Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why is Lolita called "Lolita"? Does Lolita Fashion Have Anything To Do With Nabokov?

One of the most long-running debates in Lolita fashion, and certainly one of the biggest arguments between Lolitas and people who are not Lolitas is the name. Every few years in the Western Lolita community this debate pops up, usually filled with lots of alternative suggestions and at least one person who wants to take it upon themselves to change the name of the fashion for everyone, which has lead to a few terms, such as the awkward "Little Big Girl" in the early 2000's, and the tongue twisting "Quaintrelle" of a few years back. However, it is pretty obvious that none of these have managed to stick!

For those on the other side of the argument, the ones accusing Lolitas of being up to something deviant because of the name, they often cite things like the more infamous Angelic Pretty dresses that look quite a bit like nursery room wallpaper, even though things like this are even niche within in the fashion as a whole, and definitely not your average Lolita's definitive style in the fashion. So, why is Lolita called Lolita, if it has just caused so many problems over the years? The short answer is: no one really knows! But let's look into some of the possible reasons why Lolita managed to snag such a name for themselves, and why it has less to do with the book than your average person on the street thinks, and maybe a little more than your average Lolita is willing to admit.

The roots of the fashion: What Lolita was before it was called "Lolita".
Before we can really answer this question, I think we need to take a quick look at the sort of aesthetic movements that most likely caused the Lolita fashion to eventually happen. This is a little bit of pre-history here, even going further back in time than I do in this article about very old school Lolita!
1970's volume of Seventeen
A volume of Seventeen from the 1970's, heavy on the Victorian romanticism.
As any Lolita who knows her stuff will tell you, one of the precursors to the Lolita style, probably the one where we get most of our aesthetics from, is Natural Kei. Natural Kei was, in part, a result of the romantic Victorian inspired designs that first popped up in the late 1960's and spread to popular culture from things like bohemian trends. This Victorian revival was a massively wide-spread thing, not just limited to young women's fashion trends! Men and women of all ages were all the sudden taking inspiration from a very romanticized ideal of a simpler Victorian inspired life. You can see its inspiration in every thing from music, to furniture, to clothes, to the post-hippie DIY movement.

I believe that it is from this trend, particularly the rose-tinted view of a more innocent and simpler "prairie life" and the inspired fashions that popped up in regards to that, was one of the major influences in Natural Kei. Now, what exactly does this have to do with "the other Lolita" and Nabokov? You guessed it, absolutely nothing. These things are Lolita's direct roots, roots that are still obvious from everything from the choice of fabrics, to placements of lace and details in modern day Lolita clothes, and it has nothing to do with Nabokov's Lolita novel.
Little House On the Prairie TV show
Little House on the Prairie: A charming TV show loved by millions because of its romantic depiction of an innocent and simpler time? Or devious sexual fetish practiced by psychologically broken young women with the intention of tricking dirty old men into buying them expensive frilly clothes, to fuel their mentally unstable psycho-sexual consumer lust?
Like most things, especially aesthetic driven subcultures, the style came before it's name, and was already well developed before it was given the name "Lolita". I don't think I have to explain that at no time in the early 90's did anyone site down and write the word "Lolita" on a piece of paper, followed by the phrase "sexy baby fashion" and then started to list how to go about making a fashion based on that idea. However ridiculous that sounds, many outsiders to the fashion act like this was the case!

