Kitty and the Bulldog: Lolita Fashion and the Influence of Britain

live report - 17.11.2012 00:01

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London presents an exhibition of Japanese street style

Lolita fashion has received a mixed reception in the West. While its fans welcome the opportunity to indulge in elaborate outfits that are less revealing than contemporary high street fashion, the media tends to interpret their striving for doll-like cuteness as unwillingness to face reality, or homes in on the reference to Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita", suspecting a connection with paedophilia. Even fans of Japanese pop culture and the Japanese Studies departments of universities often struggle to differentiate between Japanese street fashion and other cultural phenomena, such as cosplay and visual kei. So how does the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, present lolita fashion?

The V&A is no stranger to street style. In 1994, it hosted an exhibition of British street fashion in collaboration with the anthropologist and author Ted Polhemus called Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, which showcased 50 years of British style tribes from teddy boys to cyberpunk. In 2003, it held a Gothic Halloween party as part of its regular Friday Late events, featuring makeovers by makeup brand MAC, tarot card readings, a magician, guided tours to the museum's most macabre exhibits, screenings of dark short films, a Victorian hearse and DJ Steve Weeks spinning tunes from London's seminal goth club, Slimelight. In 2004, it showed a retrospective of the work of Vivienne Westwood, who together with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren invented many staples of punk fashion, such as bondage trousers, and went on to achieve worldwide fame as a fashion designer. And in 2011, a community of German lolitas staged an educational fashion show in connection with its Art & Design for all: The Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.

Kitty and the Bulldog—a reference to Hello Kitty and the animal which is popularly used to represent the UK—is part of a bigger exhibition, British Design 1948 - 2012: Innovation of the Modern Age, which was created to welcome the Olympic games to London. It features seven examples of lolita styles that reflect British influences and two examples of lolita and related styles that show a return to traditional Japanese clothing. The display is divided into four sections—sweet, gothic, punk and wa-lolita—and each section is accompanied by a short explanation of the style and a drawing illustrating the British influence it draws on. All outfits and accessories were acquired in Japan by the exhibition's curators, Rupert Faulkner and Pauline Le Moigne.

The first two exhibits are dedicated to sweet lolita. An off-white and coral red cotton dress by Innocent World, featuring the bell-shaped skirt typical for lolita fashion, plenty of tulle lace and a rococo style print of angels and rabbits, shows a more classical take on the style. The outfit is rounded off with a white parasol and a wicker basket carrying a pair of knitted rabbits. The popular sweet lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright is represented with two outfits: one from its main line and the other from its sub-brand, Alice and the Pirates. The white and powder blue dresses and head bows highlight the influence of Lewis Carroll's novel "Alice in Wonderland", a key theme of the style. The Baby dress is accompanied by pink "tea party" style ballerina shoes and a pastel coloured handbag in the shape of a clock, while a white apron and a big black plush rabbit, which turns out to be a shoulder bag, complete the Alice and the Pirates outfit. The clothes, which are presented in a rather scientific manner on faceless mannequins, are very well coordinated and even the dummies' feet are turned slightly inwards to emulate the pigeon-toed ideal of lolita fashion.

Gothic lolita is personified by Moi-même-Moitié, the label of visual rock guitarist Mana of Malice Mizer and Moi dix Mois fame. The elegant, long-sleeved black dress, which shows the brand's trademark black and navy colour scheme and is decorated with embroidered tulle lace, shows the slightly slimmer silhouette typical of this style. It is complemented by a matching headdress, a black and navy handbag and a black parasol. The influence of Western gothic fashion, which had its origin in Britain, and Victorian mourning dress is apparent in the cross designs used on the dress and handbag and in the embroidery of the lace, as well as bat shape of the bag. A long black aristocrat coat from Alice Auaa, with corset details around the waist and shredded white fabric cascading from its sleeves, topped off with a black hat and walking stick, provides the even more gothic male counterpart to Moitié's feminine co-ordinates.

The male and female theme continues with punk lolita and its reference to British punk rock and Vivienne Westwood's iconic designs. The female version of the style, courtesy of Putumayo, manages to look more cute than rebellious with a black t-shirt and tutu featuring punkish white prints and tartan details, set off with silver accessories, spider web gloves and a bag in the shape of a ragged, one-eyed cat. The male version, exemplified by Sixh. and MINT Neko, with its hooded top and asymmetrical skirt made from red and black tartan fabric, safety pin accessories and an equally ragged "alley cat" bag, focuses more on the aggressive than the cute aspects of the style.

Japanese or wa-lolita is shown in two very different guises. The male or unisex example of the style is represented by the avant-garde creations of Takuya Angel, which combine recycled kimono fabrics and traditional Japanese pattern cutting with Western cyberpunk details. The female version is personified by the understated designs of Mamechiyo Modern. One has to scrutinize the gently coloured kimono outfit closely to notice its tongue-in-cheek Western twists, like the 1950s style lace-covered handbag, the headdress and choker, which seem to draw on Victorian influences, or the rabbit print on the obi, which leads back to "Alice in Wonderland".

Kitty and the Bulldog is a small, but important exhibition. The UK has been fortunate in that there has been less controversy around lolita fashion than in continental Europe, where lolitas play buzzword bingo with the misconceptions found in media reports about the fashion and its wearers. However, as the lolita scene grows and becomes more prominent, so does the interest of the general public. While Kitty and the Bulldog focuses on British influences, its creators clearly understand the creative forces that shape lolita fashion and the exhibition communicates them extremely well.

Moreover, the V&A has embraced the local lolita community by hosting a number of events, including a Friday Late called Loli-POP!, which featured talks with Rupert Faulkner and Pauline Le Moigne, Philomena Keet, anthropologist and author of "The Tokyo Look Book", and Pat Lyttle, author of "Japanese Street Style", a purikura booth, a photo trail with dedicated areas for sweet, punk, gothic and wa-lolita, a kimono demonstration, a jewellery making workshop, nail, eyelash and wig bars, a screening of "Kamikaze Girls", the film adaptation of Novala Takemoto's novel about the friendship between a lolita and a yankee, DJs spinning J-pop and J-rock and a Grand Alice Finale with readings from "Alice in Wonderland" and ballet dancers wearing outfits by Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Most recently, the museum offered a gallery talk with one of the curators, exploring the connection between lolita fashion and Victoriana, western gothic and punk.

If the highly respected Victoria and Albert Museum can show that lolita is not a fetish or a form of escapism for teenage misfits, but a fun and very creative street fashion, hopefully the media and the public will listen. After all, the UK has a long tradition of tolerating eccentrics and street style is one of its most successful exports.

Kitty and the Bulldog is a free exhibition running until 24th February 2013 in the V&A's Toshiba Gallery.
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