Silhouette vs. Aesthetic: What makes Lolita "Lolita"?

This post should be sub-subtitled: A continued debate on the question of whether or not petticoats are an absolute necessity within the Lolita fashion and the debate's effect on future generations of budding Lolitas. With a title like that, this post sounds positively Victorian. If this overly-long title hasn't sent you running and screaming "NO MORE!" away from your computer I hope to share my thoughts on this somewhat touchy subject that was making the rounds over on Tumblr somewhat recently. Yes, that's right, this post touches a bit on the great petticoat debate that I'm sure everyone is sick of already.

In my opinion, to answer the question "Are petticoats absolutely necessary to the Lolita fashion?" shortly and simply: No, they are not. You may now proceed to the comment section to let me know why I'm wrong if you feel the need to, or you can stay awhile and let me explain why!

Petticoats are important, but lucky for us this particular dress isn't the only one in the Lolita fashion.

Don't get me wrong, I think that a petticoat can make or break a borderline outfit Lolita, and lack of one can potentially ruin an otherwise completely fine Lolita outfit, but I think that there are a considerably large number of Lolita coordinates and dresses out there that don't necessarily need a petticoat to be considered Lolita. I feel that there's really no definitive thing you can say about petticoats being necessary throughout all of Lolita and it's definitely something that you need to take into consideration with each individual outfit.

Baby's iconic babydoll dress

For example, take the above dress, it's one of the most iconic Lolita dress designs out there, and a design that has been in production and regular wear by Lolitas, in perfectly Lolita coordinates, for well over a decade now. And yet, many people who own this dress (and the dozens of identically cut dresses) simply don't wear a petticoat with it. Myself included. And it's still, without a doubt, Lolita. A dress like this simply doesn't have enough poof to fit a regular petticoat, and if you try to wear one, it will typically look overstuffed. When I wear a dress like this, I'll just wear a plain Lolita skirt under it (which for me, is mostly to add a couple inches to the bottom of it), and that combined with the built-in lining of the skirt and the gathers gives it enough lift to not be swishy. People do sometimes argue: "but that's just because this is such an old design, if it was released now, people would call it not-Lolita!", personally I find this argument to be completely moot.  The fact of the matter is that this style of Lolita dress does exist, is still being released on a regular basis, and was a majorly influential and popular Lolita design for years and still continues to be.

Most iconic Lolita coordinate in Lolita history, or not Lolita at all?

Those that do own this type of dress and do wear it with a petticoat tend to wear it with a deflated tulle one, which does absolutely nothing for the poof, and functionally, looks exactly the same as wearing nothing under it. To those of you saying "But that counts because even a deflated petticoat is still a petticoat!" then what is the point at all of saying that a Lolita outfit needs a petticoat to be considered Lolita, even if that petticoat does absolutely nothing? At this point the petticoat becomes a completely arbitrary clothing item that cannot be seen and may or may not effect the look of the outfit in the slightest, you may as well say that Lolita can be defined by whether or not someone is wearing a ribbon tied around their waist under their dress. I feel that the importance of a petticoat stems not from the fact that it gives skirts a particular silhouette, especially considering Lolita skirts can come in a number of shapes and lengths and be deemed acceptable, but because it is part of a more general aesthetic that is far more important than mere shape.

If you want to see a few examples of Lolita without the poof, check out the blog No Petticoat Needed! It's more of an otome blog but there are a few Lolita outfits showcased. 

Not a cupcake.
So what makes something Lolita, if not the silhouette?
There is obviously more to Lolita than just the shape of a skirt. If it was the only defining feature, Lolita wouldn't be such a tricky fashion for people to get into, filled with "Is this Lolita?" questions about every offbrand skirt with flare. The truth is that there are a lot of little things combined that make Lolita what it is. There's a certain aesthetic that Lolita undoubtedly has, in addition to the silhouette, even if that aesthetic is different throughout the different Lolita sub-styles.

The truth is, Lolita isn't something that can be enirely defined by a few quick words, or a chart pointing to different style elements, or even a single blog post, no more than any other fashion can be. The importance of the petticoat is that it is part of the elegance and opulence of the Lolita aesthetic, even interpreted through the ultra kawaii or edgy and deconstructed sub-styles of the fashion.