So how did the name "Lolita" stick to the fashion?
This is the real mystery here! The term "Lolita" wasn't used to describe this fashion until the early-to-mid 1990's. From everything I had ever seen, by this point Natural Kei was beginning to diverge into a separate style, less romantic and more girly. The My Fair Lady of the Victorian revival had been filtered out and slowly replaced with Laura Ingalls. Perhaps the target audience was getting younger as well. Many sources talking about the golden age of Natural Kei will include a mention that it was "housewife" fashion, fashion for the 20-30 something fashionable young woman who wanted to wear something cute and girly while tending house. Whereas Lolita is known for being fashion for the late teen to mid-20's set. It was probably sometime in the early 90's that what we now might recognize as a proto-Lolita was probably starting to branch off from Natural Kei and develop into an even more girly style adopted by a younger audience, as well as start to become influenced by other girly and youthful fashions such as Otome and even other pop culture phenomenon such as idols, manga, and musician's stage wear.
From Old Fashion. A very old styled Metamorphose outfit.
I think it’s very likely that it was an outsider to the fashion,after all, it’s usually an outside mainstream media source that ends up popularizing the names of things like this, that referred to these very girly fashions that were associated with things like Little House on the Prairie and a general care free childishness (which, again, was largely a carry over from a massively popular aesthetic trend, as well as a cultural obsession with youth) and gave it a name that was within the popular culture at the time to refer to both romanticized and fetishized childish things: Lolita.

Stop right there, so you just said that the Lolita fashion is named after the book?
To an extent, it very well might have been, in a similar way that other subcultures such as Goth and Punk were not necessarily named by the people who were part of the subculture and were maybe not intended to paint the most flattering picture. For whatever reason, it became a thing and people rolled with it and generally took the name and made it their own. This happens time and time again in alternative subcultures, and most of them manage to shake the connotations of the original definition of the term and make it their own, but for whatever reason, although possibly due to the massively widespread popularity of Nabokov's book, those within the Lolita fashion have never managed to entirely separate themselves from the book, at least in the eyes of outsiders.

