Arts

'Be colourful, be happy': Why these comic books artists are celebrating Lolita fashion

Jane Mai and An Nguyen's compilation of comics and essays, making its debut at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, is a loving tribute to the fashion favourite.

Jane Mai and An Nguyen's compilation of comics and essays is a loving tribute to the fashion favourite

So Pretty/Very Rotten. (Jane Mai and An Nguyen)

The fashion of comic book characters has long influenced devoted fans, and many artists pay careful attention to their characters' wardrobes — but comparatively few comics address the subject of fashion itself. Jane Mai's and An Nguyen's compilation of comics and essays on Lolita fashion, So Pretty/Very Rotten, is one exception.

Lolita fashion is a ruffled, lacy, heavily ornamented fashion subculture inspired by Victorian, Edwardian and rococo styles, originated in Japan, but has devoted fans worldwide. Its showcase in Mai and Nguyen's book — via Toronto's Koyama Press — will be unveiled at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival this weekend.

The two comic artists met initially at the Pratt Institute in New York, where Mai studied, and were reconnected by a mutual friend when the Ottawa-based Nguyen was working on an anthropology PhD on Lolita culture at the University of Western Ontario.

So Pretty/Very Rotten partly grew out of this thesis. As a comic artist, Nguyen was interested in getting out of the academic mindset, and felt like some stories from her research interviews were lost in producing an academic text. "I've done cartooning for so many years" — she also makes comics in print and online under both her own name and the pen name saicoink — "[that] it's my preferred medium."

So Pretty/Very Rotten. (Jane Mai and An Nguyen)

How they came to Lolita fashion

Both artists have previously identified with Lolita style, although the New York-based Mai has moved away from it now, as she explains in the book.

For Nguyen, an interest in Japanese culture initially sparked her interest in Lolita, along with reading the work of author Novala Takemoto — a cult favourite among Lolita followers.

"The way Novala talks about fashion as kind of a philosophical thing, it made me understand why fashion was important," she says. "Before that, I didn't pay attention to what I wore...it put clothing on my radar as a site of self-expression."

The way  Novala  talks about fashion as kind of a philosophical thing, it made me understand why fashion was important. Before that, I didn't pay attention to what I wore...it put clothing on my radar as a site of self-expression.- An  Nguyen, comic book artist

Mai became interested in Lolita fashion as a teenager, but — as she writes about in the book — growing up in a low-income immigrant family meant buying $300 dresses was off the table. "It's so not rococo to grow up sharing a sofa bed with your grandma in the living room," she writes in one essay.  It wasn't until university that she had a job that let her purchase the Lolita clothing she wanted.

"I really like Lolita fashion. It's helped me a lot in my life, even though it basically amounts to rampant consumerism," Mai says. "It's a way I can leave my mark on the Lolita world...For kids like me getting into it, [my comics in the book] are [about] things you may feel or obstacles you may encounter — they're things that I would have liked to read when I was first getting into Lolita."

So Pretty/Very Rotten. (Jane Mai and An Nguyen)

How fashion influences their comics

"You don't see a lot of fashion and clothing [comics] in English," Nguyen says, "but there's a lot in Japan, where they talk about the fashion industry." Some Japanese fashion magazines also feature comics.

Fashion influences her comics negatively, Mai quips. "It's easier to have your character wear the same thing every day!"

It's easier to have your character wear the same thing every day!- Jane Mai

"I love to draw detailed lace, ruffles — those things are the details I live for. I like to draw the things I like to wear; I like to wear the things I like to draw."

"[Fashion has] connections to art movements and historical movements and it has an influence on what we like to draw," Nguyen says. "For me, Lolita goes hand in hand with a lot of subculture things, music — they're just all connected together. It's a repository of aesthetics and styles that informs my art practice."

So Pretty/Very Rotten. (Jane Mai and An Nguyen)

What they'll be wearing

While plenty of comic artists roll into events in a t-shirt and jeans they've had since 2009, Mai and Nguyen plan ahead. "I need checked luggage to bring all my Lolita clothes," Mai says.

"We'll be matching somewhat," adds Nguyen, pulling out a packing list she's made for the two of them before they meet in Toronto a few days after our interview. For their book launch, Mai has a vintage black velveteen dress she refers to as "nun-like," a well-known Lolita piece that's appeared in fashion magazines, which Nguyen plans to pair with a white lace dress with crosses.

Their planned wardrobe also includes matching red tartan suits, a "'90s Lolita" style that Mai calls "not as puffy" as the usual crinoline dresses. Later in the week, they'll make up for that lack of ruffles with frilly pink dresses, including a dress of Mai's called "Queen's Coronation" — a pale pink rococo concoction that includes a train.

Mai and Nguyen's style tips for visitors

For other artists and visitors, what are the artists' top tips for dressing for the festival? "'Be yourself' is boring," says Mai. "Iron your clothes — that always looks good."

"Be colourful, be happy!" Nguyen says.

"TCAF is a really crowded show, so make sure you're dressed comfortably," Nguyen says. And if you're not launching your own fashion book, maybe avoid wearing a dress with a train.

Toronto Comic Arts Festival. May 13-14. Various locations, Toronto. www.torontocomics.com

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