Interview: Kitty and the Bulldog Lolita Exhibit at The V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the largest museum of decorative arts and design in the world. Founded 150 years ago, it has become known for both grand collections of arts spanning 5000 years of history and for a cutting edge attitude to design. In 2012, the museum is celebrating British Design, and aspects of fashion and art from around the world that have been inspired by Britain.
Lolita fashion has its roots in many cultural bases and it cannot be doubted that British punk, and Victoriana has had an influence. In a new exhibition to complement the British Design theme, named Kitty and the Bulldog (Hello Kitty takes on the British Bulldog) the links between British fashion and Lolita are explored. As a style that is rapidly gaining followers in the United Kingdom – a recent assembly of British lolitas to view the exhibition numbered 113 – this is a perfect time to show the unique Japanese take on British design..
To understand more about this exhibition and the attitudes toward lolita in the western world today, ROKKYUU spoke with the curators, Rupert Faulkner and Pauline LeMoigne, as well as Tania Tanzil, a prominent UK lolita who has organized a number of lolita events including those at Hyper Japan.
69: To begin, could you please tell us a little bit about yourselves and the V&A.
Rupert: This is the Asian department of the V&A where we deal with everything from the Middle East to Japan. I joined in 1984 which was when the V&A began the programme of redoing its galleries. The (Japanese) Toshiba gallery was one of the first galleries to open, or to have been redone since the 1950s. That there was no major Japanese gallery at that time was seen to be a great failing. Since then the place has been totally transformed, most recently with the ceramics, Medieval and Renaissance galleries. Pauline is actually a Chinese specialist and started here about…
Pauline: Yes well I started about one year ago and I joined the department as an assistant curator to look after the Japanese and Korean collections. I was put in charge of all the practical arrangements for this display and of the mannequins.
Rupert: Pauline worked very closely with our conservation department who did the dressing of the mannequins. It was a rather complicated procedure, making sure they were just right to be taken to be photographed before they all went out on display,
Pauline: It is interesting because these outfits are now museum objects , they are treated as such and have to be marked. They are not just outfits that lolitas wear now.
69: How did this exhibition come to be?
Rupert: About 3 years ago, the V&A knew that it was going to do British Design from 1948 to 2012 as a pre-Olympic exhibition. There was a meeting for curators about a number of displays which would be related to Britain but within the permanent collections. That was when I, not realizing that people would take the decision as enthusiastically as they did, put forward the idea of Japanese street fashion with its referencing of Britain. I was first thinking of Sweet Lolita and the Alice connection but it soon became evident that Gothic Lolita is actually rooted in British gothic rock and Victorian mourning dress. Gothic is a European wide phenomenon but I think Britain is very much referenced within the gothic community in Japan. Then of course there is punk and Vivienne Westwood.
A girl, Masami Yamada, happened to be working at the V&A in Spring 2009 and in the course of her being here we mentioned that we had the project in mind. It turned out that she had been into classic lolita styles such as Emily Temple (Cute) at school. She got hold of a number of school friends who sent photographs of themselves at a Malice Mizer concert. In the Summer of 2010, I was in Japan and Masami took us on a tour of Marui One (in Shinjuku), Takeshita Dori and La Foret; the key lolita haunts. After that visit and over the year we then came up with the scheme that became the exhibition.
This is going back a bit but in 1994 there was an exhibition here called Street Style about street fashion in the UK. The curator had spent two or three years meeting the different tribes and got clothing from them directly. I thought that was how we should go about this but it became rapidly evident that we had to be based in Japan meeting people who either were or had been lolitas and trying to persuade them to part with their old clothes. So we shifted to the idea of going shopping. We had this rather fun meeting putting forward a proposal that we needed £6000.00 ($8000.00) to go shopping in Japan. It was so relatively off the wall that it went straight through. Last July we went to Japan to buy the clothes and luckily I had a couple of Japanese friends who came with me to help as we wanted to properly coordinate the kimono in particular. Around March when we were finalising the exhibition, ,it was featured in Time Out. I then returned to Japan in March this year to get the bags and accessories. It was a great wide thing that suddenly all came into focus at the end.
69: This is a fashion with so many different substyles, how did you choose the ones you did?
