Art by Isabella Damberger-Sheldon

Lucia Rhiannon Harrison
16 October 2023
The term “coquette”—  now known as the online aesthetic of all things pink, frilly, and infantilized — really has its origins in the Victorian period. Coquette denotes a “seductress” feared by men, known for her (gendered) expertise and knowledge of fashion. Initially, the term coquette was derogatory, for her captivating looks and wiles provoked a fear in men of disillusion — a fear still ingrained in US culture today. Evidenced by the policing of women’s sexuality and take her swimming on the first date rhetoric, fear surrounds the women who will manipulate to seduce using her expertise and command of makeup and fashion.

The coquette was demonized for holding a gendered knowledge, which men often did not have and which they consequently feared. Fashion was a space that women occupied and one that provided troubling consequences for binary gender through its opportunities to subvert gender. This subversion is crystallizing today, as we can see gender play and experimentation through clothing.

The coquette aesthetic has lived many lives. Its recent online origins can be traced to (around) 2010 Tumblr. The origin of this online iteration of coquette is in the “nymphet” aesthetic on Tumblr, branching from the novel Lolita and, arguably, its misrepresentation and over-sexualization in popular media. The book, written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955, is written from the perspective of a middle-aged man who abuses a 12-year-old girl. In 1962, Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel to film, aging the girl from 12 to 16 years old (which doesn’t make his actions any better) and severely downplaying the abuse. We can examine the book covers to understand how the novel’s advertising gradually glorified Lolita. The book's first publication in Paris was simply the title against a green cover with no image — notably with no reference to schoolgirls or underage girls. More recent covers, in particular those published between 1962 and the 70s, picture a young girl or some type of schoolgirl identifier (for a complete reference of covers, see the website “Covering Lolita”). This change in covers coincides with Kubrick’s film adaptation and the rise of mass media in the 60s.

In some ways, Lolita morphed into a symbol that became desirable to young girls because of its online advertisement. Soon, thanks to the advertising encouraging this glorification, girls online strived to look like a young girl who seduces older men.

Though not entirely, since its Tumblr reincarnation, the aesthetic has morphed away from Lolita. Sometimes, the Lolita book cover is often included in sample images of the aesthetic. Central to this aesthetic is the concept of “young girls seducing older men,” which can be traced back to this glorified reading of Lolita promoted through its marketing. Coquette, also sometimes called dollette, most recently refers to a look and some associated activities. To appear coquette, wear pink. Wear lace. Wear little buttons and pleated skirts. Wear pink lip gloss and fancy, feminine perfumes. Be in touch with “girlhood.” Listen to Lana Del Rey, read Lolita, and watch The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette–coquette loves the visual code of Sofia Coppola’s “girlhood.” Coquette is a fashion style that has morphed into an identity category. Of course, the coquette identity is not accessible to all; it is primarily advertised to young, white, skinny, femme-identifying people through its visual codes. Online aesthetics and “cores” serve as an identity-fulfilling role, filling in the gap created by dominating modern-Western philosophies that demand a core, complete identity that “identity aesthetics” fill.

From the nouveau-original nymphet the most recent iteration of coquette is “bloquette” or “blokette.” This aesthetic maintains some key pieces of coquette like ribbons and lace, some silhouettes, and daintiness, but also meshes sporty elements trending right now. Bloquette combines two major trends and is a major marketing point. For example, the sold-out lace-trim Adidas shorts, sports jerseys, and Adidas Sambas were all top trends within the past year, making bloquette an ideal, trendy, and marketable identity. So why has coquette — over other aesthetics — sustained itself for so long? On the one hand, coquette represents an internalization of the male gaze, taking on a traditionally feminine look. Especially with the targeted advertising and infantilization, coquette is seen as a performance for the male gaze by some. But I think it’s more subversive than that. Rather, coquette and the act of dressing ultra-feminine and in styles reminiscent of girlhood is an exercise of agency, much in the way the original Victorian coquette possessed agency through her clothing (and knowledge thereof).

Of course, teenagers and young girls are extremely sexualized; the concept of childhood and girlhood while we were growing up was about control. Childhood separated children from adults, which aided in controlling labour. Later, in the 20th century, distinguishing children was about differentiating them from adults and gendering them on the binary. To differentiate children from adults, they were dressed in particular children-appropriate styles, signaling their status. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the gendering of children’s clothing that we now know and have experienced came to be. This gendering is seen in girls’ clothing in particular.

In an interview in NYLON Magazine for “Coquette is the New Romantic Aesthetic That’s All Over TikTok,” influencer Vernice said that coquette “embodies love, youthfulness, and summertime.” The latest version of coquette on TikTok attempts to move away from a Lolita-like view towards a hedonistic appreciation of one’s inner femininity. However, it is difficult to escape the Lolita lens when it is the one often taken by popular media trained in the eyes of Nabokov’s narrator, forever tainting the schoolgirl look. Historically, girlhood itself has been a victim of male appropriation. For example, historians credit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to her husband, for they could not believe that she could write her œuvre at 19. And, most recently, in controversies regarding Sam Levinson, who has been accused of stealing Petra Collins’ aesthetic for Euphoria, and in his over-sexualization of teenage girls who are, paradoxically, his target audience.

Nevertheless, this latest coquette version aims to embrace youthfulness in a way that can reclaim tools once pushed on us as children to maintain social order. For example, clothing and colors that once signified a child of a certain gender can now be performed intentionally with the knowledge and intention of its history.

For those who are femme-presenting, the question of morality seems to be wrapped up in how we dress. Certain hemlines are associated with proper ages; for example, the younger you are, the shorter your hemline can be and remain “acceptable”, for one’s hemline is supposed to signal morality. As soon as a child becomes a sexual object, they are expected to cover up for the purpose of modesty and to avoid their inflicted sexualization and objectification. Moreover, certain styles are deemed more “respected” and “appropriate”; dressing coquette in the way Verenice described, which embodies love and youthfulness, does not fit these morality-dress requirements. They are a direct refutation of expectations regarding how adults should dress.

Now, more than ever, Gen Z is growing up and facing uncertain economic conditions, housing crises, and a general feeling of impending doom (to which climate change has massively contributed). It’s a scary world, and an intentional return to youth and “girlhood” is comforting and maybe a way to cope, but it is also a deliberate reframing of our childhoods. In a 1994 New York Times Article, Anna Sui spoke about her New York show featuring “baby dressing”. “My show was not infantilism… It was a return to innocence. I thought of when I was a child and first discovered fashion and wore mom's rhinestone necklace,” said Sui. Dressing in a way that returns to the child is not infantilizing. What infantilizes is the media and our perspective when we assume that the schoolgirl, or that so-called “baby-dress” is sexual. Coquette and all iterations return to childhood in a time that felt controlled and less risky. In contrast, the return itself may even subvert once controlling norms are enforced through clothing – returning the agency, once again, to the coquette.

Sources :
Clothing and Gender in America: Children's Fashions, 1890-1920 by Jo B. Paoletti
Covering Lolita
Coquette | Aesthetics Wiki
Coquette Is The New Romantic Aesthetic That's All Over TikTok
Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion by Ilya Parkins, Elizabeth M. Sheehan, Rita Felski
RUNWAYS; Robbing The Cradle - The New York Times