Photography by Hayley Stewart.
When I started documenting the lolita subculture, I quickly realized that every lolita I met was marvelously unique not only in the specific intricate outfits they chose to wear that day—or "coords" as they're referred to in the fashion—but also in who they were as people.
"[Coords] take time. It has to suit you. It has to show you; it's about your personality showing through," said Enith Evans, one of the lolitas from VICE's documentary on the subculture.
While at a tea party for the filming the documentary, I met a male lolita (sometimes referred to in the community as a "bro-lita"), Loli, as well as a genderfluid lolita, Alex, who has dressed in both the feminine and masculine forms of the fashion. VICE interviewed Alex and Loli to find out more about their respective journeys getting into lolita fashion and how becoming part of their local community in Toronto has affected their lives.
VICE: Could tell me about how you got into fashion and the community?
Alex: It was a long time coming because I started going to Fan Expo when I was in Grade 8, so I was about 13. I started cosplaying, and then I see all of these beautiful people dressed in these extravagant dresses, and I'm like, "What is this?" And that sort of spurred my love into looking into other fashions, it transformed into my love of this fashion.
Have you always done ouji (a masculine form of lolita fashion), or did you dress in the feminine style before?
I started out with more of the lolita style, the more feminine styles. I'm into more of the sweet and gothic, as well as what is called bittersweet in Western styles. It was more recently that I started into more of the ouji, kadona style. It's been a year or two since I started into that than more of the lolita.
Is there a difference between ouji and kadona ?
Yeah, so ouji is more the older style of it, it's more classy and well-dressed; the kadona style is much more… You're not quite a kid, but you're not quite an adult, so your style reflects that: You have pieces that are very little boy, and then there are older gentlemen ones. A lot of people wear three-quarter pants or bloomers and high socks, but they have a beautiful vest on or they have beautiful, long frilly sleeves… In the kadona style there's more aspects of like, punk rock styles.
You have mentioned before that it can be a bit more pricey to do the type of style that you do than traditional lolita.
Yeah, the funny part is that each piece individually can cost upwards of $50, $250, to even $1,000. I've seen a coat alone that costs $1,000. I could buy an entire set from Angelic Pretty (a popular lolita brand) for that money… I'm very good with thrifting, that's the one thing that I can do.
How does your gender identity play into the style that you dress in?
I identify with being genderfluid. In being genderfluid, I can identify with being like a male or female, androgynous, agender; it's a very fluid kind of movement, and it feels different every day.
[Lolita fashion] definitely was part of figuring out my identity. When I started, I was still discovering who I was, and I wasn't sure about what was really going on because some days I was feeling really masculine and some days I felt really feminine. Later on, from Grade 12 to college, I found out that there's more styles within the style of lolita and I'm just like, "What is this magic?" Sometimes I dress full kadona or full ouji, and I'm like, "I'm rocking this! I feel like a dude today." And then sometimes I'm like, "I wanna be a pretty princess, I want all these dresses and to be a pretty princess!" I started to express my identity with how I dress, it coincides usually.
How often do you wear ouji or lolita fashion in your daily life?
I tend to wear it out in public a lot of the time since it is just my fashion choice. I think I wear it a good three or four times a week. I'm not like a lifestyle lolita because those people are like amazing and I appreciate them, but I don't have enough money for that. I'm good with wearing the ouji style during the evenings and weekends.
You said some guys were harassing you earlier today in Tim Horton's. What do you experience in public wearing your style?
Usually it's not very good when I tend to wear my style out in public. Sometimes I'll get very nice compliments where people will say, "Oh my gosh, you look like a pretty princess" or like, "Oh my gosh, you look so handsome." Whatever, but that's like one in ten usually. The rest of it is like staring into my soul or like people who just take pictures of me randomly without asking, and I'm just like, "Woah! What are you doing, bruh?" There are some people who have come up physically to me and harassed me. I was just like, "What is your problem?" I'm wearing my own style, I'm not bugging you… Someone said, "You're dressing up like a slut."
There's also people who have come up to me and just started petting me and touching my hair and dress, and I'm just like, "Get away from my $100 dress."
How did your family react when you started wearing lolita fashion?
It was weird because it was still during the time that I identified as being different, a different person. I thought I was figuring out I was pansexual or polyamorous and genderfluid, and it was in that time that I was expressing myself and finding out who I was. I was doing that with the lolita style and with the cosplay community.
