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Beneath the Frills at Ruffle Con

The Lolita movement finds community and empowerment in petticoats and corsets

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Both literally and figuratively, there are a lot of layers to any given Lolita outfit walking the halls at Ruffle Con. The ensembles themselves are put together from endless combinations of petticoats, dresses, skirts, corsets, blouses, stockings, bonnets, bows, gloves, wigs and jewelry. However, in the more abstract sense, every frill is imbued with elements of subculture, gender, ethnicity, identity, feminism, technology, community and consumerism. Once a year, in a pedestrian hotel in suburban Connecticut, a large number of American Lolitas gather at this "Alternative Fashion Conference" to meet, learn, shop, and define the edges of their princess kingdoms. Born in Japan in the late-'80s or early '90s, the Lolita movement is a global alternative fashion movement that’s both easy to identify and hard to define.

The basic silhouette is based on the bell-shaped skirt of Victorian children’s wear, but from there it fans out to include every incarnation of the idea, from the childlike-innocence of the "Sweet Lolita" to the dark menace of the "Gothic Lolita." Fabrics come printed with teddy bears eating cookies, the macabre Renaissance art of Hieronymous Bosch, and everything in between.

Unlike other DIY fashion movements, like cosplay enthusiasts or historical re-enactors, Lolitas are not particularly entrenched in recreating any one form of pop culture or history. This means that the parameters of dressing within the genre are left up entirely to the individual; thereby, creating a movement that is almost purely about individual style. This means that any one outfit may have nods to Japan’s Harajuku street style, raver culture, the proto-Goth New Romantic look, Victoriana, and Disney princesses without being considered overdone or out of bounds. It’s even been expanded to include such subsets as goru — from a corruption of the English word gore, which involves blood spatter and eye patches — and oji, which means prince and is a more gender-fluid, male-type style that includes knickers and newsboy caps. The possibilities, it seems, are unlimited.

While there are a myriad of variation of the look, the basic ethos of Lolita style is fueled by the Japanese love of all things "kawaii" or cute, and the concept possesses a great power at Ruffle Con. It’s the highest praise, generously offered to everything appealing. A studded pink dog collar — which, in other contexts, might be viewed as a punk or fetish item — is met with cries of "that is so cute" from a group of excited shoppers stopping to admire it.

But it's not just cute; a closer look shows that more lurks underneath the girly exterior. For model, designer, and enthusiast Stella Rose, choosing to look like a child’s toy actually feels like a power move in keeping with third-wave feminism. She explains that she's "always been attracted to the idea of hyper-femininity as kind of a response to social norms." While she also just plain likes looking a doll, she argues, that dressing in a more masculine fashion to maintain social standing is expected, saying, "I think it’s kind of interesting and punk rock to sort of throw that away and dress like a babydoll, and still be like, 'I’m still going to do all the shit you can do, but I look like an innocent little doll.'" In Japan, the modest necklines and hemlines have also been viewed as a reaction to over-sexualized low-cut clothing and a way of reclaiming "elegance" through dressing modestly.

The conference, now in its second year, features four days of classes, shopping, mixers, a fashion show, and a tea party, which take over the hotel's fluorescent-lit ballrooms, conference rooms, and restaurants, filling them with a rainbow of well-dressed attendees, who wander from event to event chatting, giggling, and posing for pictures.

While modeled after children’s wear, the prices aren’t kid stuff. One attendee named Nina explained that she couldn’t join in until she had an actual income. "When I was 16 in a bookstore I discovered the Gothic & Lolita Bible, and I fell in love with it," she says adding, "but it wasn’t until I was older I could afford the fashion and the dresses." The investment is worth it she says, since it "It just kind of brings a brightness to my life."

Upstairs in the hotel, a consignment boutique is packed with women browsing the racks of gently-worn dresses and shoes, looking for new items to add to their own wardrobes. Plowing through piles of headgear, shoppers can choose tiny top hats or furry cat ears to complete a look. Most items are either imported from Asia or come from smaller independent brands, both expensive options, so recycling items in person and via the internet is a huge part of wardrobe turnover. Among the second-hand items, a simple starter bonnet (really more of a lace headband) can go for $20 and coveted dress can top $200.

Down the hall in the conference rooms, classes are being offered in everything from how to dress up headgear with crafting supplies to doll-inspired makeup tips to panels on gender identity in the Lolita world to "Beyond the Cure," a music appreciation workshop designed to increase participants’ knowledge of death rock. The crowd is mostly (but not entirely) young and female, ethnically diverse, and bustling with enthusiasm. Part of the excitement stems from the fact that this is one of the only events of its kind for North American enthusiasts, while Lolita has some overlap with steampunk, manga, and cosplay events, which offer a chance to dress up, but this weekend is truly their own.

Downstairs, near the vendors’ area, guests stop to have pictures taken of their outfits in front of the weekend’s official step-and-repeat backdrop, before and after shopping the latest imports and indie designers. Offerings include (among other things) rings made from tiny plastic desserts, shantung corsets, flower crowns with deer antlers, full recreations of Edwardian gowns, and photo-print tights. For those more interested in the DIY aspect of wardrobing, Simplicity has a booth with Lolita-inspired sewing patterns. The aisles are crowded, but cordial, and the crowd seems to be in a buying mood. So much so, that one vendor has posted a sign just prior to the fashion show reading, "Sold out! More bonnets tomorrow. Please come back tomorrow."

