Lolita 101: Do I Have to Wear a Petticoat?
Some lolita are absolutely adamant that it’s a cardinal sin to dare to put on lolita without a petticoat. To the point where there was a trend for a few years of telling new lolita they should buy a petticoat before any clothing (for more info see: Advice I Disagree With: Why Buying a Petticoat First is a Bad Idea). While other lolita take a more hands off approach to things. But which stance is right? and why?
The first thing to understand is that lolita isn’t set in stone. It’s not like basic arithmetic where 2 plus 2 equals 4 and it’s always that way. It’s more of an aesthetic; a nebulous concept that established lolita can say “I know it when I see it” about, but might not necessarily be able to put into words 100% of the time.
This has led to some cheat-sheet type formulas, (aka The Rules) which are given to new lolita, that if you follow them exactly generally will result in something that falls into the bubble of “yes, this is lolita”. I wrote about this a little more extensively in Why Does Lolita Have So Many Rules?.
Following The Rules when you are new to lolita is safe; you don’t yet have the instinctual ability to recognize when something is or isn’t lolita, but you don’t have to. As long as you stick to The Rules, the end result is more-or-less correct. You basically get outfits which border on 3+ years of experience with 0 years of experience, plus or minus a few little pit falls.
But, what frequently happens, is people really get attached to this cheat sheet and then turn around and try to use it to police what other people wear, without keeping in mind that it’s only a partial picture.
So, let’s start with the basics. If you want this runway-ready angelic pretty border print OTT sweet lolita look…
…you do need a petticoat (or a hoop skirt). If you don’t add one, the skirt will have deep creases, and you won’t be able to see the border print clearly. It also makes you look sort of sloppy, like something is missing. Could you do it? Sure. Will it look good? No. It’s like, not ironing your cotton dresses… it just looks messy.
Also, sizing impacts how full your petticoat is. If your petticoat is gathered on an elastic waistband (and most are) and you stretch it, it becomes less triangular and more tube shaped as it gets stretched. The more tube shaped it is, the less full your dress will seem, and the more petticoat you need. My partner who wears a Japanese size XS/S wears 1 AP petticoat for the same level of fluff that I (Japanese size XL/2X) get with 2 AP petticoats. This is why one person might say a certain petticoat is a good regular or daily wear petticoat, while another person might say it’s super fluffy!
Of course, this assumes that the dress has the fabric volume in the skirt to support more petticoat. Some cheaper dresses that are custom sized, or use a lot of shirring to fit a wide size range may have a S/M size volume of skirt fabric on a dress that is advertised as a L or larger. This generally leads to weird tube/ball shaped or “overstuffed” looking skirts.
Now, contrast that AP look with this look from Leur Getter. The first dress is shown on a dress form with no petticoat. I own this dress and I will sometimes wear it without a petticoat. It looks OK without a petticoat, though, when you add a very light petticoat like the center dressform image and the modeled photo at the end here (she’s spreading her skirt which exaggerates things), it does look a bit better. The smaller print and the lower volume are what makes this sort-of work without the pettcoat, by the way. If the volume was higher it wouldn’t work as well. Personally, when I wear Leur Getter or Emily Temple Cute and I want to style it as lolita, I use a petticoat. When I want to style it more like office wear or go for more of a quirky elementary school art teacher sort of vibe, I’ll layer it with a thin turtleneck and a cardigan and skip the petticoat… but it generally doesn’t read as (modern) lolita without one.
This sack cut is made to be worn with a petticoat, and is pictured here with one. I don’t actually wear this cut because it looks terrible on me, but what generally happens is if you skip the petticoat, all the volume hangs down from the widest point on your body. So instead of an A-shape, you kind of get a limp pillar shape. Generally, this also looks messy, but it’s very dependent on body type and it’s not really a cut I have personal experience with.
Then, you have things like Baby’s Karami series. There has been an ongoing debate about if Momoko is wearing a petticoat or not with this OP in the Kamikaze Girls movie (2003/2004). The dress on the dressform in the center probably doesn’t have one, while the one on the right does. Now, does Momoko? She might, but if she does it’s a very low volume one. The dress does flare out a little on the side…. but it’s got some pretty deep creases in the front.
