FRILL SEEKERS
SARTORIAL SUBCULTURES FIND A HOME AT THE MOST UNCONVENTIONAL FASHION CONFERENCE IN THE COUNTRY. BY LISA MISCHIANTI. PHOTOGRAPHED BY BETH GARRABRANT

At a southern Connecticut Sheraton, guests are bracing for a bonnet battle. On the ground floor, Triple Fortune, a Japanese label with a fervent fan base devoted to its ornately brimmed headwear, will soon be setting up shop with a limited supply, and if history is any indicator, things could get a little feisty. Upstairs, life-size dolls incarnate mill around the mezzanine level—waves of frills, tons of tightly bound corsets, a bounty of bows and lace. This is not some standard hotel chain’s elaborate effort to rebrand. This is the third annual alternative fashion destination known as RuffleCon.

“When I first started out, I remember there was always this joke that when you saw someone else wearing an alt fashion designer you knew, you’d run to each other like in a slow-motion movie scene,” recalls the event’s co-founder and chairperson, Christina Gleason, posted up at a big mahogany table behind the scenes. “But the beautiful thing about RuffleCon is that now, instead of having to wait and hope that you’ll see people, they’re all right here.” Gleason herself became immersed in the alternative fashion scene in college while doing analytical research on Japanese subcultures. Fed up with the fact that such a vibrant and varied community was continually relegated to a mere afterthought at anime and gaming conventions, she decided it was high time that alt fashion and its enthusiasts had a place to shine. RuffleCon—a yearly gathering of non-mainstream style subcultures, complete with vendors and consignment, panels and lectures, a runway show and tea party—made that space. And Gleason’s right: They’re all here.

The Lolita look (and its sub-varieties ranging from gothic to sweet) has the most prominent presence at the convention. A style that originated in Japan and falls under the kawaii umbrella, it draws inspiration from Victorian children’s clothing—think bell-shaped skirts, knee-high socks, and an overall deluge of girlishness. “I got interested in Lolita fashion probably around 2002,” explains three-year RuffleCon veteran Alexandra Cappello, adjusting a stained-glass-inspired headpiece atop her icy mauve mane (the accessory, she notes, is key to the “guardian-spirit-of-the-chapel vibe” she was going for, her interpretation of this year’s “midnight garden” theme). “I found it through researching some Japanese rock bands. At the time, there was a popular trend called ‘visual kei’ where almost every band had one male member that would dress in these beautiful, really laced and ruffled outfits. And I was like, ‘I need that in my life now!’ But it was a long time before I got the wardrobe together. I didn’t actually start dressing in it until about 2008.”

Indeed, according to many American Lolitas, getting access to the right merch can be an obstacle, making the internet and its ever-expanding reach a vital tool. “In the early days, the Western Lolitas gathered on LiveJournal to give each other support, because back then none of the Japanese brands shipped overseas. It was hard to get ahold of anything unless you actually went to Japan or were making it yourself. From around 2004 to 2006, those were the dark days,” says Cappello. Now, with the web’s global expanse, things have gotten a little easier. (Case in point: Most everyone cites Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay, as a major source.) And while digital communal exchange remains an important part of the lifestyle, old-school blog sites such as LiveJournal have been replaced with the power of Facebook and Instagram. “There’s this huge part of the culture where you post your outfits online. People will ask for constructive criticism; we feed off each other to improve the way we convey the fashion,” says former RuffleCon staffer Sami Goldman, cracking a smile through gold-foiled lips that pair perfectly with her “OP” (or one-piece) dress. In such a cyber-centric community, RuffleCon provides a chance to finally bring the whole thing to life. “There are people that you only really talk with online, and here you get to see them, actually physically be with them—it just puts it all together and makes it all real,” says Levy Cross, a current RuffleCon employee who sports a red corset over an elaborate black blouse and striped skirt. (“My outfit altogether probably costs almost $500—and this would be considered a cheaper one,” Cross adds. Nobody said these looks come without a price.)

