-Cross (2007).
But Mai and Nguyen’s book comes at a peculiar time for Lolita fashion: Cult-like magazines entirely dedicated to Harajuku subculture and Lolita fashion have folded in the last couple of years: CUTiE, the first magazine that used the term kawaii in reference to Japanese aesthetic and fashion, ended its run in 2015; Kera! ceased publication in April 2017; Gothic and Lolita Bible “went on hiatus” in May 2017; and in February 2017 FRUiTS magazine went on a five-month hiatus after its editor and chief photographer Shoichi Aoki said that “there are no more cool kids left to photograph.”
Being a “cool kid” that photographs well, though, is only a surface-level aspect of Lolita fashion. As Mai and Nguyen show through entertaining but educational storytelling, Lolita fashion is full of complexities and contradictions. The name Lolita, for example, is purportedly inspired by Nabokov’s nymphet, but in fact has little to do with her portrayal in the novel; rather, Lolita fashion is meant to convey an idea of perpetual innocence. The origins of the name “Lolita fashion” itself are unknown, though some theorize the name is meant to reclaim Dolores Haze’s innocence, eliminating Humbert Humbert’s male gaze. “Prior to the novel, Lolita was the nickname for Dolores and did not have the nymphet connotations,” Mai and Nguyen write in the “Frequently Asked Questions” chapter. The innocence embodied by Japanese Lolitas, however, is perceived by the conservative Japanese society as a provocation and disturbance to the nation’s strict conformism. Novala Takemoto, the author and fashion designer who inspired the movie Kamikaze Girls and whom Nguyen interviewed for So Pretty/Very Rotten, has previously argued that the Lolitas’ eternal childlike appearance is their own “form of resistance […] They don’t exist to please anyone.”
The strength of So Pretty/Very Rotten stems from the manifold approaches the authors take toward Lolita fashion. They taxonomize it: for example, they explain and draw, in detail, the differences between demure “classic Lolita,” fond of tapestry-inspired fabrics and muted hues, the “sweet Lolita,” who favors pastel colors and images of cute animals and cakes, and the “gothic Lolita,” who adopts a more funeral-inspired attire and might carry, say, a coffin-shaped bag. Mai and Nguyen study it as a culture intersecting with other cultures, such as shojo (a cultural concept that can be used to refer to a “little girl,” “maiden,” “young lady,” and “virgin”) and the indie music scene, especially the glam rock movement Visual Kei. Mai and Nguyen, who have firsthand experience with Lolita by dressing in that fashion, observe the psychological ramifications of the lifestyle itself, particularly how it’s fueled by a very materialistic drive, which can cause a state of permanent dissatisfaction.
Nguyen actually obtained a PhD in anthropology with a thesis on Lolita fashion, and we can find excerpts and adaptations of her academic work in So Pretty/Very Rotten. While painstakingly collecting information on the topic, she had a persistent thought: “If only I could draw about this concept rather than use words to describe it.” In 2014, she asked Jane Mai to collaborate with her and that was the genesis of their book.
Mai and Nguyen approach the subject through different perspectives: Mai’s work veers on the macabre and is strictly focused on the toll a consumerist culture like Lolita takes on those who partake in it. She gets her point across by sprinkling her comics with more than a light touch of horror: “My clothes are perfect, I will be ok,” says the protagonist of one of her comics while scratching her bald, scabby scalp that she hides under a doll-like wig; she had just coughed up a massive amount of blood, but she still looked perfect.”
Nguyen takes a more anthropological and interpersonal approach. One comic features Nguyen herself interviewing several Lolitas (something she actually did for her doctoral thesis) and the answers she receives are insightful: “Do you prefer to be cute or beautiful?” is answered with “Beautiful things seem far away somehow, like out of my realm. It’s for someone else to say, not for me to define or desire. But cuteness seems more attainable and at hand, so it’s something that I can imagine being.” “Do you think Lolitas are strong or weak people?” is replied with, “Lolitas are weak because we are overly kind, but we are strong because we are not afraid to be different.”
The drawing styles of the authors differ to a great degree, too: where Mai uses bold lines, rounder shapes, no grayscale, and illustrates heavily stylized characters that occupy the page without being constricted into boxes, Nguyen has a more ethereal style, and does not use as much black as Mai does. Their comics have a no-frills sketchbook-like quality: this allows us to focus on the enlightening dialogue rather than on, say, the flowers adorning a Lolita’s bonnet. And this is certainly not due to lack of drawing skills: in fact, in the bumper illustrations and fashion section devoted to the different styles of Lolita, Mai and Nguyen made sure they reproduced even the most delicate ruffle in the utmost detail.
In his interview and essay featured in So Pretty/Very Rotten, Takemoto bemoans how, in Japan, Lolita fashion has hardly ever been accepted as a worthwhile research topic, hence the lack of significant documentation save for strictly fashion-centric content. With few exceptions, like Masafumi Monden, scholars have confined Lolita into brief chapters of books exploring fashion subcultures in general. An accurate and comprehensive book on Lolita fashion is still to be written. In the meantime, Mai and Nguyen’s work is an invaluable resource for whoever wants to get acquainted with a culture that, underneath its frilly garments, is a paradoxical form of empowerment and self-assertion.
So Pretty/Very Rotten by Jane Mai and An Nguyen is out now from Koyama Press.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that FRUiTS magazine printed its last copy in February 2017. This is incorrect; the magazine released a new issue in July. We regret the error and it has been fixed.