Rupert: Well we decided on the categories due to the British elements. There are the rococoists (those who favour the rococo influence on lolita) but because of the British angle we wanted to stress that particular British side of the fashion. I think relatively early on we decided to do sweet, gothic and punk, all of which are quite large in themselves. We added the one Japanese lolita because it was taking place in the Japanese gallery. We phrased that in terms of the lolita interested in the exotic; they don’t just look abroad they look within their own culture. Kimono and samurai armour are things of the past so they have their own freshness in a way in the eyes of the designers. It was a question of going through magazines to decide on which brand fitted in. Alice Auaa is known for its high quality and although they don’t consider themselves strictly gothic lolita they do still appear in the Gothic & Lolita Bible. I went to their shop in Shinjuku and it was quite amazing.
69: It is a bizarre shop, I have to say.
Rupert: Have you been to the original shop, where you go down into a dungeon? Interestingly, that designer spent quite a lot of time in London. He used to go to Camden Market and buy fetish and gothic clothing to sell in Japan before he became a designer. There are many other brands we might have chosen but there was a limit to what we could do. Baby the Stars Shine Bright obviously, but for the more classic I started thinking Jane Marple but realizing that wasn’t right I turned instead to Innocent World. We wanted something that was a little bit more with a frill look to match the Victorian doll that we have an image of. I know some people might call that more rococo than British but it is a bit of both.
69: I found the drawings accompanying the outfits quite interesting. For example, the Scotsman image with the h.Naoto. What kind of influence were you drawing out with that one?
Rupert: That was actually Vivienne Westwood tartan. I was initially going for Putumayo and thinking of a male equivalent of that bondage-trouser sort of look. I went to the six.h store in La Foret and on the unisex rail there was the outfit. It struck me that it was absolutely Vivienne Westwood in its use of tartan but it was quite Asian in its overall look so it made a nice transition to the Japanese designs. The image that it is referencing is of an outfit that was given to us by a Frenchman who has 60 Vivienne Westwood male costumes. He dressed up in them, had himself photographed in front of his chateau and then gave them to the V&A. While it looks like a Scotsman it is Vivienne Westwood. It makes a point on the huge influence of Vivienne Westwood in Japan. Vivienne Westwood is one of these British designers who, without Japan, wouldn’t be what she is, similar to Jean Paul Gaultier. She is really a goddess in Japan.
69: For yourselves, what do you find interesting about this kind of fashion and have your opinions changed since working on this?
Pauline: What I find really interesting is how ladies have found another way of being very feminine and pretty. I wondered at first why British ladies would want to go for this kind of fashion; I understood it as a revolution for Japanese girls against society. Then I realized that it is an alternative to being sexy, and showing too much flesh like girls you see on Saturday night on the Tube [The London subway system]. I thought it was a nice answer of being very feminine and very girly but without being…
Tania: Half undressed?
Pauline: Yeah [laughs]. I do understand. I have never worn petticoats or anything but now I am dying to try because I am sure that it changes your way of standing. All of a sudden you feel more elegant, such as if you wear high heels you feel more composed. Equally, ladies must do much research about the Victorian and Rococo times and I empathize with this feeling as one who studied art history. With this, I was learning about lolita but all of a sudden I began to read about Victorian mourning dress and the fashion in Europe in the 19th century; it is a fantastic window through the world of fashion.
Rupert: I think it presents a lot of questions. There are people, - anthropologists-and cultural historians, who look at Japanese street fashion in quite an academic way to work out what it is that appeals to the girls and women who wear this clothing. I don’t think there is one simple answer a But the other thing is how it has become such a phenomenon outside Japan. What does a London girl think, what does it mean to those kids who go to Hyper Japan? In Japan, we could interpret it as a response to gyaru culture or other forms of conformity, but then in itself it becomes internally conformist. I do think it is a rebellious thing, certainly in the 90s and probably, too, now.
Tania: In the media recently, lolita has not been portrayed in a good light, such as the film ‘Are All Men Pedophiles?’ We don’t want the fashion to be associated with this. There was also a ‘living doll’ article in The Daily Mail about Venus Palermo; there is a lot of misconception in the British media about lolita fashion right now. That is why this exhibition is important, it will definitely educate the public about what lolita is and that it is not a fetish wear.