That being said, just like any of the other aspects of the Lolita aesthetic, I feel like petticoats are part of a sort of sliding scale of Lolitaness. Similar to how a relatively plain loliable dress devoid of common Lolita details can be perfectly Lolita if it's coordinated properly, a dress with iconic Lolita elements, and coordinated with undeniably Lolita items, can still be Lolita even if it doesn't have the traditional silhouette.
 But think of the newbies!

This is all too often what you hear when someone says they think petticoats are optional, as well as any number of other Lolita fashion "rules". The truth is, Lolita is sometimes an overwhelming fashion and sometimes newbies (and even not-so-newbies!) might make some choices that might not exactly be the best, and having a set of guidelines is a good idea for the fashion to help anyone interested in wearing the fashion. However, we have to remember to stress that these are guidelines, and not rules. As someone who's been into the fashion for a very long time, and have had the chance to see how the community changes with the years, one particularly troublesome thing I've noticed is that when you lay down rules for newbies, those newbies grow into Lolitas assuming that these rules are set in stone.

Back in about 2006/2007 there was a very strong emphasis in the community on what is and isn't Lolita. The Western Lolita communities began questioning what it was that made something Lolita and were trying to, as a community, nail down the style. This was a pretty awesome thing for the community to be finally considering, however a lot of the "rules" that came from this era of new found self-reflection have stuck for many people as being the only way to define Lolita.

How often have you heard someone say that all Lolitas must wear blouses at all time, skirts may not be more than a certain number of inches above your knee, black and white dresses are instant Ita, or any number of rules touted as a set-in-stone truth? There's a pretty good chance that people believe these things to be absolute truths because, when they were first getting started, someone tried to steer them away from Itadom, but neglected to mention that, yeah, they're not really rules at all. Personally, I've heard such silly things more times than I care to. It's all well and fine to help a newbie out, especially in such a tricky fashion like Lolita, and especially with cringe-worthy scratchy lace skeletons hanging in so many of our own closets that we would like to spare other newbies from, but we have to remember to emphasize that these are not rules, but rather "learn to crawl before you can run" guidelines.

In emphasizing the importance of the silhouette above all else, I feel that many people have disregarded the general aesthetic of the fashion, leading to a lot of really watered down ideas of what makes something Lolita. I feel that this over-emphasis is just as misleading for budding generations of Lolita as the other rules have been.

So how do you help newbies?
I recently asked EGL what people there considered the rules or defining features of Lolita to be, and one user, Carmidoll, brought up a very interesting idea: that Lolita can really only truly be learned through osmosis. This seems like a somewhat weird idea, but I realized that it's probably how we all truly learned how to define what Lolita is. By reading the Bibles, by searching for street snaps, by lurking Daily Lolita, by reading Lolita blogs, by talking about it with other Lolitas online, or by participating in our Local community. Lolita is really an immense fashion, and defined by so much more than just how high above your knees your poofy skirt lands that it's almost impossible to take in by reciting what amount to arbitrary fashion rules. It's really something we can only know after we've experienced it in some way.

If you have a friend who is interested in getting into Lolita and doesn't quite know where to start, by all means, let them know that it's a good idea to wear a petticoat, or that full-length dresses and barely-butt-covering skirts probably isn't the best choice for a Lolita outfit, remind them that some JSKs might look more put together with a blouse, but avoid trying to define the fashion by these things. Instead, share your Bibles with them, gush over newly released dresses with them, discuss trends and fads with them, even share clothes with them if you can. The best way to learn what Lolita's about is to participate in it in whatever way you can.

The funny thing about this topic is that most people can't really agree on it! I find it funny that when a bunch of perfectly well put-together Lolitas get together and talk about the defining features of Lolita, most of them have completely different opinions on the subject. How can a group of people who are all very obviously involved in the same fashion and wear it just fine all be saying contradictory things on what it is that makes an outfit Lolita? If they all simply have the wrong idea on what is and isn't Lolita, how is it they seem to have a perfectly acceptable grasp on the fashion?

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think petticoats are mandatory or optional providing the outfit is right? Or to go above and beyond that, do you feel that not only are petticoats mandatory, but only specific shapes and lengths are? What exactly do you personlly find the defining features of Lolita to be?