However, I do feel that a look into Japan's usage of the term to mean "the other Lolita", is really needed to grasp the full extent of exactly what it meant to be labeled a Lolita, as well as the world's relation with Nabokov's novel and even Lewis Carroll
Lolita 1997
1997's film adaptation of Lolita.
First and foremost: most of the world is wrapped up in a love affair with Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, as well as the two movies that have been made of it. Lolita is a classic piece of literature, that despite the actual events that go on in it, is heavily romanticized by just about everyone. I remember being younger and reading teen magazines that featured fashion spreads inspired by the movie, shilling everything from heart-shaped sunglasses to shirts with the book cover on it. The iconic styles associated with the story are often fodder for fashion designers and magazines alike, this is nothing new, and absolutely not unique to either Japan as a whole or the Japanse Lolita fashion movement. Many copies of the book are emblazoned with an excerpt from a Vanity Fair review proclaiming "The only convincing love story of our century", people all around the world clearly love to romanticize this story, in fact, the book is so beloved because it's so expertly written that it makes you romanticize it. It seems like it would be unfair to accuse girls wearing Baby the Stars Shine Bright and Angelic Pretty as having an unhealthy obsession with a book that everyone else in the world seems to have the exact same obsession with. When Lolita is mentioned in mainstream magazines and news articles, it's often hinted at how wrong it is for having the same name as the novel, and what sort of connotations they feel are associated with the fashion because of that. And, frankly, I think this is total bull. It's a bit like someone reprimanding you for having bad eating habits because you ate a candy bar for lunch, while they've been eating potato chips for every meal for the past 59 years.
Russell Trainer's The Lolita Complex
The back of Trainer's The Lolita Complex, a faux-psycological bit of trashy reading that was piggy backing off of the then recent popular book and movie, Lolita.
It's clear the world loves this book and its movies, but what is Japan's connection to this English-language novel and how did the title of the novel end up in their Language? Why did they decide to use it as a name for the fashion? This answer is a little less clear, but from everything I've ever read: as much as Lolita has changed over the years, so has Japan's use of the term Lolita. The term "Lolita complex" was first coined by Russell Trainer in 1966 in his book by the same name. This book was something of a sensationalized, tabloid style, faux-psychological piece that was meant to titillate and was simply piggybacking off of a much more popular book. I actually collect vintage paperbacks and these types of books were incredibly common in that era (in fact, I just recently acquired one on the topic of witchcraft!), they present themselves as a serious reads, but are really just intended to be a titillating bit of R-rated reading, they're sketchy reality show of the literary world. It's not hard to imagine how some people mistakenly take them much more serious than they were intended to be taken.
キャベツ畑でつまづいて 和田慎二
Shinji Wada's Stumbling upon a Cabbage Field. An Alice-themed manga that first used the term "Lolita Complex".
Shortly after publication, this bit of trashy reading was translated into Japanese, the term was then referenced in the 1974 shoujo manga Stumbling Upon A Cabbage Field, an Alice In Wonderland parody. Already do we have Alice, the Lolita's patron saint, being mingled with the word "Lolita"! After this first usage, in the late 70's and early 80's, "lolicon", as it was then shortened to, was used in reference to fan-favorite girly characters. Many early anime characters that had the otaku term "lolita" aimed at them were often simply cute female characters, largely from shoujo series, and there seemed to be significantly less stigma against the term at the time. It seems to have had a much "tamer" definition than it is infamous for now. Although the Lolita fashion would not be named such until many years later, both of these ideals had their roots in this era.
Clarisse from The Castle of Cagliostro
16 year old Clarisse d'Cagliostro from Studio Ghibli's The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). One of the first characters to be considered "Lolicon". About a million degrees removed from the modern term.
But why was the term "Lolita complex" mentioned in, of all things, an Alice in Wonderland comic? Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll's other works have always been very popular in Japan and the romanticization of the supposed Carroll/Alice relationship already existed within Japan (and indeed much of the world) for decades by the time Nabokov's Lolita, and the term "Lolita complex", hit Japan. I believe that many people felt that the romanticized Humbert/Lolita relationship was a modern take on the Carroll/Alice one, this parallel between the two has actually been drawn many times. However, in contrast to the characters in Nabokov's Lolita, many argue that Carroll's youth obsession was completely non-sexual and just an aspect of the common depiction of "angelic" children in the Victorian era. With the popularity of Nabokov's Lolita at its very first peak, and the pop culture obsession with Alice already firmly cemented into place, it would almost appear that the two authors were simply muddled together to make a quirky reference in a mainstream manga of the day. It would almost seem that the original usage of "Lolita complex" is based more on a cultural and worldwide obsession with Alice in Wonderland than it is Nabokov's Lolita. It goes without saying that the Lolita fashion's connection to Alice is absolutely undeniable, perhaps if things were worded slightly differently in that apparently influential comic, we would be known as Alices instead of Lolitas.
Photograph of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson
A photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll.
While, as far as anyone seems to be aware, the term "Lolita" for the fashion didn't get placed on it until the early-to-mid 90's, the aesthetic connection between these cute young shoujo heroines, Alice in Wonderland, and these young women wearing romantic and childlike dresses was already there. While nowadays outsiders to the fashion like to make the connection from the extremely OTT Sweet Lolita outfits to the risque otaku term neither of these things were as extreme as they are now when the fashion first got its name.

Why did Lolita's accept the term in the first place?
This is another unknown, but Lolitas in Japan are frequently as annoyed as Lolitas in the west are for the connotation. Lolitas in Japan even adopted a different spelling to the word to differentiate themselves, at the very least online. While Lolita is normally written "ロリータ", many Lolitas choose the variation "ロリィタ", in which the usual "i" is substituted for a small "i". However, many publications and webshops use the typical "ロリータ". This practice reminds me of years ago, when in the west Lolitas would frequently refer to the fashion with the Japanese pronunciation/spelling of "rorita" for exactly the same reason.

