If you saw a girl dressed as a unicorn wandering down the street, would you think it was alright to grab her tail? If you saw another girl wearing a Victorian-inspired hat, would you think it was okay to try and take it off her head? If you drove a car past a group of girls in frilly knee-length skirts, blouses, and bows in their hair, would you think it was okay to yell ‘sluts!‘ out the window at them?
Of course, the answer to all of these should be NO.
Street harassment takes many forms. Most girls I know have experienced it in one form or another, especially on nights out, with drunken men who decide that the fact they haven’t managed to go home with a girl entitles them to shout explicit things at you. With this, there is a temptation to say ‘oh, they’re drunk, they don’t know what they’re doing’. This explanation, however, is obviously not an excuse, and someone having a flimsy psychological motive to harass you doesn’t make it any more okay.
If you are a visible member of a subculture, this harassment is something you have to get used to, not only at night but also during the day. Sometimes it becomes extreme in its invasion of personal space and violation of the basic right to exist in the public sphere.
The Cosplay is not Consent organisation that has recently sprung up (See website here) shows that dressing in a way that might be attention grabbing does indeed cause unwanted, often sexual attention. In the case of cosplay (short for ‘costume play’) and conventions it seems especially sad, as these places are supposed to be nerdy and safe spaces. If this organisation is needed for those who want to dress in this way in supposedly safe spaces, then imagine how bad it can get for those who dress differently around the general public.
I have been interested in Japanese street fashion for a long time (about 10 years now) but it is only in the last 6 months that I have found other people who share my interests, and a local community to wear it with. The fashion that I wear is called Lolita. Despite the annoying sexual undertones of the name, one of the key hallmarks of Lolita fashion is modesty. It’s based on Victorian and Rococo clothes, and skirts are expected to be at least knee length (at a push, a few inches shorter), with shoulders covered. High-neck blouses are also very common, and skirts are expected to be either bell-shaped or a very wide a-line, helped by multiple petticoats. Legs should also generally be covered with tights, knee-high socks, or both. Many girls wear wigs, and hair accessories are also crucial to make sure outfits (or co-ord) match sufficiently. There are different sub-sets of Lolita fashion, from ‘Gothic’, which is based around darker colours and motifs; ‘Sweet’, the polar opposite of this which is more child-like and is based around candy colours, and ‘Classic’ which is more mature and often uses old-fashioned florals and antique colours. This blog has an excellent introduction. (See website here.
Lolita fashion is the absolute antithesis of body-conscious and sexualised fashion: it is really worth emphasising how crucial modesty is to it. The only parts of the body which are normally displayed are the bottom half of the legs, and the shape of the waist and arms (even then, they are often hidden by puffy sleeves). But the reason I have never been confident enough to wear it before – apart from not having a community who I can join in with – is because I have always been worried about the reaction from the public, a worry which has been proven, time and time again, to have very real foundations.
As a fashion community, we often meet up in a group and dress up together at the same time. We are very obvious when we are out in town, and there are advantages as well as drawbacks to this. Being out with those with the same interests is obviously fun and sometimes we get really lovely comments. However, the attention we get can be split into several categories from different demographics and along gender lines.
Children of all genders: ‘Wow they look like princesses!’
Teenage girls/young women: Point/stare/don’t say anything but take pictures from afar.
Women over the age of about 40: Genuinely interested, complimentary and want to talk to us.
Teenage boys, men over the age of 18: Yell ‘sluts’, make obscene comments, invade our personal space, want to touch/poke and harass us.
These men are the reason I have been worried about wearing Lolita. It is unbelievable what people think they are entitled to do and say when they see people dressed like this.
For those who say: ‘well, you should expect it if you dress like that’. NO. That is not true. Everyone should be entitled to dress how they like without attracting harassment. Nobody deserves to have ‘slut’ shouted at them, no matter how they dress.
The confusing thing is that the reactions we get from men are almost always sexual in some way. My friend who was dressed as a unicorn was propositioned more than once while dressed like that, which leads me to wonder what on earth that says about the men who were making those particular crude comments? Do they fancy unicorns? Maybe they do, who am I to judge? But they should probably keep that to themselves, and find someone to consent to their fetish in private, rather than inflicting it on others. We 100 % do not look threatening when we are out. We do not look sexual in a way that mainstream society would deem as provocative. We are covered from head to foot. So what on earth are these men thinking of?
Lolita fashion is defiantly aimed at the female gaze. It is designed not to be sexy. Are these men then threatened by the fact that we are obviously not dressing for them? I find it incredibly hard to sympathise and imagine what they are thinking when they make these comments.
Is it because they think that we are taking up what they perceive as their public space? To be fair, we do take up a lot of room with our petticoats. When we’ve been in restaurants, staff have been concerned that we might be rowdy because of how we look, but this concern is always unfounded. We are no more rowdy than any other 15-strong group of girls would be. If anything, some girls who are ‘lifestyle Lolita’ are more likely to try and be polite and ladylike in order to fit with how they dress.
So what can be done? In the case of my unicorn friend, the harassment happened so many times during the day that I couldn’t stand it anymore, and gave the man in question an aggressive earful in the street. Another friend, who on another occasion had some moron try to steal her hat, almost ended up physically fighting with him because of how rude he was being to her. I don’t know if this was the most effective route for either of us, but it was the only thing we could think to do to reclaim some authority for ourselves over these groups of cretinous men.
There needs to be a grand shift in the way that certain groups deal with subcultures. It is very hard to think of a way to combat street harassment, as it really is a structural issue of power over public space. However, what I can say is this: for the groups that think it is okay to make derogatory remarks, IT IS NOT. We are not hurting anyone, and yet are being bullied. Just because we look helpless doesn’t mean that anyone has the right to invade our personal space. We have the mouths, critical faculties and emotions of women who have had enough of this sh*t.
If you know people who think it is acceptable behave this way towards other members of society, then I would encourage you to explain why it is a huge problem. We are not troublemakers. We are not sex objects. We are not inflicting anything on society by existing and dressing like this. People being this offensive hurts us and prevents us from feeling like we can express ourselves in public. It has to stop.
Frills are not consent.