  1. There are times when I really feel like a petticoat is an absolute necessity. I won't go to a formal meetup or convention in Lolita without it, and depending on the dress I'm wearing, without mega poof. But there are times when I put together a coordinate and forgo the petticoat, simply because that much poof isn't appropriate for the situation. (You know, knocking things over) And maybe people will smite me with a Mana-sama scepter for tagging it as Lolita, but whatever. At any rate, I'm glad that you wrote this bit about petticoats. I love them dearly, but sometimes I'm happy to lave them out.

  2. Although I've always been a believer in breaking the 'rules' of Lolita, before this whole debate, I was of the belief that a petticoat was necessary to a Lolita outfit. But then I read some of the comments from the 'other team,' so to speak, and I realized that I have frequently come across a non-peticoated outfit and thought 'That's a really pretty Lolita outfit' without even realizing it. It was clearly a Lolita coord. Even without the petticoat or any real poof at all, all the 'elements' were still there. In all honesty, this realization has made my head swim a little bit, and my relationship with Lolita has changed. My Lolita world has been rocked!

    Ok, not really, but I'm sure you get my point.

  3. I think the whole wearing petticoat thing depends on the outfit.I think for some outfits petticoats are a must and for some they look silly. I think it takes a whole lot more then a petticoat to make a outfit Lolita.

  4. I find that when I wear a petticoat, I feel more elegant, or like a doll. But when I wear simple lolita dresses without a petticoat, I feel more like a little girl. So for me, it's more about how I want to feel. I actually prefer not to wear petticoats with most of my dresses (all my dresses are btssb), but I do have 3 dresses where it looks strange without one. It all depends, I suppose!

  5. Lately I've been viewing Lolita more like a subculture than "just" a fashion. I'm sleepy right now and not particularly coherent but your thoughts on this petticoat issue seem to me to support my view of Lolita as a subculture. Off topic, I know.

    Anyway, this was a fantastic read, as always :)

  6. I'm not a Lolita wearer, simply because I think having rules for fashion is silly. It is so exhausting to make sure you have ticked every point on the List of Lolita worthy clothing, that it isn't fun anymore and just becomes a daily struggle to please others and be afraid, that you've made a mistake because your panties don't match...

    Really isn't the whole point of dressing up to have fun and feel good about yourself? Then why make rules, who cares if there's a petticoat underneath, if it looks and feels good.

    1. It's not about rules but fitting an aesthetic you find pleasing. Experienced lolitas who wear the fashion aren't mentally taxing themselves to put an outfit together each time. Most lolitas don't share photos of their outfits in a public manner either and it's not about pleasing others for them.

      Think of it like an an ice cream sundae. If you take away the sprinkles it's still a sundae. But if you start removing sprinkles, chocolate sauce, cherries, and nuts, you're just left with a heap of ice cream. It's not bad but it's not a sundae.

    2. This was the comment I was looking for. Exactly.

    3. What a brilliant analogy! An ice cream sundae is exactly how I think of lolita as! There's a list of elements that make an outfit lolita, and you don't have to have all of them, but you ought to have at least some. But I think some people think of petticoats not as sprinkles but as the ice cream itself.

    4. Think about it like this: When Ren and Stimpy was a 'kid's' show, they had to deliver adult jokes while remaining kid-friendly. This challenge forced them to use clever writing and made the jokes much more funny, because they were smartly-made. When they switched to being an 'adult' show, the jokes were more in-your-face and less funny, because they no longer had to be clever to get the joke across.

      The lolita guidelines push you to be creative with your coords, forcing you to showcase how well you can dress when given challenges like dressing for your body type, following the guidelines, and making unique coords that don't fall into 'ita' territory. Guidelines don't have to be rigidly followed, but they'll give you the push you need to dress your best.

  7. This is exactly what I think. Thank you so so much for this post!

  8. Totally and completely dependent on the outfit of what type of petticoat to wear, but I still don't think it is OK to forgo completely. It just changes the type you wear.

    I own quite a few of those baby doll dresses and I have a specific A-Line petticoat that does add enough poof to keep it from lying completely flat and lifeless on my body. I think without it, it looks silly.

    I think the Aristocrat, EGA/EGL, and boystyle types are definitely where this guideline gets tossed. I thought for sure you would have gone in that direction, but agree to disagree I suppose.

  9. I'm absolutely in love with this post.
    Although petticoat is not indispensable with 'all' outfits, is an essential part of many. However, petticoats don't make an outfit instantly lolita :)

  10. Petticoats are necessary when the line of dress/skirt needs it. Otherwise it's optional according to the season, occasion or the mood and general aesthetic of the outfit.

