Loli-Pop: A Personal View

Posted by Kathryn Hardy Bernal on September 21, 2009 in Guest Blog, Ms Kathryn Hardy Bernal tagged with
Loli-Pop: A Personal View
Kathryn A. Hardy Bernal

Saturday, 19 September 2009, Auckland’s Taste of Japan festival, left no doubt about the excitement that can be generated by Japanese subcultural style. Dressed up for the day’s fashion show, Vivien Masters (Gothic Lolita/Lolita), Chloe King (Cyberpunk/Cybergoth), and myself (Sweet Country Lolita), could not walk an inch without being mobbed by the media, photographers, and people wanting their photographs taken with us. I was not surprised.

Second from left, Chloe King; third, Vivien Masters; fourth, Kathryn Hardy Bernal (with friends Rene and Carolin), Taste of Japan festival, Auckland, 19 September 2009. The fashion show this year was coordinated by Bevan Chuang.

Saturday, 15 September 2007, two years earlier, the Loli:Pop exhibition opened at Auckland War Memorial Museum. It was heralded, the night before, by an extraordinary party, which demonstrated the same kind of excitement, from the media and crowd. This is not to mention the publicity, radio and television interviews and segments, a barrage of newspaper and magazine articles and reviews, and blogs popping up everywhere about this exciting and “fascinating” show. People were surprised.

Media frenzy at the Opening of Loli-Pop, Auckland, 14 September 2007

Bevan Chuang and me at the Opening of Loli-Pop, Auckland, 14 September 2007

Two years down the track, and it seems like this excitement has not ebbed. But this “fascination”, for a fashion/music subculture that has been around for twenty years, from ideas formulated more than thirty years ago, still surprises many. The confusion stems, in many cases, from a lack of understanding or limited sympathy with a movement that fuses two seemingly unrelated/incongruous concepts: “Gothic” and “Lolita”. It also appears there is still a lack of awareness that this subculture actually exists, let alone an agreement on its importance. This surprises me…
It was an exciting day, for me, when I received a letter from Bevan Chuang, who at the time held an administrative position at Auckland’s museum. She was hoping to propose an exhibition on a contemporary Asian theme, to coincide with the opening of and promote a new permanent gallery at her institution, titled Arts of Asia (an “anthropological” display of mostly traditional and historical Asian artefacts). Statistically, it had been Bevan’s observation that museum attendance was comparatively lower in regard to both the Asian and youth (post-school-aged) communities in Auckland, and that spaces such as Arts of Asia usually interested a more mature audience. When Bevan was looking for a theme that she felt would interest the younger sector, she discovered an online abstract I had written in 2006, for a paper I gave on Kamikaze Girls, at the Fashion in Fiction conference, held at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in 2007 (see previous blog), a topic that also interested her greatly. Finding that I was based in Auckland, and instinctively knowing we would have a rapport, Bevan invited me to curate the exhibition that became known as Loli-Pop, and our friendship and professional collaboration was born.
From the beginning, the staging of this show was an uphill journey, and it is to Bevan Chuang’s credit that it even happened. This was partly due to the perception that Gothic & Lolita (G&L) was (and for some still) not considered an academic topic. I would like to think that some of the research/work that I have done in the field has slightly altered this mindset. The Loli-Pop exhibition was certainly a starting point for acceptance in this part of the world. So, what was Loli-Pop exactly?
Loli-Pop was intended as an exploration into the G&L subculture, with a focus on the Lolita phenomenon, and its relationship with popular culture, thus the title, “Loli” = Lolita + “Pop” = popular culture. Initially, Bevan and I proposed an exhibition on the Japanese movement, itself, and wanted to display designer examples of Lolita fashion from Japan, and related Japanese objects, such as figures, dolls, and manga, supported by a photographic survey of people in the streets of Tokyo, and extensive wall text explaining the connections between fashion, music, and Lolita culture. This happened in part.
An initial hurdle was in convincing all parties of the validity of this exercise as it was not foreseen as a draw card. However, in my opinion, the most ridiculous episode was the argument that ensued over the naming of the show. One of the first issues to overcome was that the words “Lolita” and “Gothic” were considered too controversial. Of course, “Lolita” is a loaded term, stemming from Nabokov’s novel, and subsequent meaning. Negativity towards this word was exacerbated when my email exchanges with Bevan Chuang, containing “Lolita” either in the subject field or message body, were blocked as the “system” recognised the correspondence as “offensive”. But I was bewildered when it appeared that “Gothic” was inviting its own stigma and, in its association with Goth, a sense of panic, thus being “unsuitable” for representation at Auckland’s museum. Both terms were eventually banned.
How does one hold an exhibition on G&L when the terms “Gothic” and “Lolita” cannot be used in the title? And if one omits this identification, what does it mean for attracting a potential audience that is knowledgeable about the topic? How will they be drawn in? Could we even invite a new audience? Besides, Bevan’s goal was to bring in an Asian audience, particularly a young Asian audience, and Auckland youth in general, people who are generally more likely to comprehend and be magnetised by “Lolita” and “Gothic” (leaving aside people of any age that are enamoured by the Gothic full stop).
The challenge, therefore, was to work out how to talk about G&L without actually mentioning it. We tossed up phrases containing the Japanese phonetic form, gosurori (gothic-loli/goth-loli), and the less correct contraction, Loli-goth/loligoth, which was allowed and used extensively throughout the exhibition wall text, but was also rejected as a title due to the “goth” aspect. Through this process, however, Bevan came up with “Loli-Pop”, which I think was clever as a pun, signifying the sweet Lolita style.

