There is an easy way to tell between cosplay and lolita. If you compliment their costume and they like it, they’re cosplayers. If you get whacked with a novelty bag – they’re lolitas.
I’m only kidding. As a general rule, lolitas do not appreciate it when their coordinate is mistaken for a ‘costume’. The ideals of each sector are very, very different. So to avoid any mishaps, this post covers the visual differences between the two, and how to tell them apart.
Before everything, here is one absolute fact: lolita did not come from anime. In fact, it’s the other way around- lolita in anime exists, because people wore it in real life. It may look very strange now, but the fashion grew out of the underground music scene. Moreover, the founding father of the fashion is a visual kei band member: Mana, of Malice Mizer and Moi dix Mois. For more info on the visual kei scene, you can read this excellent post on the subject: Visual Kei Introduction and Guide.
Cohesion, Coordination, and Quality
Lolita is a fashion based on coordination. While designer sets of clothing do exist (ex. jumperskirt aka JSK, blouse, socks, and accessories from the same series) they are viewed as pieces you can mix and match. Blouses under the JSK are an easy way to change up the look, as seen in my post on the One True Blouse (eight blouses for eight different looks with the same main piece)
The ideal in cosplay is to emulate the character’s look and mannerisms as closely as possible, focusing on character accuracy. With lolita, the ideal is to create your own cohesive look with quality pieces, following your own vision.
This sounds rather vague. I could compare it to buying a box of pancake mix. If you follow the instructions on the box, you will end up with what’s pictured- which is not a bad thing, but it is exactly the same as what everyone who got the same box mix is going to end up with.
In contrast, if you bought not a premix but the flour, eggs, and other ingredients necessary for pancakes, and put your own spin on it instead of following someone else’s instructions exactly step for step; then you would have drawn from your own experiences, background, preferences, etc. to create something uniquely yours.
That is what putting together a lolita coordinate feels like. You take bits and pieces from various sources and combine them to form a pleasing, harmonious outfit that suits you. A coordinate takes color, material, visual balance, and theme into consideration, and all the little details echo the original inspiration.
From head to toe, everything matters- hairstyle and color, hair accessories, main piece, blouses or additional layers (jackets, etc), necklaces, arm and finger jewelry, socks, shoes, poof level – everything matters. Even makeup greatly affects the finished look.
Quality: Costumes vs clothing
In recent years, lolita brands have done collaborations with popular anime series, putting out clothes inspired by characters. This is the grey area between the two worlds, but it is still possible to tell which is which, by the quality of the construction and materials.
To give an example, here is a comparison between the recent Innocent World x Rozen Maiden collaboration (Shinku ver.), an AliExpress costume, the stock photos for the Innocent World release, and a finished coordinate with the OP and bonnet by Stephanie (@_thehungryghost_ on Instagram)
The top brands seek to produce pieces as close to perfect as possible – proportion, fit, drape, down to the very stitching. This attention to detail, and the use of premium quality fabric, distinguishes garment quality from costume quality. Note how detail in the costume is kept minimal to match the character artwork- all the fabric used is plain and the texture is reminiscent of felt, or stretch velvet.
There is a wealth of detail, from the fabric itself, with the subtle rose print and good venise lace, to the rose buttons. The cape and roses down the yoke are removable, which allows you to switch out accessories.
Another example from the same release: Innocent World x Rozen Maiden (Suigintou ver) and an eBay costume.
This is the character in question, Suigintou.
Now, if you were to wear the costume as a costume (and not as lolita) that’s just fine. But there are huge quality differences between the two. Lolita, more than any other j-fashion, places great emphasis on quality.
Costumes generally have a 2-D look, with exaggerated ruffles, color contrast, and details to look more like a cartoon. It does resemble the character design – but its primary purpose is to look like a character, and not as a wearable piece of clothing. Also, most of the ‘lolita’ style characters in anime are drawn by artists who like the style, but are not personally aware of the fashion’s rules. They generally change it up, shortening the skirts and exposing skin for added fanservice.
Here is another example:
The character in question is Erika Furudo, from Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (Umineko, for short).
This game-based franchise recently did a collaboration with the Chinese indie brand Souffle Song/Neverland Lolita, releasing dresses based on several characters. Souffle Song has low-to-mid tier pricing compared to typical lolita brands, which reflects in the simple fabrics used in the construction. Nevertheless, there’s still a heck of a difference when compared to an actual cosplay costume. After some digging, I confirmed the old rumors that Erika Furudo’s design was based on an existing coordinate. The third picture is a page from Gothic Lolita Bible 2009 Vol. 32: Princess Doll, featuring Japanese brand Millefleurs and what seems to be an indie brand called Princess Doll. [source: Flickr]
In the Millefleurs picture, the model is wearing a chiffon blouse and corset bustle dress. There is little information on this particular release, but it has similar details to the Floral Bustier Dress on Lolibrary.