  11. This is an interesting topic. I'm just getting started in the fashion, I've only been studying it for about a year. (and only have a couple skirts) And really, it IS studying. I can certainly rattle off the basic "rules" of the fashion, from all the reading I've done, but to ask "What makes an outfit Lolita," well..... that's a bit more complicated. But I know it when I see it. Haha. Really, you can only know what is an isn't lolita by experiencing it, like you said. But I suppose that's how it is with ANY fashion, really.

  12. As someone who staunchly takes the "wear a petticoat" side I did REALLY enjoy this entry. (First off I honestly had never seen stock photos of the first two dresses in the entry, so I had no idea how they looked without some poof.) I know Misty Sky comes with this beautiful built-in petticoat that just barely adds some poof and still looks fantastic, but I tend to not really call my outfits lolita anymore at that point.

    Although I agree with you on most counts, I do think once a petticoat is left out you're starting to blend into "otome" style, or even look like a girl who forgot something at home. It just looks like something is missing. The style is always evolving and changing, and I think it evolved from not really needing petticoats to still look lolita, to if you don't wear a petticoat you just look sloppy, to "oh hey no petticoat means otome" right now. The majority of lolita dresses are still made with a petticoat in mind and would look (frankly) ridiculous without anything underneath. Not to mention the surge in prints kind of urges a wearer to put something fluffy underneath to display all the beautiful designs. It's kind of wasted sometimes when a skirt is hanging limp.

    These are just my opinions though, and I really loved yours! I hope you keep posting more often. ;A; I've been missing them!

  13. I missed your posts!
    I pretty much agree with the points you made. If someone asked me "What is Lolita?" I'd say "It's poofy!", because that is the iconic Lolita silhouette. But some dresses do work just fine without a petticoat.
    Also, this is a fashion for real people to wear, so weather and practicality are important matters. Sometimes wearing a petticoat just isn't convenient.
    If it is Lolita, it is Lolita petticoat or not :)

  14. I think my only problem with this whole "let's not where panniers" thing is that the people who are advocating it see it as some sort of over-throwing within the fashion. Not only that, but those people are newer lolitas, who perhaps don't understand the fashion as well as someone who has been wearing it for many years.
    I don't think it's impossible to wear something that's lolita without a pannier and have it look lolita- I just think it's an expert move. I don't think it's going to work with EVERY dress out there. I also think that without a pannier with sweeter styles you can start to look very dangerously more hime-kei or otome-kei, neither of which are lolita.
    Overall, I think that someone who has been wearing lolita for many years is able to put together a chord without a pannier and still have it look lolita. But as for someone who just bought their first dress... Not so much.

    1. *Wear
      I swear I speak English

  15. One of the things I do when buying Lolita on a budget is to look for dresses and skirts that look good without a petticoat. So when I go out in Lolita, I use the petticoat to give it that iconic shape. When I wear the same dress but not in Lolita, I wear it without a petticoat to give it a more casual dress look. I prefer my Lolita outfits to have a petticoat but that's just my personal aesthetic preference. The picture you posted without a petticoat looks Lolita. I find that many Lolita dresses that are empire waisted look better without out a petticoat.

  16. Hey Caro-chan, how have you been? I made a Tumblr account recently, but as I'm having some issues with it; I thought I could send you a link here.~ (Since you mentioned you was looking for kawaii blogs.)I bought some items from this sweet deco creator, Terumi, and I'm not sure if it was what you was looking for, but she showcases all her items in her blog.
    I seem to end up finding a few kawaii blogs from Etsy sellers, if that'll help. ^^

    Next up, I agree with your statement so much! I noticed may things you said, but you found the words to write them down; like for example, the fact many later generation lolitas, after memorizing "the rules" take it too literally, to the point they think that is the only way lolita fashion must be done... when in fact there were always "exceptions" being showcased in the G&L Bible, or Kera. (I still remember how "taboo" some girls thought ankle socks were XD)And I do agree with you about the empire waists;many empire waists can fit a small petticoat, I think, but it basically does look the same with or without the petti, once it's on a body, and retains the "shape" people assume it's getting from a petticoat.~

  17. Thank you SOOOO much for posting this! I love your blog-- it's really helped me both to be a better lolita and to take lolita less seriously (you explain things in a nice, accepting, open-minded and easy to understand way that doesn't make me intimidated by the rules of lolita.) This issue has really been irking me lately, though, so I'm glad you of all people touched on it.

