Lolita, Goth-Loli, Gothic Lolita… what’s the difference? (2024)

This is a blog dedicated to my personal fashion design tastes, and my personal fashion design tastes are heavily, heavily influenced by the gosurori movement of Japanese street fashion in the ‘00s. But what actually is gosurori? It’s a term that has been both mangled and forgotten by the same Internet culture that can be credited for disseminating Japanese street fashion to the rest of the world… and arguably for keeping what’s left of it alive. Cross-cultural translation is weird! So to clear up some misconceptions, here is a brief introduction to what the terms “lolita,” “goth-loli,” and “gothic lolita” actually refer to:

Lolita is a street fashion with nebulous origins. In the 1970s, Japanese fashion brands like Milk and Jane Marple stoked a craze for girly, frilly clothing, and by the late ‘80s, the term “lolita” was in use in some fashion publications. However, the style did not become clearly defined until the ‘90s, with the subculture growing under a wave of indie designers in Osaka and Tokyo. Lolita is often credited to being inspired by Western Vicotorian styles of dress, though actual historic influence is largely untraceable and seems to be an idea that was attached later in the 2000s.

Lolita fashion celebrates frills, frills, frills, lace, and more frills. Originally, the subculture took design motifs often belittled as “feminine” and therefore “childish” and reclaimed them as signs of individuality and rebellion… although these days the punk rock edge has largely been washed out. Lolita fashion has nothing to do with sexualizing young girls, a là Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and modern lolitas in the Western world will sometimes even go so far as to say the name of the fashion and the name of the novel are completely unrelated. Gothic & Lolita Bible Vol. 1, however, does cite Nabokov’s novel as the origin of the name.

Why and how the name “Lolita” came to be attached to a style that took princess dreams and made them punk is unclear. Maybe it’s because early iterations of the fashion were seen as offensively childish, maybe something was lost in translation, maybe it was an intentional reclamation of a name that symbolizes female helplessness and objectification. What we do know is that the ethos of lolita is quite the opposite of the demure and infantilizing misinterpretations often imposed on the subculture through Western media and academia. Novala Takemoto, a prolific writer who was dubbed “the King of Lolita” by fans, wrote in the afterword to the English language edition of his novel Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls): “Lolita is a fusion of the spirit of punk rock with formal beauty that honors tradition. Lolitas value independence and beauty above all else.”

As a subculture, lolita’s unifying themes are elegance, extravagance, and individuality. As Momoko Ryugasaki, the heroine of Shimotsuma Monogatari, informs readers: a lolita lives by her own rules. The only requirement to being a lolita is a devoted love for the clothing.

Wearing the clothes is all that signifies allegiance to the subculture – there is no particular type of music to enjoy or social activity to partake in that is requisite to be Lolita. Shopping and tea parties are both pretty popular though, as was hanging out at the Meiji Jingu Bridge back when people still did that.

Gothic and Lolita, or Goth-Loli began in the ‘90s, or you could say ‘80s, depending on how far back into goth culture you credit it going. This is where the English speaking Internet has gotten confused with terminology. You see, Gothic & Lolita Bible was not started as a lolita publication. It was, as the name states, gothic and lolita – goth-loli for short, or gosurori if you say that with Japanese pronunciation. Basically, in the days before everything had to be hash-tagged for Insta likes and categorized for Internet shopping searches, lines between subcultures and styles could get real blurry and people really just didn’t care much (maybe some people cared. People who care too much are a staple of any subculture). How do you differentiate between lolita and goth-loli? Measure the wearer’s degrees of goth vs degrees of Momoko Ryugasaki. Where do you draw the line? You don’t.

Goth subculture came to Japan in the ‘80s, promoted by bands like Auto-Mod and Madame Edwarda. Then, in the ‘90s, there was the rise of visual-kei: a sort of glam-meets-metal-meets-punk-meets-goth-meets-prog-rock-meets-kabuki genre of music that incorporated copious theatrical makeup and eccentric clothing for shock value… and it all just sort of mushed together with the trends of indie designers and street fashion of the time – lolita included.

Lolita and goth-loli developed side by side, or as the same thing, depending on how you look at it and where your interests sat. By 2001, goth-loli had become popular enough in Harajuku that the street fashion magazine Kera decided to publish Gothic & Lolita Bible as a one-time special edition offshoot. Rather than quietly going out as a limited edition publication though, Gothic & Lolita Bible proved to be so wildly popular, that it went on for another 62 volumes over the next 16 years. Sadly, by the time Gothic & Lolita Bible went out of publication in 2017, goth-loli had all but disappeared, succeeded by the collectible-prints-on-polyester lolita fashion we now see today.