It's clear that your average Lolita is well aware of the other meaning of the word, and will often go out of her way to make the difference between the two known. However, I feel that, ultimately, Lolita is often about disregarding the social norms and doing things because you want to. In any alternative fashion it's often difficult to get any large chunk of its members to care about what the average person thinks of them. If they cared that much about what sort of misconceptions strangers might have about them, they probably would have never ventured into the fashion in the first place.
The mad tea party
Carroll's Alice is one of Novala's perfect "bad natured princess".
In fact, there are some Lolitas who do a bit of reveling in this lurid connection between themselves and the book. For a very long time there has been a very obvious morbid streak within Lolita fashion. This "Broken Princess" was often the opposite side of the same coin as the Pure Maiden. Novala Takemoto, perhaps our leading expert on the Broken Princess/Pure Maiden coin, specifically mentions Nabokov's Lolita in this way in an essay entitled Princesses Love Being Mean (link only functions if you're a member of EGL):
Bad nature is the fundament of a young lady. Whether Alice in Wonderland or Nabokov’s Lolita, magnificent young ladies are all bad natured.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Lolitas were going out there and actively living up to their namesake, it was simply part of an all-over aesthetic that was popular for many Lolitas for many years. Even popular Lolita publications, such as the Gothic & Lolita Bible, frequently showcased curiously morbid art by people such as Trevor Brown, Mihara Mitsukazu, and Koitsukihime.

I had once seen it mentioned that this idea of a Lolita who is not as perfect as her image might make her out to be as something akin to the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, which is a difficult term to translate, but can largely be summed up in the idea of finding beauty in imperfect. Perhaps this idea is a bit lofty for a street fashion, or at least for the average Lolita on the street, and the acceptance, and even reveling in, of the unfortunate connotations of the name Lolita is more likely just a little bit of dark juxtaposition similar to the ones that are prevalent in so many fashion movements, not just something limited to Lolita fashion.

Mihara Mitsukazu
Art by Mihara Mitsukazu, one of the most iconic artists in Lolita fashion and subculture
When asked how Lolita got its name, there are many Lolitas who will often say it's a total mystery, or claim that the name was picked in an entirely arbitrary fashion, and without any real understanding of what the book was about. But I personally think differently. I feel that the connection between the book and the fashion is apparent, although not crystal clear. However, I do not think that the name of the fashion has any real bearing on the actual aesthetic of the fashion, and certainly not the sort of activities members of the Lolita community are up to. To assume that just because the Lolita fashion and Nabokov's Lolita have a common ancestor, several decades back, that all Lolitas are Nabokov devotees in the most deviant of ways, is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how words work, as well as how the average interacts with both literature and fashion.

Many Lolitas have faced years of total outsiders to the fashion telling them that they know more than them about the fashion and accusing them of being up to something devious just because of the name, therefore it's understandable that many members of the Lolita fashion deny all associations with the book and the other Lolita. However, I think it's important to know the connection between the terms, and to be aware that just because some things share a common name that it doesn't necessarily mean they have any sort of solid connection to each other. People will always have their problems with fashion that's outside of the mainstream, and they're almost always going to think people who're dressing weird are up to something devious. I think we just have to remind ourselves sometimes that we're not wearing these clothes for the approval of other people, we're wearing it for ourselves.

23 comments:

  1. Very interesting read, I didn't know about some of those things.
    I always believed that the name of the fashion came from the book - I mean, where else would it come from? -, but with a new meaning, only loosely based on the novel.
    Like you said, many fashions/groups/movements don't choose their names, they are named by outsiders. We just have to make the name our own again.

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    1. "Like you said, many fashions/groups/movements don't choose their names, they are named by outsiders. We just have to make the name our own again." I think that this is what a lot of people really should pull away from all of this! Just because someone at one point in history said "Hey! This thing is sort of like that thing!" doesn't mean we have to be devoted to it.

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  2. It looks like Ms. Kaho's blog doesn't work anymore ( the lolita who made a blog for housewives and kids), but I remember she mentioned in a post a newspaper in 1994 had labelled the fashion "lolita" though I have no idea if they were the first ones to do so. This was a great read and I think it makes sense; even in anime fandoms I noticed "lolita" was something of a diluted term, since people just referred to the younger looking characters of a series with that term, usually without the sexual connotations.