However, this was only a start to troubles. Due to the difficulty of senior staff in grasping the significance of the topic, or indeed its relevance for exhibition at Auckland’s museum, the emphasis on both content and marketing shifted away from the Japanese angle and towards the subculture’s “existence” in Auckland. A general ignorance about G&L caused a situation whereby a lack of faith, mistrust, even panic (as highlighted earlier), meant that the movement’s “influence” on Auckland’s fashion industry was publicly fabricated, and its local following exaggerated. This caused some very uncomfortable moments for both Bevan and me when interviewers repeatedly questioned us about non-existent “hotspots” for the scene. The final straw was when a subtitle was chosen for us, without consultation or approval. Even now I balk at Loli-Pop: A Downtown Auckland View on Japanese Street Fashion, preferring to drop the latter part of the title out of discussion whenever possible.

Exhibition flyer for Loli-Pop: Original photograph of Minami Itou by Bevan Chuang; Graphics by Nick Eagles; 2007

In the end, though, this emphasis proved to be both a disadvantage and an advantage. Due to the twisting of the initial concept (as well as a lack of funds), an opportunity arose for us to showcase the work of some of my fellow colleagues at AUT University. Having been given no provision for buying Japanese designs, as was our intention, the exhibition garments were instead created by Fashion staff, after being inspired by and independently researching their given categories:

Sean Kuo wearing Sebastien Isadore by Gabriella Trussardi, Emily Wang wearing Violette by Lize Niemczyk, Emily Huang wearing Evangeline by Angie Finn, and Yanling Wang wearing Amorette by Kathryn Hardy Bernal, at Auckland War Memorial Museum 2007

  1. Bachelor of Design (Fashion) Programme Leader, and Senior Lecturer in Fashion Design, Angie Finn designed and constructed Evangeline, a three-piece Gothic Lolita outfit;
  2. Senior Lecturer in Costume Design, Yvonne Stewart designed and constructed Adorabelle, a three-piece Sweet Lolita outfit;
  3. Lecturer, Lize Niemczyk designed and constructed Violette,a three-piece Punk Gothic Lolita bridal outfit;
  4. Gabriella Trussardi designed and constructed a boy’s “Lolito” outfit, Sebastien Isadore, inspired by elements of the Gothic Aristocrat style; and
  5. (I), Kathryn Hardy Bernal, designed Amorette, a five-piece Country Sweet Lolita outfit, constructed with Carmel Donnelly, from fabrics and laces that I purchased in Shibuya, Tokyo, on my research trip with Bevan. 

Yes! Bevan Chuang and I got to go to Tokyo. When no budget appeared to be forthcoming, Bevan took the initiative to apply for an Asia:NZ and Museums Aotearoa award. They provided her with her airfare and accommodation, and I was internally supported.

Bevan Chuang with Yuri, Harajuku 2007.

This financial assistance was invaluable as our Tokyo trip gave the show an extra edge. Bevan’s amazing photos, and an edited DVD of footage running in a loop, of Japanese youth that we met on the streets of Harajuku and Shinjuku, created a backdrop for the garments on show and solidified a context. This display was further supported by photographs of a few local “Lolita”. This opportunity, though, did not help our capacity to go “shopping” (unfortunately!!) and so our desire to explain connections with popular culture, by planning to show authentic Japanese objects and accessories, was demonstrated in the exhibition of twelve Japanese G&L "Pullip" dolls from my own collection (and evidenced by supporting wall-text information). Angie Finn also created tiny versions of Evangeline, for Pullip (30cm) and mini Pullip (6cm); an example of each of these two dolls were redressed by Angie and displayed in the cabinet alongside her full-scale garment.


Some of my Japanese G&L Pullip dolls by Jun Planning/Chunsang Chunha

Angie Finn’s three Evangeline designs, Loli-Pop 2007. Wall photographs by Bevan Chuang 2007.

For a show that almost never got off the ground, Loli-Pop never dies. The exhibition is still referenced in accordance with local Japanese events, such as Taste of Japan,and the recent inaugural Japan Festival, held in Wellington on 11 July, 2009, and Bevan and I are remembered when invitations to be involved in Asian community events arise.

I’m wondering how much, though, anyone has learned, from this, about the “Gothic” and its place in New Zealand. Only this week, we “Lolita”, have been written about as “emo”:


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