Image copyright MGM.
I’ve been re-reading Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita recently, partly because I could feel my brain beginning to atrophy as a result of reading too much nonsense (good nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless, The Russian Concubine et al) and I needed something possessing the verbosity only found in “classic literature” (and I’ve had my fill of Wilde for a while)… and partly because I wondered what it would feel like to go back to this controversial story after becoming that which is so often confused with it: a Lolita by fashion terms. I think the first and last time I read this book must have been at the end of my junior high career or the beginning of high school, so a number of years ago. I’d never heard of Lolita fashion at that time and I got a little scandalous thrill from reading the book because it was actually banned in my school district. The movie was even more scandalous– for my 14-year-old self.
Anyway, I digress. I just wanted to make a bit of a comment about these two oft-confused but fundamentally different usages of the same name. Lolita fashion is one of those gross misnomers that would have benefited SO much from a simple name change in its early stages (I can’t help but think about the English school NOVA, which would probably be doing a LOT better now if its name had been changed after it collapsed and before it came back…). But that can’t really be helped now, and forever the fashion will be incorrectly equated with Nabokov’s famous Lolita (and as a result, “lolicon” in Japan, which takes it’s name from “Lolita complex”– also from Nabokov’s famous 12-year-old).
There are a lot of debates about why the fashion is called “Lolita” and whether it’s related to the book, or the film (in which Lo is fundamentally different as a character: in the book she’s a fairly typical kid to everyone except the perverted Humbert Humbert, but in the film she is presented as a seductive young woman). Personally, I think that if the name has any significance at all, they have to be related. But I don’t think that means that Lolita fashion should be considered something inherently sexual. Perhaps this was just yet another misinterpretation of Lo’s character; or perhaps it was something a little deeper.
First, let’s think about Lolita the character’s two personalities.
In the book, she’s a grubby little girl who is just interested in being a kid until her life comes crashing down– thanks entirely to Dr. Humbert, a middle-aged man who can’t contain his desire for her. Her world becomes increasingly wild and unpredictable and extremely mature, especially considering she’s only 12. If the fashion is consciously based on this version of the character, then we might say that the idea is to give girls who find themselves thrown into a world that is changing too fast, and becoming too dirty, some sort of lovely fantasy to cling to.
In the film, Lolita is a 14-year-old tease who seduces Humbert. If we want to think of the fashion as related to this version of Lo we might conclude that it is for girls that are young at heart but still mature and worldly in their heads. She’s quite a tough cookie, after all. Which is actually a kind of compliment if you think about it– and certainly many a Lolita I know is an intelligent young woman wrapped in a very colorful package.
Honestly I don’t think there’s anything insulting about relating the Lolita fashion with Nabokov’s character. The insulting thing is when it is done by someone who actually knows very little about either. Whether there’s any real connection, we may never know (and while it’s interesting to ponder, there’s no point in fighting over it).
As for whether Lolita the fashion is intended to be about sex, I’d say decidedly no; but as a friend of mine once said, Lolita might not be inherently sexual, but humans are, and that’s bound to connect at some point. But people who wear blue jeans have sex too– that doesn’t make blue jeans an automatic statement of sexuality. If Lolita WAS originally intended to have some sort of sexual connotations, I think it’s moved pretty far in the opposite direction by now. I can’t see how wearing a two-tier cake or a cupcake on your head could really be seen as an invitation for lowbrow activities (but that’s just one girl’s opinion).
Unfortunately, there has been enough media exposure of Lolita fashion, linking it to maid fashion and the “moe” phenomenon, that in Japan there are a number of people assume all kinds of Lolita fashion are actually some sort of fetish.
Among people who know about the fashion though, there is a particular idea– that Lolitas can be downright frigid. As one of my Japanese friends explained: Lolitas and gyaru don’t get along because “Lolitas are prudes and gyaru are easy”.
But that’s for a different essay altogether!
And in conclusion, I recommend both the book and the movie Lolita to anyone who hasn’t yet read or seen it. If nothing else you’ll probably learn some new vocabulary!