Petticoats from Baby in that era were pretty low volume in general, often with just one layer, maybe two, and not a lot of volume.
And other images of her in the series seem to indicate that she’s wearing a petticoat, though generally a relatively low volume one compared to today’s standards. It’s worth noting that the staff in Baby are wearing fairly low volume petticoats as well. This movie pre-dates the boom of sweet border prints from brands like Baby, Meta and AP, and a lot of the dresses used in the movie have a lower skirt volume in general.
But remember how I said lolita is a nebulous concept? What is considered lolita has also shifted over the years.
Here are some looks from the 1990s. The girl in black on the left specifically calls her look lolita, but she has no petticoat at all. The girl in sax is wearing something pretty typical of sweet lolita of the era. Now, she probably is wearing a petticoat, unless those are her bloomers showing on either side of her knees, but it’s likely more of a slightly volumizing slip with lace at the bottom than the super ruffled poof monsters that are in style today.
The third girl, in Jane Marple is spreading her skirt with her hands, but does seem to have a petticoat under it. However, she’s from a photoshoot that seems not-very-impromptu. She’s also significantly more… OTT? than a lot of the other girls on the same page. Lastly a fan of pretty from 1998. She’s got something giving her some volume, but it’s still not the level we are used to today (note the depth of the creases in the front of her skirt).
That’s not to say that no one in the 90s wore petticoats, they absolutely did. However, there is for sure a fluffening around the early 2000s, where we go from relatively low volume being pretty normal, to seeing an increasing number of people wearing petticoats.
Here on the left, we have a Heart-E advertisement from 1993. This was a 2-page spread and the models are all wearing the same skirt. You can see they have some sort of petticoat on, because it does flare on the sides, but it’s not a full one and it’s losing against the weight of the skirt which doesn’t even look heavy.
Next, a very polished lolita from a street snap from 2000 who has the fullest petticoat her dress can support, a Meta ad from 2000 with a fuller petticoat on the maid than the firl in the floral and an AP ad from 2001 that almost borders on being overstuffed.
The final verdict? Generally if you skip the petticoat what you are wearing either won’t read as lolita or it may read as sloppy. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make the choice to skip the petticoat for comfort or practicality in certain situations; you can always do whatever you want with your clothes; they are just clothes. However, if you do, aim for a lower volume skirt with a smaller print for the best results, and keep in mind that aesthetically, lolita typically reads as more polished with a petticoat. Additionally modern coords, on average, as of 2022 tend to use more petticoat than 10 years ago, which already was more petticoat than 10 years before that. Also, if you want another opinion, there is a great article from Caro of Fyeah lolita written in 2013 on this topic: Silhouette vs. Aesthetic: What makes Lolita “Lolita”?
But at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily not lolita if you remove the petticoat from a lolita coord that “needs” it… it’s just a less polished version of lolita. Which kind of brings us around to the idea of performing “perfection” in lolita.
You don’t owe the world perfect coords every time you get dressed. Sometimes you just need to put on clothes and you just need them to be clothes, and that is OK. A new lolita who hasn’t gotten their petticoat in the mail shouldn’t feel like they can’t come to a meet and great meetup for new lolita because their coord isn’t perfect yet. A lolita who needs to do something where a petticoat would get in the way should feel like they need to wear that petticoat on a day where it doesn’t make sense. Some days are for taking magazine-ready photoshoot photos. And some days are for taking a plane ride and not wanting to deal with going through the hassle of wearing a petticoat on a flight. Yes, sometimes wearing a petticoat makes a coord more polished or look more like textbook lolita. But not everyone has to be a textbook lolita 24/7.
After all, the rules are something we made up, and they change based on what people do and what they wear and what the trends are. So, if you want to be a textbook lolita, yeah, probably wear a petticoat with most coords. But never feel like you have to do it to appease others if it doesn’t make sense for you; you don’t owe anyone performative ‘perfection’.
By the way, if you haven’t ordered your first petticoat yet, check out What Color Should My Petticoat Be? for advice on picking out a color that will mesh with your wardrobe.
And if you have strong opinions about petticoats, or actually wear A-line sack dresses and have opinions on how to wear those, let me know in the comments below!