The Lolita look keeps resurfacing but, few follow the controversial trend back to the roots. On the surface, fashion shows us saddle shoes and sultry sunglasses. However, Lolita was an ambitious book about a grown man’s tumultuous affair with his underage step-daughter. The look has become highly derivative as the book spawned a fetish and the fetish, in turn, inspired edgy designers and Japanese teenagers. Now, that inspiration has been recycled and no one really talks about the original Lolita.
The Child-Bride Aesthetic
Speaking about her love of Lolita fashion, Stephanie Lacava explores the question, “What grown woman wants to risk looking childish in an expensive designer dress?” Sexy schoolgirl is something she finds empowering– a way to show off a young body with a boyish figure. Lacava admits, “It’s not my intention to alienate other women, but that’s often the outcome.” This reaction is not surprising as the style implies sexually charged details such as short skirt with lacy, thigh-high stockings combined with nostalgic and naive basics like Mary-Jane shoes and a conventional plaid.
Lacava describes the details of her look:
I rarely wear pants; more often, it’s shorts or flirty skirts or—even in winter—bloomers, lingerie tap shorts, rompers. To keep my legs warm, I have an assortment of knee-high socks and thigh-highs—striped, cashmere, garterless, some with fluorescent salmon seams, others with black embroidered snakes. My shoes are Converse, wrecked motorcycle boots, men’s slipper flats or their opposite: platforms with the highest possible heel. For jewelry, I often wear only a black ribbon or a string around my neck, as I did when I was a teenager, and my wedding band is a simple black circle.
An eyebrow-raising aesthetic, Lolita is more than a look. It’s a history that starts with a little strange book.
Who Is Dolores Haze?
A whimsically written work of prose, filled with allusions, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was a book that I was hesitant to read. The fear that it would be overfilled with smut was quickly dispelled. There are moments of obscenity, but they are not the main point of the tale. Indeed, it can be summarized as the decay of a weak, corrupt man and the exploitation of his weakness by several equally flawed people, including the titular character.
Even though the book is called Lolita, the story never focuses on who Dolores really is. We only see what Humbert wishes she was, and what Humbert thinks of himself. The entire story can be seen as a Peter Pan metaphor for a lost childhood, especially as one compares similarities between J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe and the fictional Humbert. One of the main allusions, brought out from the beginning of the story, is to Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee. Humbert mixes the phrases into many of his chapters, even giving his first love the pseudonym Annabel Leigh.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
-Edgar Allan Poe
The Humber’s story begins with a preteen romance, as he attempts to consummate his relationship with his first girlfriend. They part after their summer flirtations and Humbert never sees her again because the girl dies. While the main character does not give this as an excuse for his pedophilia, he implies that his romantic interest in children may have been born out this frustration: He was never able to have his Annabel.
So, he keeps trying to have her… through young-looking prostitutes or fantasizing about girls he watches in the park. He is married briefly to a woman who tries to maintain a youthful appearance, but, her true age can be seen by Humbert and he is dissatisfied. It is when he meets Dolores Haze, who he later nicknames Lolita, that he finds a replica of his first love.
Lolita, The Archetype
Lolita is similar in appearance to his first love, although her personality is more willful. In fact, much of the conflict between Lolita and Humbert comes from his desire to objectify her and Lolita’s resistance to conforming.
The story draws into question the same issue that seems to be debated in the psychiatric community. What do we make of these men?
Wikipedia summarizes the issue by explaining, “Exclusive pedophiles are sometimes referred to as “true pedophiles.” They are attracted to prepubescent children, and prepubescent children only. They show no erotic interest in adults their own age and can only become aroused while fantasizing about or being in the presence of prepubescent children, or both.” This doesn’t completely describe Humbert as he has relationships with women, before, during, and after his relationship with Lolita.
The article continues “Non-exclusive offenders — or ‘non-exclusive pedophiles’ — may at times be referred to as non-pedophilic offenders, but the two terms are not always synonymous. Non-exclusive offenders are attracted to both children and adults, and can be sexually aroused by both, though a sexual preference for one over the other in this case may also exist. If a preference for prepubescent children, such offenders are considered pedophiles in the same vein as exclusive offenders.” This is slightly more in line with Humbert’s situation. He romanticizes his interest in young girls, rationalizing it. He perpetuates his interest through an ongoing power struggle.
From the viewpoint of Humbert, he is the weak champion — wiling his way into a relationship with Lolita, despite all odds. His main antagonists are other men, the government, and a society that would judge him harshly if he were caught. As with most criminals, his paranoia makes everyone an enemy. No one, teacher, friend, or relative, can get too close. Lolita is merely a pawn, an object to be controlled.
From the viewpoint of Lolita, the world would be much simpler. Humbert is a means to an end. If she cooperates with him, she gets treats and sweets, a lax parental figure, and avoids the foster care system. She seems to be at odds with other little girls, bashing their looks or personalities. Just as Humbert is afraid of teenage boys (to whom Lo might be attracted) Lolita is jealous of younger girls, who have more nymphet years left. She craves the attention of boys and men. She seeks out anyone who will do her bidding, like Humbert. As the story progresses, she lives more vicariously through the arts, enjoying films and TV shows, reading paperback novels, and acting in school plays. She prefers to watch life than live it.
This leaves us with the outsider’s view, the view of the reader. Clearly, as someone in a position of power, Humbert is the offender. Yet, as Lo ages, and becomes more manipulative, the balance of power changes. Humbert is soon a slave to his own immorality.
That Infamous Name
In a Shakespearean manner, the writer was able to transform (and destroy) the use of the name Lolita. Hispanic in origin, it fits within the context of the story, and fits with the setting. Brought into our modern world, this name is associated with fetish clothes including pinafores, plaid skirts, and other school-girl details. Thus, Lolita fashion involves the fetishism of the typical girls clothing from the 1950s setting of the story.
Taboos and Taste
One can applaud Nabakov’s literary effort, even if the thoughts are sordid. For instance, the situation between Humbert and Lolita is a realistic portrayal of what is defined as “grooming” by psychologists. The continuation of their relationship, through mutual blackmail has been reported in incestuous situations. Much of the relationship between Lo and Humbert is typical of psychological or physical abuse.
What subject matter is suitable for print has been debated in both literary and religious circles. The book does not condone Humbert’s actions, or even glorify the relationship. In fact, all of the involved characters suffer pathetic deaths and the toxicity of the situation brings tragedy on everyone.
Desperate For Desire
The question becomes, how did we get from a disturbing book to an exultation of an unusual aesthetic. For fashion, it’s a bold and controversial choice. This season, glimpses of the original are marketed to the masses. Even the slightest adaptation is sensual, probably not the best choice for a bank manager yet, a little trite for a creative profession. It can quickly creep from a nod to youth to an awkwardly age-inappropriate stereotype.
Given the roots in both fetish and dark literature, the style seeks attention and the wearer will likely receive it. Whether that attention is negative or positive will probably depend on the execution of the outfit.
What do you think of the modern interpretations of the nymphet?