Lolita may be the most ubiquitous style at the convention, but it’s certainly not the only act in town. Across the room, a girl named Monica Lamoureux wears a lavish, full-length, caramel-colored dress. She sets down a big bronze cannon gun prop and crunches into an apple. “I’m steampunk, but I’m a little off the norm. Steampunk is a gritty-looking kind of style, but I went more with ‘high lady with a big gun,’” says Lamoureux in between bites. “I made most everything I’m wearing. I bought an evening gown on clearance and sewed it up and made the bustle. I made this jacket from scratch. I reupholstered my shoes from the material I used on my dress. I reupholstered my sun hat, too. The fashion really emphasizes ‘making.’ You’ll buy bits and pieces and alter them to create an industrial, antique, sepia kind of style.” And it’s true: The steampunk looks at the convention largely suggest a high level of DIY customization.

The historical costuming community is another smaller but rising subset of the RuffleCon crew. Among its most notable members are Abby Cox and Lauren Stowell of footwear brand American Duchess, which makes historically accurate shoes. Cox, who is a dress historian by trade, is sporting a 1780-style silk taffeta Robe à la Lévite. It’s hand-sewn, keeping it authentic, and is modeled on old French fashion plates. She has also, by the way, made all of her underpinnings by hand, and her hair is styled using correct historical techniques and materials. “The best references are the primary sources,” Cox explains of achieving her look. “So, original newspapers, books, and anything I can get my hands on that actually comes from the time periodhelps me understand how they thought about their life and their clothes. And then when it comes to actually knowing how to put things together, I study the original garments—so, getting into museum collections, looking at the innards of the gowns, seeing what they did and why they did it.”

Stowell, a historical dress hobbyist who got her start blogging in 2008, is in an 1880-style piece. It’s handmade but not hand-sewn, since sewing machines existed at that time. “I’ve got what you see on the outside, which is my hat, a skirt, a bodice, and an apron or an overskirt. Underneath I have an enormous ruffled petticoat, a bum pad, a corset, a corset cover, a chemise, split drawers, stockings, and boots that you need a buttonhook for. And I don’t even have any outerwear on. So we’re talking 15 to 17 potential items for Victorian women’s dress. This is the stuff that we geek out on,” says Stowell with a chuckle. Their brand, American Duchess, has become a must for anyone in the historical costuming world, and even boasts some more mainstream fans. “Our most popular category is Edwardian, because those shoes cross over really well with hipsters and people interested in a little bit of that historicism in their dress,” says Stowell. “Gibsons, Astorias, some people wear button boots—they’re interesting without being, like, ‘What are you wearing on your feet, man?’”

But not everyone at RuffleCon necessarily subscribes to a particular subculture. Lately, it seems the once-strict divides between styles are increasingly blurring in favor of more individual creativity, and people are mixing elements of various looks without reprisal. “When I started, it was very distinct. There was actually a list of rules called the Lolita Handbook. It’s so different now,” reflects Gleason, who has been on the scene for over 10 years and has watched it evolve firsthand. “A big thing about Lolita was that the skirt was cut at the knee. I remember one time all of us on a panel agreed that we thought the hemline was going to drop, and we actually got flak for it! Everybody was upset. Then, maybe a year later, the major brands started doing it. It sounds silly, but all of a sudden, people were like, ‘Why are we [adhering] to these rules?’” The evidence of this shift is apparent. At lunchtime, a group of girls with not-quite-textbook Lolita looks sit munching on salads. “I love Lolita, but I classify myself more as maiden style, because I like to wear longer dresses that are a little bit more ‘new Victorian,’” explains Julie Anne Beierwaltes, a petite girl with long brown locks. “It’s still Lolita fashion, but it’s a little bit more specific.”

