Hijabi Lolita: conversations on Faith, Fashion, and Fandom

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“It’s rather fascinating that after one article, there became a massive flood in more websites creating a story about this,” said Noor Al-Kattan, better known as fashion blogger Sugar Noor: one of the progenitors of the hijabi Lolita trend. In a recent interview with Vice, fellow hijabi Lolita Alyssa Salazar named Al-Kattan as her style inspiration. Though published by Vice in June, the piece has gotten huge traction in the last week; it’s been written up by everyone from Nerdist, to Bustle, to Yahoo. “It’s funny how something can be around for years, before it gets picked up by the media,” Al-Kattan said, “but I think it’s great that the content is all positive – to be receiving awareness like this is wonderful.

Al-Kattan Images © Louise Anne Kennedy Photography

The Lolita style is a popular Japanese street fashion and subculture that can be traced to at least the 1970s if not earlier. Like Punk or Hip-Hop, it was defined and popularized by youth culture as opposed to the mainstream. The trend takes its cues from Victorian-era frills and petticoats, as well as the elaborate detail and fanciful designs of the Rococo period. Lolita dresses and accessories have a childlike, living-doll quality. Lolita styles range from the Classic, with regency-influenced waistlines to darker, ornate Gothic Lolitas and even branch out to include Punk and Casual looks.

Al-Kattan, who has been wearing the hijabi Lolita style since 2008, explained that her entry point to Japanese culture was a childhood affection for anime and manga “as with most people.” A native of the UK, she was exposed to Japanese fashion as a teenager when a friend lent her a copy of FRUiTS: a magazine that documents the street fashions of the Harajuku district in Japan. Pictures of the Lolita style resonated strongly with Al-Kattan; she “immediately thought” she wanted to try it out herself. “I did a quick Google search to see if there was anything else out there and found nothing,” she said, “so as far as I’m aware I was the first to start wearing it [the hijabi Lolita style].”

The tricky part was in balancing the Muslim modesty guidelines she follows, which apply to behavior as well as clothing, with the demands of the Lolita look. These guidelines are interpreted by most Muslims as requiring that women who wear hijab cover their bodies in loose fitting, opaque fabric, leaving only the hands, face and feet exposed. Al-Kattan recalled that her first attempts at coordinating her hijab with the Lolita style were “a great struggle,” but also said: “I was adamant upon finding a suitable way to combine the two – faith and fashion.”

Al-Kattan Images © Louise Anne Kennedy Photography

In light of the trends’ continuing evolution, it might seem that Al-Kattan and Salazar incorporating their hijab into the style wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers within the Lolita subculture. But while recent reactions to the hijabi Lolita style have shown overwhelming support for the trend — Nerdist called it “fantastic,” Bustle found it “truly inspiring,” — it wasn’t always that way. As Salazar mentions in her interview with Vice, Al-Kattan was a victim of harassment when she posted pictures of her Lolita outfits, which are called “coordinates,” online.

“It wasn’t just the one comment,” said Al-Kattan, “it was many. Some minor and some were truly racist. I was feeling low. I didn’t know if I had made a massive mistake.” A review of the archives for the Lolita fashion community Behind the Bows and the cosplay/Lolita message boards of infamous internet forum 4chan confirm her account. Comments range from catty, fashion nitpicking to religious intolerance and even include threats of physical harm. “After a while of hearing negative things from different people, you start to think maybe they have a point,” she said.

Al-Kattan stopped wearing the Lolita style for brief period, but had a group of “very supportive friends” who encouraged her to continue. “I decided my response to their comments was to stand high and retaliate with having confidence in what I do,” she said. That confidence moved Al-Kattan to reach out, beyond her Tumblr and blog, to create a safe space for others by starting a facebook community where Muslim Lolitas could communicate, share pictures, and support each other. In it’s fifth year, the group boasts nearly 300 members from all over the world, from France to Johannesburg to Glasgow.

Al-Kattan has proved inspirational, and not only for Lolita adherents like Salazar. Her example has also encouraged Muslim women who seek to express their love of other Japanese fashions while still honoring their religious beliefs. “Her existence as a hijabi Lolita gives me confidence to continue promoting my ‘Kawaii Hijabi’ aesthetics,” said Kawaii lifestyle blogger Sheema Sherry. Sherry has been incorporating the anime-influenced style into her wardrobe for over five years, but only started blogging about it a year ago. “It was really a long process,” she explained, “I didn’t wake up and suddenly change my style completely like this.”

Photo of Sherry by Zenkih

A native of Jakarta, Indonesia, Sherry has been wearing hijab since she was nine years old. It was during her college years that she began to experiment with fashion, gradually with adding “kawaii and princess-like-themed” touches to her wardrobe. “From anime and manga, I learnt more about girly fashion in Harajuku and Shibuya,” Sherry said, referring to the taste-making districts of Japan where both the Kawaii and Lolita styles were born. “This was seriously a long process. I didn’t always end up buying the right clothes…there were times when I just looked silly and awkward in my clothes at the beginning.”

After college, she continued to ramp up adding Kawaii-elements to her outfits. “I believe dressing modestly is always about personal process and interpretation,” said Sherry. Support from her boyfriend — who she met after college and who later became her husband — emboldened Sherry, who says he encouraged her “to express myself just the way I always wanted to.” She explained that Muslim dressing guidelines often depend on the city or country one calls home, and even can vary “from house to house.”

While she blends elements of cosplay into her Kawaii hijabi fashion, Sherry said that she stays away from full-on cosplay of a character. She prefers, for now, outfits that are “still wearable for daily activities” that aren’t “too eye-piercing or weird.” One such look, inspired by Usagi from the Sailor Moon anime series, has drawn admiration both from within the Muslim community and outside of it.