Another example from Umineko! This is Frederica Bernkastel. While there is a reason for that cat tail in the story, animal accessories are generally frowned on in lolita, and only reluctantly allowed for very specifically themed coordinates. The reason once again is cohesion – logically, cat ears would go with cat prints.
This sort of cut is classic in lolita, in that it appears from season to season. There are many, many dresses that could have been the inspiration for Bernkastel, but from the selection available on Lolibrary, I narrowed it down to two dresses: Mary Magdalene’s Bertille OP, and Innocent World’s Antique Doll – Hamiel. SouffleSong’s Frederica OP is directly based on the character, but still worlds apart from a typical costume’s quality.
The last character is Kirakishou, from Rozen Maiden. I am of the opinion that it is possible to put together a detailed coordinate without using lolita brand pieces. Difficult, but not impossible. The offbrand side (see the coordinate post on my Tumblr) is made of pieces from various sources: a blouse from Carolina’s bridal collection, an offbrand underskirt, Spider overskirt, handmade sleeve flounces, and a scrap of lace crossed at the neckline. Everything has been selected considering its color and quality; Kirakishou is an ethereal doll, so I wanted a ghostly effect and chose sheer, fluttery materials like lace and chiffon.
The difference from the costume side is huge. While technically more accurate to Kirakishou’s concept art, the costume is bulky and wrinkly all over, as if it was drafted to fit someone 3 sizes bigger. The fabric looks to be plain cotton or polyester, and while the skirt is closer to the character design, it is not a shape appropriate for lolita.
Blurring the line: top tier craftsmanship and closet cosplay
But wait! Once we get past the zone of mass-produced costumes and enter the realm of crafters, bespoke tailoring, and custom prop makers, quality shoots through the roof. Top-tier cosplayers use good fabric, trims, and generous amounts of material.
For this example, we have Alice Margatroid from Touhou Project: an extremely popular danmakufu (curtain-fire shooting game) with a huge cast of characters and dozens of spinoffs, from fighting games to crossovers. As far as I know there are no ‘official’ collaborations with any lolita brands, so I picked this BTSSB release based on the primary feature of her design, the split skirt.
In cases like this, I like to think of ‘loliability’ as a see-saw or a sliding scale, checking off a list of things to determine where it belongs:
Is it Lolita? A quick checklist
- Fabric quality (Yes, excellent quality ruffles in particular)
- Shape and cut (Debatable; there have been much longer hemlines in lolita, but tea-length is about as far as they go. Ballgowns aka floor-length are still ballgowns)
- Details (Yes, the trim and cape are typical elements found in lolita clothing)
- Coordination (Yes; while this is still true-to-character with the blonde hair and dark shoes, it forms a pleasingly harmonious whole. Nothing is jarringly out of place.)
Conclusion: Possible. There are a few quibbles here, and with no idea of where to find the original picture, I can’t zoom in to verify them (like the fabric quality on the cape and blouse sleeves). The length is also something to factor in; nevertheless it is a very beautiful costume, a great take on the original design.
Finally, we have closet cosplay. This beautiful shot is from @RabbiteiMomoko on Twitter, and features Alice along with Marisa Kirisame. There is so much detail in their outfits, I am almost sure that they are both wearing lolita pieces.
Let’s start with Marisa. This is an approximate pick from Maxicimam, since there are hundreds of black x white releases to sort through.
She looks to be wearing a separate pinafore-style apron, but the base piece is an OP with buttons and lace running down the front. The lace and material seems to be of great quality; details such as the lace trim and buttons running down the length of the piece weren’t part of the original design, which reinforces my belief that it’s a real dress.
Alice in this picture is wearing what seems to be an open-front OP or JSK, with buttons from top to bottom. It’s hard to turn up an exact design match, but for the pintucks and ruffles on the skirt, this Surface Spell JSK is not too far off.
She’s wearing another dress underneath, with buttons, rows of cotton lace, and subtle details. White lace on white fabric is a very elegant combination.
As for Western media, I’m a huge fan of Harry Potter. This universe is a rich source of inspiration, and there’s lots of merchandise available to wear with your coordinate. While a full Hogwarts robe is probably still in costume territory, an ‘inspired’ coordinate incorporates small items like House themed pins and accessories, or House colors in the blouse or skirt.
I like to think that these are all recognizable as Potter-esque, without being overt. The common element is the use of black outerwear to simulate the look of the school robes. The House colors are represented in the skirts and neckwear, with flower brooches instead of embroidered patches.
It doesn’t make you ‘less’ of a person to like cosplay and lolita. But there is a line between the two, and it is important to be aware of the difference between them.
This has been a very, very long post both in the writing and the research; many thanks if you have reached this far. I do read (and reply!) to comments, so any thoughts on the subject will be much appreciated.
Fyeah! Lolita – How to avoid being an Ita