I got into this fashion through a friend who liked corsets and Victorian children’s clothes. I realized that girls in London were wearing this fashion and having a ball. The hardest thing for me was the courage to wear a full outfit outside as you do get some stares and questions. Most of the time, I dress in sweet or full lolita and many people think I am in theatre. But it is empowering; I became more fashion orientated than before and I have learned so much through lolita fashion to achieve certain looks.
Rupert: We have a lolita here who works as a visual manager in the V&A shop. She occasionally dresses in lolita and came to it from being interested in Victorian clothing.
In August, we will have a late opening themed around lolita called Loli-Pop and I am keen to have a question and answer session to get people talking about how they came to this. This is one reason why the display is descriptive in terms of designers but without trying to suggest any kind of underlying motivation. Like viewing a painting, you come away with your own interpretation of it. Talking about rococo earlier on, I had an email from a London based Japanese lolita saying, “I was very upset to read the entry that talks about British references. I think lolita fashion is all about rococo,” which is an aspect of it but I think this gets addressed further down the line rather than at the root.
69: So what is your favorite piece?
Pauline: I really like the Putumayo one. I wouldn’t feel comfortable in a total sweet outfit but this one is playful and edgy.
Tania: I like the kimono because it is something I have not seen much of here, the quality of the woven rabbit-themed obi looks amazing.
Rupert: I think I’d go for the Alice Auaa, I think the quality is very good and it is kind of edgy.
69: The exhibition has been open for just over a week now. How has it been received so far?
Rupert: It is always busy. There are always people there photographing, drawing, but we don’t have a comment book so it is really difficult to know.
Pauline: I went down there several times without my badge to see what people were saying, and I don’t think I have been in an exhibition apart from Damien Hirst where you can see the reaction on the faces. Normally people are a silent but here it is like “Oooh,” or “What is the designer? I’d love to wear it,” or “Look at this!”
Rupert: You see a lot of older people who are really absorbed by it. You think people might be “Oh my god” but they aren’t shocked once they start reading.
Pauline: Many people seem to like the Innocent World dress as it perhaps reminds them of when they were younger.
Tania: Quite a lot of old ladies come up to me and say “I wish my daughter dressed like you.” They love it. I think the silhouette and the modesty aspect of it is interesting to them.
69: And perhaps quite refreshing. Although when I was having a look just now, I overheard a couple of ladies expressing a sense of shock and horror. What do you think of that and do you hope to change attitudes?
Pauline: Many people do misunderstand the fashion but if they see it in the museum they may consider it more seriously that it is not just some silly girls dressing in frills and in pink. So while people may not like it, they just need to question why that is.
Rupert: From my point of view, it shows that Japan is a highly creative country despite it having been in the economic doldrums for so long. The other thing is, the circularity. Western style in Japan referencing Britain which is now being re-exported around the world as a kind of fashion. If, say, Tania is down there looking at it, people viewing may realize it is in Britain as well, which they may not necessarily know.
Pauline: It is about being feminine and then there is the socializing – gathering for tea or exhibitions.
Tania: There is definitely quite a big community and it is growing every year. Ever since I got into the fashion. I think that sense of community is spreading the word.
Rupert: I think there must also be a response against both revealing and high fashion which has become terribly self indulgent. (Lolita) is not cheap, it is expensive to buy but it is not cheaply made. I think most of it is manufactured in Japan which means quality. We had a dinner here to celebrate the exhibition and a British designer present at the time commented that the lolita clothes are probably better made than Vivienne Westwood!
69: So finally then, how do you see street style developing in Japan or the UK? Do you see this fashion having a greater effect on street style in the UK?
Tania: I think it will. I can see already that many things that were big in Japan have been recycled in TopShop two years down the line such as bows But I am not sure how successful it would be if there were a big shop of purely lolita clothes because, well it is expensive for street fashion and different to what we are used to seeing. But definitely, community-wise, it is getting bigger and more people are getting curious.
Unless otherwise specified, all images are ©The Victoria and Albert Museum.
There are 15 photos in this visual kei exclusive.