After I make my way into the entrance of one of the smallest comic conventions I've ever been to—in the city of London, Ontario, no less—I look around in search of the tell-tale wigs and frilly, lace-adorned dresses of the women I'm supposed to meet today. After ten minutes of wandering around the booths of comics, figurines, and mousepads with anime titties, I figure out where they must be hiding: the washroom. In a public bathroom that would otherwise look less than magical stand a handful of young women dressed in pastels chatting excitedly, helping one another with their elaborate outfits and putting on eye makeup in a mirror that spans the entire width of the wall.
Yes, you might've heard the term "lolita" before. Probably from a little book by author Vladimir Nabokov that explored a sexual relationship between a man and his 12-year-old step-daughter. But anyway, what I'm doing today has nothing to do with that perverse novel. The lolitas I'm hanging with are part of a subculture that centers on a Japanese fashion that rose to popularity in the 90s.
By those outside the community, lolitas are most commonly compared to porcelain dolls, but in reality, their style is more nuanced. Their fashion—they don't use the word "costume"—is influenced by the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and it comes in three main styles including sweet, gothic, and classic. Those dedicated to the fashion spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars on imported dresses from Asia, which can sometimes rack up massive customs fees. But there's an entire culture dedicated to being into lolita fashion—and within it, communities in Western society that have flourished. Such is the case with the Southern Ontario Lolitas, a group that counts more than 500 members and the smaller, tight-knit London Ontario Lolitas, which I'm hanging with today.
And no, it's not sexual. If anything, it's the opposite.
As I squeeze myself into a corner of the counter behind the last sink in the bathroom feeling extremely basic in my street clothes and set my voice recorder on a trash can, I let London's lolitas air their grievances at the misconceptions that continually plague their community. "They did pick a horrible name for this fashion—the Japanese thought the word was cute, girly, and feminine," explains a lolita named Oasis (her real name) as she examines her outfit in the mirror: a pastel green dress with roses on it accompanied by a basket and faux flowers.
"We've actually had people come up to us and be like, 'You're the reason we have pedophiles,'" Shalane says as she puts the final touches on her kimono look. "They'll come up, [pull up your skirt], and go, 'Hey, what's under there?'"
The bizarre sexualization the lolitas described couldn't be further from their actual values. If possible, they prefer knees not to show while wearing their outfits—or "coords" (short for coordinates) as they call them—and a common motto in the community is "Modest is hottest." Regardless, lolitas like Oasis and Shalane are used to the extra attention from strangers on the street, including being followed and people trying to take their photographs.
Though some lolitas—called "lifestyle" lolitas—wear their adorable outfits out in public daily, the women I'm hanging with usually only wear them for special occasions like meetups (like apple picking, going to the aquarium, or going for sushi), today they are donning their "coords" for a fashion show and tea party.
As the ladies finish their final looks in front of the bathroom mirror, they make their way out onto the convention floor and head backstage.
Backstage, a new member wearing a classic look named Enith, who came to Canada by way of Panama as an international student, tells me what attracts her to the fashion. "When you wear lolita, you're wearing it for you: for you to feel feminine, for you to feel elegant… This is a society where women's fashion is made to appeal to men; that's really sad." Enith shows me her coord, which includes a striped, light brown, and cream dress and burgundy thigh-highs, explaining why she chose each piece in detail before she must line up for the fashion show.
After, Meagan, one of the admins and founding members of the London Ontario Lolita group, finishes announcing the lolitas onstage and doing a Q&A with the audience, I catch up with her behind the curtain to discuss how the London Ontario Lolitas came to be.
"My girlfriend Sophia was one of the people who started this community [in high school] about five years ago… I was one of the first that got pulled into the fashion and helped make [the group] what it is today," Meagan, 20, tells me. "Everyone who joins our community is classified as a part of a family; we always look out for one another, treat everyone with the utmost respect." Meagan says that they also try to keep everything kid-friendly, especially since some of their members have young children.
But at times, they have had serious issues. After an incident on the way to a meetup over the summer at Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto, they had to ban a new member after she yelled a racial slur at a black security guard.
"She almost got arrested," Meagan said. "I know she had mental-health issues, and I had a talk with her after. I explained to her that she is more than welcome to wear the fashion… But in the community, we can't have an incident like that happen because it will put the public eye on us."
Though the community has a strict no-drama policy IRL and online, cattiness and shade about other people's outfits can cause strife among members. Meagan and other admins are in charge of dealing with the drama that arises in their Facebook group of about 60 members. Victoria, who is an admin and has been with the community for about three years, sometimes mediates in Facebook group chats between members.
"Usually it goes well, but if it can't be resolved, we just ask that they be civil with one another," she says. Despite the occasional drama, she says, many in the community consider one another best friends. But sometimes outside the safety of their Facebook groups, cyberbullying can occur.
Milky Swan, a 28-year-old lolita and teacher's aide by day, invited me into her apartment in London to see her impressive collection of 14 dresses and numerous accessories, which were situated in a strangely pristine area of a room her pet bird and her boyfriend's PC gaming area occupy. We sat down and talked about the cyberbullying she has had to endure online.
"A lot of lolitas [outside our community] can be really nasty online," Milky Swan tells me as her calico cat nuzzles up against us. She mentions the Livejournal Behind the Bows, where lolitas will post other lolitas' photos and drag them while hiding behind anonymity. Calling someone an "ita"—the lolita term for "noob," essentially, is one of the most common, but she says she has seen a lot worse. Once, she even had a photo of her in her non-lolita clothing critiqued by a hater.
But just before 20:00 on a Friday, when other 20-somethings might be getting ready to go out to the club, London's lolita community has come together in a side room at their local Comic-Con for a tea party. There's no drama here as the ladies—and even a couple of men, or "brolitas" as they're called—mingle and put triangle-shaped finger sandwiches and pink macaroons on their plates. They spend the next couple of hours sitting at round tables covered in white tablecloths coloring paper dolls, chatting, and giggling as J-pop fills the room.
After spending the entire day among London Ontario's lolita community, I've had my fill of kawaii and am ready to go home, but as the photographer and I are about to close the door on the magical tea party, Victoria says to us, "You have to come back again; next time, we'll dress you up!"