    I don't think a petticoat always makes or breaks an outfit. I agree that a lot of co-ords actually look good without them. There are some dresses that might look a little odd without one, but whatever. I think it's individual preference too. Personally I don't even own a proper petticoat (I have a minimal-poof dancewear type one,) and I'm perfectly fine with it. Since I mostly wear casual, the small amount of poof makes me feel more comfortable and less overdressed, but still like I'm including a vital enough element for my co-ord to still be lolita. Then again (and I also love that you mentioned this, because it's been gnawing at me too,) what IS lolita? Honestly, I don't think anyone has a perfect, all-inclusive definition. There are the base guidelines to steer you in the right direction, but I think it's more about spending time studying the fashion, learning from example, and emulating what you see in pictures and stuff, and after a while you just sort of 'know' what counts and doesn't count as lolita.

    Sorry to ramble.... I'm not even sure if that made much sense. In any case, that was a wonderful article!

    1. You're welcome :) It's been something I've been thinking about lately, so it was really great to get to blog about it and hear people's reactions! I'm honestly relieved so many people enjoyed it and agreed with it, because it usually seems like the odd man out opinion!

      You're not rambling at all! Lolita is such a great fashion, and what's so great about it is how fluid and vast of a fashion it really is!

  18. I love this article! Great job.

    Something it brought to my mind is this: I never understood the whole "no petticoat is automatically otome-kei" thing. I always thought otome, while a close cousin of lolita with a lot of overlapping, was its own specific style. I see it more as dressing super-coordinated, feminine, and cute, with not so much emphasis on the elegant, frilly, doll-like look of lolita, and not so many rules. There are lolita co-ords that could easily pass as otome with a few changes, but for instance, I don't think removing the poof from an OTT sweet co-ord would result in otome at all.

    I dunno, just my two cents.

  19. While I can see what you're saying, I might be a little more understanding in regards to certain empire-waist types. I agree with the reply of it being an "expert move", or a door back into the "Otome" category (or some of the other related styles). [Otome? --> ] Suddenly the cupcake shape takes on a deflated balloon in my eyes. The prints, as one commenter states, cannot be seen without a petticoat. I think it misses something, its not as much of a party as it is another dress to me? What about the Princess ideal? I just don't see a Princess wearing a dress like these without a petticoat. Without the petti, its the start of the watering down of the fashion, that carries it into a different area as been defined by past fashion history. The era ended when the rules were broken. That's truly my two cents on the matter. I came around the 2007 era with the heavy-handed "must-haves" rules. I can't say that's the sole reason for my response though. ):

    1. Well, for starters, not ever Lolita dress has a large border print, and not every Lolita style is intended to emulate a princess (besides! Not all princesses came from the era of massive skirts!).

      In regards to "the start of watering down the fashion", honestly the great thing about Lolita is there is really a wide spectrum of how fancy it has to be, and you can easily counter balance a "plainess" in one area while fancying up another. Juliette et Justine (and the indie brands that take inspiration from them!) are a great example of this. A "watered down" petticoat can easily be counter balanced with a lush print or decadent accessories. Although again, like you pointed out, it is a bit of an "expert move" :)

  20. Not wearing a petticoat under a Lolita dress is like having a sundae without the whip cream. yes, it is still a sundae with ice-cream, chocolate sauce and a cherry, but the whip cream is a detail of the sundae that enhances the experience – like a petticoat does for a dress.

  21. Weirdly enough, I've started wearing a petticoat with some of my mainstream, Forever21 skater dresses. It's just a simple, chiffon petti (Candy Violet's lace petticoat) that doesn't have a TON of lift, but I like it because it keeps the static at bay so well. Since I'm plus-sized, static cling and my body mix worse than static on a slim person, so the petti really helps. That babydoll Baby dress is on my dream dress list... I think I'd still wear that lace petticoat with it, for the potential static-ridding and shape-smoothing, if nothing else.

  22. From the perspective of an older Lolita, I think going without a pannier/petticoat sometimes gives it more of a "mature" look, for lack of a better word--you still have gorgeous prints and ruffles and a bow here and there, but it's more toned down. But I'm talking about Kuro, EGL, and the like.


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