If you were to travel back in time and visit Harajuku in the ‘00s, you would see goth-loli everywhere. Goth-loli was to be found in street culture, in visual-kei live houses, in underground nightclubs and bars … and the early volumes of Gothic & Lolita Bible reflected this, with spotlights on Japanese rock musicians, goth nightlife, and goth lifestyle. While you can’t necessarily tell a lolita’s music tastes from her clothes, a person wearing goth-loli was pretty much guaranteed to have an attachment to visual-kei, goth rock, and/or industrial music. Want to get hammered? Have a look through the street snaps in early volumes of Gothic & Lolita Bible. Take a drink every time someone mentions Gackt, two drinks every time someone mentions Marylin Manson.

While lolita has a recognizable silhouette of poofy, knee length skirts, frilly blouses, and cute lacy headpieces, the goth-loli silhouette was pretty much anything goes. It could be long, it could be short, it could be asymmetrical. It could be soft and fluffy in some areas and bondage in others. It could be elegant or punk or simultaneously both. You could go full lolita and still be considered goth-loli. You could refuse to be lolita at all and still be goth-loli. True to the spirit of Harajuku, the more you could mix and match, the better your style, and nothing was ever too over the top.

I’ve seen comments on Reddit and Tumblr and the like around how “lolita looked so different back in the day.” This is true partially due to the natural evolution of fashion over the decades, but also partially due to the modern day international lolita zeitgeist having forgotten that brands like Atelier Pierrot and Atelier Boz weren’t exactly lolita back in the day. But they also weren’t not lolita. And brands like Angelic Pretty and Metamorphose Temps de Fille were lolita*, but it was also possible to spot their clothes on club kids off to get sh*tfaced on the dance floor at Tokyo Dark Castle. That, my friends, was gosurori.
*The featured image above is from a 2001 ad for Metamorphose Temps de Fille

Gothic Lolita or Elegant Gothic Lolita, more recently, is also used to refer to a specific substyle within lolita fashion, where black clothing and gothic motifs are worked into a defined lolita silhouette. Jump back twenty years ago to the early days of Gothic & Lolita Bible and you would find there wasn’t any distinction between this and goth-loli overall… it was all a big mishmash. But goth-loli twenty years ago was distinctly tied to the gothic and visual-kei music scenes, whereas today’s “gothic lolita,” like lolita as a whole, no longer implicitly bears any musical affiliation.

The phrase “Elegant Gothic Lolita” was coined by musician and fashion producer Mana for his clothing brand Moi-mȇme-Moitié. When Mana founded Moi-mȇme-Moitié in 1999, he was a guitarist of Malice Mizer, one of the most influential bands ever to exist in the visual-kei genre. Malice Mizer weren’t a goth rock band, but they were known for leaning heavily into imagery taken from Dracula and Interview with the Vampire, garnering them some pretty strong associations with ‘90s and early ‘00s goth culture.

Mana founded Moi-mȇme-Moitié using the phrase “Elegant Gothic Lolita” to describe his vision for the brand. Early ’00s images of an expressionless Mana wearing backcombed pigtails, short, flared dresses and sky-high platform Mary Janes became icons of the style. However, as lolita spread out overseas into anime and cosplay fandom while the goth and visual-kei scenes in Japan died down, the idea of “gothic lolita” became separated from its roots in music subculture and incorporated as just one of many labels for describing the particular style of a poofy dress.

“EGL” also has come to be used interchangeably to refer to the entirety of lolita fashion in some parts of the English speaking Internet. This is, understandably, to avoid affiliations with Nabokov, and on some platforms has even been necessary to skirt around outright censorship of the name “Lolita” (or to avoid being returned with pervy search results). I get the need for this. I really do. I don’t personally like this exact choice, given that is essentially ripping a label from a music subculture and applying it to something that isn’t, but I’m not the Internet police; I’m merely grumpy and opinionated. I would just ask that anyone who goes swapping out “lolita” for “EGL,” to please at least maintain awareness of the more specific meaning and history behind this terminology.

Lolita, Goth-Loli, Gothic Lolita… what’s the difference? (2024)

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