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    1. I actually remember that comment she made and have messaged her to ask her about it, but I wanted to get this post up. If I get any answer back, I'll definitely make a follow up :) I heard the same thing from Xelyna/Mc Melody Doll regarding 1994 and talked to her briefly about it, she said the same fact is mentioned in a Japanese book called "Sekai to watashi to lolita fashion"" by Matsuura Momo. The book is, unfortunately, only available in Japan an in Japanese (although the book is quoted in an English language book I actually just ordered yesterday!). I'd asked if she by chance remembers the name of the publication that's mentioned, in the mean time, but I'm still waiting to hear back from her.

      Personally, I think it would be very difficult to say whether or not it was the first usage of the name for the fashion, but it would be very neat to see it!

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  3. Nice article! I think you covered the points really well and finally put this dang conversation to rest! :)

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    1. Thanks! I'm thankful to be able to finally lay some flowers on this particular dead horse's grave.

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  4. I once read that Japanese got in touch with western culture (& fashion) through their trading with Portugal - which has its routes way back in history. I can't remember everything (but I could look it up again of course) but I think I found something about Japanese Lolitas adopting that as western inspiration and stuff and also that they got the term Lolita from Portugese. Have you heard anything about that connection with the Japan/Portugal trding and Lolita?
    Also, great post, there were definately some very interesting things!

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    1. I actually have heard this claimed before and I am sure at that point in history that Japan very well could have been aware of the name Lolita, but I personally don't really see much direct connection between that general awareness of the name and why "Lolita" was adopted for the fashion, especially with the Carroll/Nabocov connection being significantly more tangible of a line. After all, what would make that particular name any more related to the fashion than any other name?

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    2. I remember reading some interview with japanese fashion editors of the era who claimed the name Lolita was used because of its meaning of "beautiful girl" (i.e. the same as italian Bella). It is originaly portugal name like Pearl and its roots are in royal court where it used to be the name for girls that king liked the most, sometimes they were king's lovers, sometimes not. However the name sticked to common speach in meaning of "Beauty" and as such Nabokov used it in the book to nickname Dolores as "Lolita". Nabokov himself explained this relation and meaning of (nick)name somewhere in official text. These Japanese fashion editors only remembered that the name Lolita started to be used as description of the fashion because of this Bella meaning, but could not remember, who came with the idea for the first time. They claimed there was search in media for some name which would reflect the historical feeling of the fashion and there was actually more media which try on labeling it, but despite different media were simultaneously using two or three terms they created themselves to label the fashion, "lolita" quickly sticked, so they all started using it.

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  5. Very nice compliments on your blog ☺ http://coccinellecreative.blogspot.it/

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  6. This analysis is really interesting and it's quite trought in my opinion. These Natural Kei pictures are just georgeous, it's a shame that it's so out of style right now.

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  7. Thank you so much for this insightful and intelligent take on a complex subject! :D I love how you problematise the question instead of simplifying it! Please make more of these in-depth analysis of Lolita culture :) It's really fun and interesting to read! :D <3 <3 <3

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  8. A very interesting and informative read! Truly enlightening, thank you. :) I myself have a rather 'romanticised' view of the world, so I like to find beauty in just about everything, which includes some morbid fantasising (!) I don't think imperfection is necessarily a sign of beauty, but a sign of humanity, and it is that notion I find beautiful. (Am I making any sense?) Personally, I believe that part of the problem with 'outsiders' is that just as it is hard to know where or how the name 'Lolita' comes from, it is hard to analyse or understand Dolly and Humbert's relationship simply because of the unreliable narrator and how some things may have become warped in Humbert's retelling of 'their' story. That's just how I see it anyway. But I don't like Lolita for the name, I like it for the aesthetics. It is not only cute and pretty, but beautiful. Once again, thank you for the post. :) x

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  9. Nice article! When I read the title I went like D: but my fears seem ungrounded.

    What bothers me most about the discussion that few people have read the book at all..since the main stream idea is of Lolita seducing Humbert, I think not! The book was written from H's perspective, he indeed felt she was seducing him, but the attentive reader will see through his delusion. She was just a girl, one that is now marked for life by his abuse. She is the victim in the book.