Photo of Sherry as Usagi by Zenkih

“Actually, people love it! So far I haven’t heard any negative comments about that—or my other anime-inspired outfits,” Sherry said, and described the reactions to it from fellow Muslims as curious. “They asked me how I styled them, or simply gave me compliments about how I could make people think I look ‘similar’ with the characters, without taking off my hijab.”

Even so, Sherry knows that many Muslims wouldn’t feel the same way about her style. “Indeed, we can easily find Muslim fellows who will say: ‘No, you can’t even wear trousers, you should wear baggy long dresses, you cannot wear bright colors, you have to cover your face,’” she said, and doesn’t find fault with that point of view. “I take all of them as kind, positive, reminders,” she explained, “but I believe dressing modestly is always about personal process and interpretation.”

Journalist Sheba Siddiqui calls this larger trend “modeling modesty.” In an article for Medium, she spoke to Muslim fashion blogger Amber Rahman who, according to Siddiqui, felt strongly about “maintaining her sense of style while incorporating her morals and values into her fashion.” Siddiqui has also written about the trend where Muslim women incorporate hijab into the complete cosplay of a character. “So long as you still remain covered as per the Islamic definition of hijab,” she wrote, “costume play is a great example of the intersection of religion and popular culture.”

Photo of MizDesert as a Jedi by The Art of Mezame

It’s a concept that make-up artist and cosplayer MizDesert has taken to heart. Born and raised in Singapore, she posts pictures of her cosplay and make-up work to an instagram account with nearly 1,600 followers. “I do have to think about how I can honor my Muslim traditions without compromising the essence of the character that I chose,” she said.

MizDesert calls herself a “casual cosplayer” who enjoys dressing as characters like Altair from the popular Assassin’s Creed video game series “because it brings joy to people” who love seeing their favorite character “brought to life.” As a result, she takes the practice seriously: “it is important to me that whichever character that I pick to cosplay as, I have to make sure that it looks accurate as the original,” she said.

Photo of MizDesert as Altair by The Art of Mezame

Like Sherry, MizDesert cited nothing but support from within the Muslim community for her costumes. “I know a lot of amazing cosplayers who are Muslims and non-Muslims,” she said, “and they have been very supportive with how I could make my cosplay look accurate without compromising my religious obligations.” While she enjoys cosplay, MizDesert’s true passion is make-up. Her instagram account showcases theatrical make-up looks, often inspired by characters from comic books, television shows, films, and even video games. MizDesert sees make-up as “an art of using your face to create something epic, whether or not it’s wearable for everyday or special events.”

Beyond traditional make-up artistry, MizDesert also works with special effects make-up and manufactures her own prosthetics. Recently, her work has been used to promote video games like the first-person zombie survival game Dying Light. But her first test subject is almost always herself. “I do a lot of full face character makeup, being a facepainter and all,” she explained, “but I don’t go out looking like that unless it’s for a costume/cosplay event.” For her, beauty make-up is saved for an “important occasion where looking presentable is required.” She noted that there was such a thing as overdoing it. “If you do wear makeup, moderation is key because the ‘natural’ look is always beautiful enough.”

Photo of White-Walker make-up effect by MizDesert

Still, these views do conflict with the same modesty requirements that Al-Kattan and Sherry challenge with their Japanese-influenced hijab fashion. “The modesty traditions discourage makeup because it attracts attention,” MizDesert explained, “personally, I think it all bows down to our own intentions.”

Those intentions are supported by a growing number of international Muslim women. Mahdia Lynn, a feminist organizer and writer who runs the blog: Muslim Women in Comics said: “women in hijab who are visibly nerdy and who cosplay are really important to me.” Born in Michigan but currently living in Chicago, Lynn felt that too often “hijabis were cornered into this role as ‘Ambassadors of Islam’ to the outside world, and it’s totally a buzzkill having to be that all the time.” Lynn has herself dabbled in cosplay, recently dressing as the corpse of Laura Palmer for a party celebrating David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series.

Photos of ‘Batman Villain Series’ make-up by MizDesert

Lynn explained that she has several “nerdy” shirts she uses to display her fandom. One features the logo of Ms. Marvel, star of her own Marvel Comics series whose current secret identity is Kamala Khan: a 16-year old Muslim teenager from Jersey City, NJ. Lynn avoids wearing the shirt in “specifically Muslim spaces,” like the mosque — she feels it’s too casual — but said she always wears it whenever she travels by plane. “It helps me feel stronger,” said Lynn, “and more capable of dealing with the ‘random security checks.’” But it does make her stand out: “at least a few people will notice and say something whenever I wear it,” she said. “Reactions are always enthusiastic, and always positive – which as a hijabi, is a welcome change of pace when it comes to what strangers have to say about my clothing choices.”

Each of the women interviewed commented on the difference that combining hijab with fashion and fandom influenced style has made in their lives. Sherry explained how much her Kawaii hijabi style had benefitted her self image: “I think my best achievement from this is that I can finally be happy and feel beautiful in my own skin, in my own form, even though maybe others think I don’t, or I can’t.” MizDesert said that support of her hijab cosplay and make-up artistry from Muslim and non-Muslims “is a wonderful thing, because more people would begin to understand that being a Muslim is not as restrictive as what many perceive it is, and this is one positive way to show it.”

For her part, as a founder of the hijabi Lolita style, Al-Kattan expressed that she hoped that the trend of combining hijab with fandoms, be they fashion or cosplay, would continue. “By allowing change and acceptance, it allows people the comfort to express themselves,” she said. “The freedom is already there, but many are put off by what they see around them. They don’t take the plunge because of fear…obviously I have no idea what the future has in store, but I’m optimistic for more positive changes in the world.”

Feature Image Credit: Tascha Dearing/ Noor Al-Kattan

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