RuffleCon’s diversity is not only evident in the many styles of dress. Upstairs, where the day’s lectures are being held, a panel on ethnic hair in alternative fashion is taking place, hosted by community mainstay Amber a.k.a. AmaniHiME, and it appears to be among the best-attended talks of the day. “When I first got into Lolita back in 2006, 2007, I was one of the only black girls who were doing it,” recalls Amber after her class is dismissed. “There wasn’t much of an emphasis on things like wigs that are way more popular now. Then, the staple usually was curled hair or ringlets. When I started growing my natural hair out, I really wanted to try to use it more and not have to hide it. So I began taking inspiration from a lot of old movies like The Color Purple, or pictures online of black people during the Victorian era or the Edwardian era, to see how they styled their hair. It was really a labor of love, learning how I could take care of my hair and do it in ways that matched the style that I was going for but that was still uniquely me.” Amber now seeks to impart some of this hard-earned wisdom. “Most of my panel centered on trying to give people of color who are into different alternative fashions a basic introduction on how to use what they’re given naturally—trying to encourage them to use things like their natural hair and showing them how to do makeup to match whatever style they’re going for,” says Amber. “Even though Lolita is a pretty progressive thing in the United States, there still can be some close-mindedness in there.”

Further down the hall, an audience is learning how (and how not) to throw a proper Lolita tea party. (“You had these people behind the curtain who were dipping Lipton tea bags into hot water and then giving people the cups of tea! I just couldn’t believe that something like that could happen!” the expert recollects of a particularly traumatic teatime experience.) A corset-making demo is in session a couple of doors down, weighing the merits of synthetic whalebone versus plastic. “I hate to admit that I’m a convert. I was very ‘plastic doesn’t belong in a corset,’ but this magic engineered plastic—I love it. You can feel how light this corset is, it weighs nothing,” says the instructor, passing around a sample. The room gasps in shock. Nearby, a spunky speaker is giving a lecture debunking and reframing steampunk stereotypes. “Goggles are my pet peeve,” she muses. “Monogoggles are super close to my pet peeve.” (A girl in a horned headpiece and velvet-flocked dress shouts out in approval from the front row.)

The afternoon of lectures is broken up by a big runway show featuring a wide range of alt labels, including favorites like I Do Declare, designed by Kelsey Hine, whose collection was inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story “Masque of the Red Death.” It’s creepy-beautiful, and everyone loves it. In the moment, it’s almost easy to forget that wearing pieces like this could get you some unwanted attention outside of this environment.

“I think one of the big challenges people in this community face as a whole is just acceptance,” says PR director Nancy Ramos. “With Lolita fashion, it’s so audaciously hyper-feminine that some people feel like they have license to say and insinuate certain things because women, historically, have been seen as commodities. It’s not safe and it feels horrible and gross.” Hence, a big part of the RuffleCon mission is inclusivity, openness, and acceptance—creating a space where people can share their style and not feel endangered for doing so. To that end, the conference has also partnered with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Posters hang everywhere explicitly stating a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of bigotry or bullying. “I’m probably most proud that almost every year, I have people who are transgender come up to me and say, ‘This is the first time I’m presenting female,’ or ‘This is the first time I’m presenting male,’ and ‘I was really nervous, but everybody’s been wonderful to me.’ That touches me personally, and I’m so glad that not only our staff, but the attendees themselves, are making that kind of space for somebody to be like, ‘All right, I’m gonna do this’—something they’ve been afraid to do all their lives,” says Gleason. She also hopes that with increased visibility of their community will come more tolerance at large—that they’re making the whole outside world more of a safe space, one convention at a time: “I now have people on my staff who are not personally interested in this, but they respect it because they realize, ‘You know what? They definitely don’t wear what I wear, but these are all great people.’ It’s lessening the blow of those situations where they’re being confronted like, ‘Hey, Little Bo Peep, what’s going on?’ No, thank you.”

Ultimately, of course, RuffleCon is also simply about celebrating the over the top, the extravagant, the refusal to fade quietly into a sea of sartorial sameness. “What social events do we have anymore that really allow people to dress up and be theatrical? There’s been this cult of casual and normcore that’s kind of taken over mass fashion,” Ramos says, gently adjusting her crown. “And it can be so boring.”