    Anyway, if people ask me about my clothes I just say it is "Japanese street fashion". Saves a lot of headache :)

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    1. I do too, I've never understood the compulsion to tell people "it's a fashion called lolita." It explains zero and nobody actually cares, they just want to know if you're in a play, if it's october, if you're an escaped mental patient, etc.

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  10. Wow, you really did your homework on this one!

    I feel kind of bad because I guess I don't really know as much about Lolita as I thought I did! I've actually never heard of this book before, or any of the movies based off of it. This was definitely an interesting read to find out more about the fashion ans aesthetics.

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  11. Never commented before, but I have a minor quibble on the part about ロリィタ: when you mention the use of an "archaic I," you're thinking about ロリヰタ, which uses the archaic "wi" character and is much less commonly seen than ロリィタ, in my experience. ロリィタ simply uses a small I to represent the elongation in ロリータ while keeping the pronunciation intact.

    Anyway, I'm not a lolita (mori girl, actually), but I love your blog and I love learning about fashion subcultures of all kinds, so it's always a very interesting read for me. I'm glad to see you took a more unbiased stance on the roots of the name, since I think many lolitas are too quick to dismiss the book entirely. Thanks for consistently doing such great research and putting together these well-informed articles!

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    1. Thank you for the clarification! One discussion on the topic that popped up referred to the spelling as "archaic" and then went on to say that an archaic spelling fit with the formal and old fashioned ideals a lot of Japanese Lolitas had (at least in the early days) about the fashion. I don't speak/read Japanese (haha obviously!) so I was just taking their word for it!

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  12. Very very interesting! I always thought Mana coined the term, now I feel foolish for thinking that. Thank you for setting me straight!

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  13. This is far and away the best answer I've ever seen to this question!

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  14. This was a fascinating and very informative read! I am very new to lolita, but I am a big fan of the book and the most recent film.

    One issue is definitely some of the misconceptions about the book itself. When Humbert implies that he has been 'seduced', one must remember that you are not supposed to trust him or his judgement, given that he is a notorious pedophile. The word 'nymphette', invented by Nabokov, is further evidence of Humbert's madness - that he believes that certain young girls have some kind of special sexual power. People have come to associate this word, and Lolita herself, with sexual precociousness, when in actual fact it is Humbert who projects this onto Lolita. In short, Lolita is a normal girl, experimenting and going through changes, and then Humbert comes along and ruins her life.

    Unfortunately, there are those who don't truly understand what sexual abuse and pedophilia is, and jump to the conclusion that Lolita is some sort of slutty she-devil. I have noticed a few lolitas on youtube express that their fashion isn't about 'seducing an older guy': well, the book isn't about that either; it's about a grown man's obsession with a child who hasn't even hit puberty.

    Until reading this blog, I wasn't particularly inclined to associate the book and the fashion in any way, but I think that's possibly because so many lolitas seem adamant that there's no correlation at all.

    I'm fairly certain that I actually discovered the fashion, in part, because of my love of the book. I can't remember exactly how I discovered the fashion, but I think I was aware if the book and films before. I wonder if other people, like me, might have been researching the book, only to discover a very amazing fashion too? With this in mind, i'm quite happy that there does exists a link, however tenuous, as it has probably helped me discover a fashion that I would have otherwise been unaware of.

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  15. Super interesting read! I was wondering if you came across anything about Mana making the term popular as well? I remember reading something(ages ago) about him mentioning it in an early interview and the name sticking.

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    1. He mostly just coined the phrase "Elegant Gothic Lolita", he was most likely using the phrase "Gothic Lolita" and just sticking an "Elegant" in front of it, as I believe that "Gothic Lolita" had been a phrase for a couple years before he started his brand that coined the term! I would actually be very surprised if he was the one to first stick the word "Gothic" in front of "Lolita" as well!

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