My mom, when she first saw me dressing in the lolita style, she said, "Why are you dressing outside like that? You look like a streetwalker." And I was like… That's not very nice. That's not the style. Do you want me to go find a streetwalker for you, bring them home just to show you what they look like and this is what I'm dressing like? This is a completely different style where you are modest and feel like royalty, you just feel like a pretty prince or princess.
Can you explain how the lolita community in Toronto reacts to different identities?
What I found was that our community has so many different genders, sexes, races. We're in a multicultural city, so it reflects very greatly in our community alone, and everyone is so accepting of who you are and how you identify, and how you express yourself within the style. There are so many lolitas in our community, there are people who are part of my religion (Wicca) as well.
Being a lolita or wearing ouji, is it part of your identity?
Yeah, it really can be. I found that there are some people in my community who are genderfluid as well… They are dressing how they identify, and some people even may identify as male, but they dress in the feminine style of lolita. We all accept them no matter what. We're all a family, we're all here to help each other out. We're not here to bitch at each other and brag to each other, we're here as friends.
I lived in Burlington, Ontario from when I was like one to when I was 18. When I moved out of my parents' place, I said like, "Screw it, you guys aren't respecting who I am and how I want to present myself." So I went over to Toronto, and I've been here for like a year and a bit… It's been the most thrilling experience to be here. You get to be a part of different communities, and you find your family in Toronto. That's the best part.
VICE: How did you get into lolita fashion?
Loli: The first time I ever heard of lolita was nine years ago, 2007. I was still a child in China. At that time, I occasionally read a girl magazine, it was a child's magazine… There was an article introducing lolita, and my first lolita dress was bought six years ago.
Why did you buy it?
I got it at first as regular clothes. I didn't realize it was a lolita dress until a few years later when I came to know about lolita. Then I got line two at the end of 2014… It is still in use today. It's a major expansion—I got a corset in summer 2015, and by the end of that year, I already owned 13 [dresses]…. The current number is 29. I feel pretty good because most people I've met are very supportive about me wearing lolita.
Do you consider this crossdressing or its own thing?
To be honest, I did my first crossdressing, I mean wearing a regular dress, in 1998 when I was just seven, in grade one. I got pretty used to it, maybe because I could fit into any lady dress. Since I wore lolita regularly, I hardly wear any regular crossdressing anymore.
What is it about lolita fashion that appeals to you?
The first time I saw lolita fashion, I liked the elegance. I started with classic, and then I found that sweet is nice for me too. I decided to give it a try.
You were born in Shandong, China—how long have you been in Canada for?
I came to Toronto in September 2012 for my second year of university.
How often do you wear lolita fashion?
Currently, as long as I am outside work. The minimum guaranteed frequency is every weekend. But sometimes even on weekdays; if there is a holiday, I will wear it.
How does it make you feel when you put on lolita fashion?
I got pretty used to it. Maybe because I have worn dresses for so long, I don't think there's a significant difference between me wearing a dress or shirt. Sometimes some males will, but just because they are not used to it. They treat lolita or crossdressing as something novel.
What is it like for you to be in a community that is predominantly women as someone who identifies as male?
Most people around me are so supporting. Of course, there are some who behave offensively, but that's not that bad because the atmosphere in Canada here is far more better than in my home country… In China, the old thinking believes that a person should wear clothes in his or her gender. If you wear lolita on a regular street [in China]… Some seniors will say, "Why are you wearing that?" For males, people will be like, "Oh, this guy is an idiot." That happens there, not so much here, but sadly most are still Asians—especially in Pacific Mall where there is a condensed Chinese population.
What is it you like about being part of the lolita community?
The lolita community in Toronto is very supportive of male lolitas. What impressed me a lot was that I went to the Fan Expo this year, and I saw their fashion show. Among the 25 lolitas [in the show], three of them were male—all of them said that this community is very supportive of them.
Does your family know that you dress in lolita?
When I bought my first dress, I asked my parents, "Can I buy this as my birthday gift?" To be honest, I have no idea why they agreed without any hesitation. I can show you how when I wear lolita in China, I have a custom that I take a selfie before going out of the house, and yearly, at those times, either my mother or father or both of them are watching TV like two or three meters away, and they don't say a word.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter .