The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


The Student News Site of The American School in Japan


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Coquette Couture: More Than an Internet Microtrend

Photo by Kamakshi Bhavnani
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Pink bows and pink lace and pink lipstick and pink dresses and pink nails and pink silk pajamas and pink uggs, and did I mention pink bows? You can’t escape it. 

The world is seeing the resurgence of girlhood. Then again, it’s not really new. We saw it on mid-90s runways and we saw it in 2010 Tumblr. What isn’t yet clear is if this recent coquette trend is history repeating itself or if it is finally the liberation of girlhood as defined by women.

A glance at coquette Pinterest will tell you the trend is a manifestation of embracing femininity: pretty, frilly, lacey clothes and pastel pink pillows. Buy whatever you can find that is pink and delicate, and you can buy yourself a lifestyle. If this is coquette, then the trend can be understood as yet another materialistic fad. Ugg was fast to launch pink boots, Starbucks collaborated with Stanley to sell a pink tumbler, Skims is campaigning with coquette icon Lana Del Ray, and Coach is rebranding their Hamptons bag as coquette by tying bows on it. 

But dig deeper and the origins of the coquette trend are more sinister. 

Before the 20th century, clothes were segregated by age, but the styles didn’t change. In other words, a six-year-old could wear the same dress as her sixteen-year-old sister, just cut in a different size. But in the 1920s and 30s, critics began to see this as an issue, so clothing companies adapted. 

There began to be clear stylistic stratification between babyhood, girlhood, and womanhood. As men started to sexualize the legs of women, clothes were categorized by skirt length—the older you became, the less you showed. 

Even now, there is a stark difference between girls’ clothing and women’s clothing; a disparity that is omitted in men’s fashion. While grown women generally feel the freedom to dress provocatively or in whatever way they like, young girls dress as the innocent children they are. The adoption of girly elements can thus be interpreted as women challenging the traditional confining expectations of fashion meant to control their sexuality.  

However, this isn’t a new phenomenon. 1990s fashion in the U.S. was often characterized by infantilism. Originating in the music scene, alternative rock bands and singers like Courtney Love popularized the “kinder-whore” aesthetic. This combined traditional childlike feminine items such as Mary Jane shoes and Peter-Pan collared dresses with grunge, resulting in women wearing slip dresses, ripped fishnet tights, bow barrettes, and frilly socks. 

Singer and journalist Mish Way describes the kinder-whore aesthetic as “intentionally taking the most constraining parts of the feminine, good-girl aesthetic, inflating them to a cartoon level, and subverting them to kill any ingrained insecurities.” 

Many women, like this blogger on Gloomthzine, saw this fashion statement as the ultimate feminist move. Its accessibility to teenage girls also helped it become prolific. And soon, it was all the rage on the runway. Anna Sui showed models in mini white babydoll dresses and play-time tiaras; Anna Molinari dressed her models in vintage bonnets and wheeled herself out in a baby stroller, pushed by Carla Bruni; Betsey Johnson raided the pacifier store for her new looks. 

Despite its fame, some critics called it “paedophiliac fashion.” And this isn’t wholly erroneous—the trend was concurrent with the rise of women disclosing distressing stories of molestation and child abuse. Furthermore, sending waiflike models packaged in panties and bows only seemed to strengthen the sexualization of women rather than empower their femininity. It didn’t help that the sexy schoolgirl trend was in vogue, with the release of teen singer Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” music video and the movie Clueless.

However, another consideration is that these fashion trends come at times when designers and the general population want to escape reality and return to the safety of childhood. 

Back in the 90s, designer Anna Sui, at the forefront of 90s coquette, said, “The world is so harsh now with kids taking guns to school. We baby boomers are the people having children now, and maybe we want to give them back the childhoods that we had.” 

Now, prominent designer Sandy Liang, who creates coquette clothes, says she is trying to protect her “precious childhood naïveté.” Among tumultuous times, it is no surprise that people want to live out the idea of a peaceful, simple childhood. 

Especially for women, in light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the myriad of social pressures coming from social media—like trends promoting eating disorders—it makes sense they are inclined to use fashion as an escape and means of reclaiming girlhood. 

Expert on fashion history, Youtuber, and podcaster Mina Lee raises a thoughtful point on how we perceive meaning in others’ stylistic expressions in her video “Why is everyone dressing like a little girl?” Lee says that we may guess the meaning behind coquette clothing, but never know the real intentions of the person wearing them unless we ask. A commenter on Lee’s video echoed this sentiment, writing, “I think…women create these styles because they don’t necessarily view this hyperfeminine aesthetic as inherently sexual.” They said, “That’s a view created by men. When I dress in a girly way, I feel like a feminine adult woman.” 

Clearly, many factors have influenced the coquette movement. Women could participate in this trend to reclaim their feminine power, or reclaim a girlhood tainted by sexualization, or bask in the nostalgia of their childhood, or just because it’s fun. It is not fair or accurate to simplify their choice to just one reason, and it could be different for every woman. Nor is it fair to reduce the fashion to a perverse fetishization of girls’ bodies. 

However, it is also worthwhile to note some current criticisms of coquette fashion. For one, coquette reveres the look of white, skinny women. As a result, the coquette influencer community is dominated by women who look exactly like that, not leaving much room for people of color. In addition, some niches of coquette also covet themes from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, which follows Humbert Humbert, a 37-year-old man who is infatuated with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita. 

Lana Del Rey, who has admitted that the book has had a huge influence on her, writes songs where the protagonist is described similarly to how Lolita is characterized in the novel. History seems to repeat itself in this sense, as fashion influenced by Nobokov’s novel aligns perfectly with the paedophilic fashion accusations of coquette styles back in the 90s. This raises the issue of young girls being influenced by music that encourages them to appeal to an older male gaze. 

However, this trend has the potential to become more inclusive. The cottage-core trend, too, started as implicitly white-exclusive, but slowly diversified. The cottage-core trend was constructed around the aesthetic of living in the countryside with bunnies, endless teapot sets, and long flowy white dresses. Whilst that image was initially constricted to white women, it eventually expanded beyond that demographic. 

One fashion writer and freelance journalist, India Roby, says coquette differs from past “lolita” fashion styles as it’s going through “a Gen-Z cleanse” meaning that Generation Z has rebranded the style with its modern, “woke”, set of values. It’s focused on “embracing one’s femininity” rather than focusing on innocence. Being coquette entails a lifestyle that is like “sending love letters to yourself on a daily basis.”

Clothing has power. Clothes are symbols. But personal style is also something to play around with, change, and push boundaries with. It’s important to acknowledge what fashion movement you may be playing into, but you shouldn’t let others tell you how to dress, either. Coquette is fun and girly. It teaches women that you do not need to wear pants to deserve to be treated like a man. Hopefully, it will grow into a safe space for every woman’s expression of style and personality.

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About the Contributor
Kamakshi Bhavnani, Photographer

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