A woman, who goes by the alias Badia, has flown up from Miami for the occasion. Sporting a unicorn print dress and gold glitter jelly heels, explains the appeal of Ruffle Con. "I think this Con kind of filled a need that was kind of a void." She says that while Lolita fans may enjoy, say, an anime conference, other subcultures don't always understand that these dresses are fashion, not costuming. "You always get people who are like ‘what you dressed as?’" Badia says, and to those people she explains, "'I’m not dressed as anyone, I’m dressed as myself.'" At Ruffle Con, everyone gets it.

For fans like Virginia Hilton, Lolita feels more personal than traditional fashion. It combines her love of collecting and crafting with the joys of dressing well and being a part of a community. Today’s she wearing a lavender dress with a rose print from a company called Angelic Pretty that she’s been tracking on the internet for years. "It was only sold at a tea party in Japan," she explains, saying it was a difficult get. She just purchased it from a previous owner in Germany a few weeks ago. "It’s my first time wearing it, I just want to cry," she told me, her voice swelling with genuine emotion. Since then she’d also spent hours adding crystals and pearls to personalize it and get it ready for Ruffle Con. More than the dressing itself — which she admits "takes a few hours" — she feels really at home here; especially important after moving from Germany to Los Angeles four years ago. "The community is super friendly. I’ve never met people that friendly, especially girls — when we get together we fight. But here there’s none of that."

And truly, the community does seem supportive its own. During the preamble to fashion show — the day’s most attended event — the MC warns people not to leave the ballroom, because they want all of the designers to feel as though their work is important to the crowd and, to their credit, the guests roll with the instructions. Packed crinoline-to-crinoline in their seats the room is pretty much filled. There's some shuffling to accommodate the more voluminous skirts and hats, so that everyone can sit and see comfortably.

Broken into three acts with intermissions in between, the fashion show wonderfully illustrates the diversity of looks available. Kicking it off is Japanese design house Triple Fortune, whose models are next level Lolitas with their sad doll poses and swaying cupcake skirts. Their line even includes a male dandy, complete with leopard print pirate shirt and knickers for look that combines Lord Byron and a rock star. The overall look is classic ama-loli or sweet Lolita. The attention to detail is extreme; the pattern on the stockings exactly matches those on the dresses. From there it’s a turn to gothloli — Gothic Lolita — with Mossbadger, who calls their current collection "All of Them Witches," and has emblazoned their prints with occult symbols. Morrigan NY also brings confident, dark sophistication to their feminine silhouettes. Travelling through the ages, Belladonna adds Elizabethan ruffs and Atelier Sucre draws their inspiration from Marie Antoinette, drawing actual gasps from the crowd. As They Sew in France presents a number of complete Victorian and Edwardian recreations taken from patterns drawn up by a conservator at the British Museum.

The second act is charmingly, if oddly, MCed by a professional Severus Snape impersonator, plugging his band’s upcoming show at that night’s mixer. Even he mentions that he finds the vibe "warm and welcoming." There are more broken doll poses, broad skirts, and adorable prints, broken up occasionally by Miley Cyrus' candy-themed castoffs and at least one that looked like a high school craft project. It ends with a large showing from Haenuli, a popular Korean brand that takes its deer motif from horned headdresses to skirts. A huge hit with the crowd, the designer takes the mic to tell them in broken English that she loves them and that "we are having the fashion that is the truth of ourselves." This draws a collective "aw" from the excited crowd.

According to the event’s PR director, Nancy Ramos, this is just the beginning for Ruffle Con. "Within the last four to five years there’s definitely been an explosion in the community," she says, adding, "When I first joined in about ’07 or ’08, it was an online-mostly community, and that’s how people connected and bought the clothes." While this is still somewhat the case, she says that "the numbers have spiked tremendously, which is why we’re able to do an event like Ruffle Con." Not tied to one particular event or celebrity, the subculture spreads by word of mouth and media attention. As Ramos explains, "We’re so audacious and hyper-feminine, people are very interested in that." From the outside, it’s also hard to say whether Lolita, with it's impracticality and sexy baby style, will ever break in to the mainstream in the way that other subculture styles have.

Ramos does thinks, however, that they can expand to include even more forms of alternative fashion, covering everything from Ren Faire to pinup culture. "We definitely want to target any kind of alternative fashion we can, because we are a unique experience." According to Ramos, even huge events like Comic Con treat fashion as a non-event or a side form of entertainment. "Usually you find fashion shows at gaming conventions or anime conventions, you don’t really find fashion conventions. That’s really what we want to be. We want to be taken seriously as fashion week someday." Whether they’ll be able to expand to include even more looks remains to be seen, but in the mean time she's pleased just being able to bring the community together in one place for a weekend — and to have a place wear her own outfits. What's her style? She laughs, saying it falls under the sub-subcategory of "classic Lolita with goth tendencies."

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