Saturday, March 27, 2021

Lolita, Rebellion, and the "Cocoro" of "Rococo"

    The Rococo period and its representation in art, literature, and media, has been a source of inspiration in lolita fashion since its inception. But beyond the pure beauty and aesthetics of the era - with its opulence and theatricality, the iconic pastels and lavish gilded curls - there is something about this phenomenon that's worth considering: why? 

    Why did Rococo, an art style from 18th-century Europe, which was primarily the confined to the realms of the aristocratic elite, become the template for an alternative fashion pioneered by young Japanese women in the late 20th century? For me, this is a question in two parts - firstly, why a European art movement, and secondly, why Rococo spefically? After all, there is no shortage of beauty and opulence in the history of Japanese art, and there are many romanticised historical periods that one might choose from. So why did early lolitas choose emulate a period of history that was so far from home in terms of geography, politics, economics, class, and culture? 

Robe a la Francaise, made in France, ca. 1760. V&A Museum, London. /
Robe a la Francaise OP, released in 2018, Baby the Stars Shine Bright.

    The most obvious answer might simply be that the beautiful and fantastical aesthetics of Rococo happened to appeal to these young women. Many additional factors play into this as well, like the history of interaction and exchange between Japan and the West, as well as the strong cultural influences that European powers have spread across the globe over centuries of imperialism and colonial power struggles.

    However, I believe there may be another layer of reasoning which belies the rebellious and radical message behind lolita fashion. That is the layer that I'm going to be exploring in my blog post today. 

    Despite their similar inspirations and strong historical connections, Lolita is seldom seen as equal to other alternative subcultures like punk or goth, and is often looked down upon as a "costume" or "girls playing dress-up". Lolita's popularity among young women, its non-Western origins, its hyperfemininity, and its own tendency to fashion itself as frivolous, apolitical, and shallow, means that the true radicalism and innovation in its origins is often downplayed or dismissed. Because of this, when it comes to thinking about lolita history, I am incredibly conscious of ideas about agency, choice, and authority. 

From Kera 019, 12 April 2000. Image courtesy of Lolita History.

    I want to consider the use of the Rococo period in lolita fashion as a deliberate and conscious choice, and how this might change the way we consider lolita fashion as an alternative counter-culture in its own right. While the pioneers of lolita were certainly following developing trends and taking inspiration from other subcultures, they were also doing so in a way that reflected their own feelings and frustrations about their world and the roles that it put them in. By emulating the Rococo, a culture and lifestyle that seemed so completely removed and antithetical to their own society, They were asserting a sense of individuality, power, and agency, in a time when youth protest and counterculture was actively being suppressed, and many young people were being pressured to conform to the values of modern capitalism. Adopting the aesthetics and accoutrements of another culture and another time was a means of rebelling against these societal obligations, an act of resistance that was both silent and loud enough for everyone to see and hear. 

The Zenkyoto student rebellions that spread across Japan in the 1960s lead to violent clashes with the police that set the standard for widespread suppression of youth protest. Image from Todai Zenkyoto 68-69 ( 東大全共闘 1968-1969), by Watanabe Hitomi 渡辺 眸

    The fact that lolita draws so much from Rococo specifically might then also be connected to the fact that the Rococo often ran contrary to ideas about logic, rationality, and good taste in its own time. As a rejection of the grand, but strict opulence of the Baroque period, Rococo embraced romanticism, naturalism, and theatricality. Its bold and graceful curves, love of asymmetry, and use of colourful pastels, was popular with members of the aristocracy, but often decried as superficial, garish, and obscene by notable thinkers of the age, who craved greater sophistication and "nobler art". This criticism came with a gendered edge to it, as many of the most influential patrons of the Rococo movement were powerful women, like the famous Madame de Pompadour. Rococo became associated with femininity, and critics connected that femininity to frivolity, superficiality, and shallowness, attacking not just the style of Rococo, but the women who supported it.

Francois Bouche, Marquis de Pompadour at her Toilette, France, 1750. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA /
Pompadour OP, release 2015, Angelic Pretty.

    Rococo was seen as the antithesis of the Enlightenment period, which came closely after and tended to be much more severe. In contrast to the Rococo era, art from the Enlightenment featured stricter composition, emphasizing symmetry, strong horizontal lines, and perspective, while utilizing somber colours and "timeless" themes, which often carried a moral edge. It was meant to promote logic, reason, and rationality - defined, of course, by the leading figures of the period. Where Rococo was focused on evoking feelings of pleasure, romance, and happiness, Enlightenment art was a serious affair, meant to teach and inspire. Enlightenment ideas about rationality, austerity, and modernity have formed much of the foundations of current society, and it is these ideas that lolita - as a kind of spiritual descendent of the Rococo age and its libertine philosophy - tends challenges, more than two centuries on.

    Lolita fashion is both silent and deafening. While many lolitas themselves may espouse an apolitical stance, the act of wearing clothing as ostentatious and elaborate as lolita is a political performance in and of itself - one that rebels directly against the environment of modern Japan in which the fashion was created. Its obviously "foreign" and anachronistic look emphasizes the wearer's rejection of contemporary society. Furthermore, by embracing the aesthetics of naturalism, freedom, and femininity inherent in Rococo art and design, lolita fashion rejects the imposition of "rationality" and "logic", the key social constructs of the Western Enlightenment which were spread across the world through colonialism and globalisation, and become foundational to the idea of "modernity" the world over. 

Robe a la Francaise, made in France, ca. 1750-1760. Palais Galliera, Paris. /
Rococo Tiered JSK, released 2006, Innocent World. 

    All of this, perhaps, is best summarised by this iconic quote from Shimotsuma Monogatari, or Kamikaze Girls, in which Momoko describes what she views as the essence of Rococo - the "heart" of the movement, which lolita has adopted for its own uses and purposes. 

“Prizing elegance, sweet emotions, and fantasy more than morals and truth; wallowing in fleeting romance rather than trying to give meaning to life, when who knows what's going to happen to you anyway; ignoring virtue and conventions to cherish only the pleasures you are definitely experiencing now: this is the Cocoro of Rococo."

- Takemoto Novala, Shimotsuma Monogatari

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't considered that the most prominent patrons of Rococo were women and once I'd read that, a lot of things started to make a lot more sense (not just in the context of lolita fashion, but Rococo in its own right). We know about the Louises: Louis XV and Louis XVI most notably - but most people will know far more about Madam de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette, including people with little interest in or conscious knowledge of French history. Really puts into perspective that the femininity of Rococo (actual and perceived) mirror that of lolita fashion in more ways than just visual.