Contextualizing Fashion in Korea

YouTube has been experiencing a horrible click bait trend lately where misleading and exaggerated titles are used to attract more viewers. Some of my least favorite clickbait-y titles are the ones that claim to not just compare Eastern and Western fashion or beauty, but also decide which is better. In the end, they don’t actually make definitive opinions that would be controversial, but it’s bothersome that they would even pretend to put an aspect of Asian culture and Western culture at odds with each other. Of course they are different, but they are not two things to be equated or ranked.

My numerous visits to Korea in the past had already given me an impression of the differences between Korean and American fashion, but I only really got to understand them during my fashion internship in Seoul this past summer. I’m ashamed to say that the culture shock initially stunned me into this idea that Korean fashion was strange, rather than just different. I stumbled right into the trap of thinking that Western norms were supreme, and that everything else must be measured against that standard. In reality, what’s strange is not the existence of differences, but the idea that they should be the same. History, culture, ideology, and country size are all factors that shape a country, and since Korea and America differ greatly in every way, the differences in fashion are inevitable and unsurprising.

Now that that’s cleared up, let me tell you a little bit about Korean fashion as an aesthetic.

 

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This summer, most of the women who I saw in Korea were wearing pastel boxy t-shirts or ruffled blouses with A-line skirts or fringed flair jeans. They paired these with double-strapped sandal wedges or Adidas all-stars, both of which two-thirds of the female population seemed to own. Men wore boxy t-shirts or soft collared shirts and rolled up pants with Teva sandals. It was a charming, lovable aesthetic filled with soft edges and soft colors. Of course, not everyone adopted this aesthetic, but it was the most perceivable one by far.

Female Male
Top ·      Boxy t-shirt

·      Ruffled/loose blouse

·      Boxy t-shirt

·      Loose collar shirt

Bottom ·      A-line skirt

·      High waist denim shorts

·      Fringed flair jeans

·      Denim or colored shorts

·      Rolled up pants

Footwear ·      Thin strap gladiator sandals

·      Double-strap wedge sandals

·      Adidas all-stars

·      Teva sandals, or similar “mandals”

·      Adidas all-stars

I was struck by two differences. First, Koreans care very much about their appearance. Whereas probably less than 50% of the American population really cares about fashion and beauty, it seems like everyone in Korea is at least a little bit concerned with their appearance and apparel. This is something that  a lot of Westerners do not necessarily approve, especially in regards to Korea’s high plastic surgery habits, because they believe that appearance shouldn’t be so important. However,  in Korea, this preoccupation with image and appearance is normal because it affects social life and work. It’s difficult to say why, but I hypothesize that it partly stems from how proud and family-oriented Koreans are. Putting on an appearance that others would admire contributes to their ability to maintain pride about their background and upbringing.

The second difference is how easy it is to even roughly define “Korean fashion” when the same task is almost impossible with American fashion. In America, fashion mostly resides within diverse subcultures such as punk, boho, minimalist, preppy, etc. and ultimately within the individual. There is no unified image of American fashion, nor are there Tumblr and Instagram accounts dedicated to American fashion like how there are for Korean fashion. Initially, I thought this was simply reflective of a lack of individualism, but it’s really much bigger than that. First, America is a huge country, whereas Korea is only about 20% of the size of California. There being fewer fashion subcultures is unsurprising in a smaller country. Trends flow faster and are more centralized, creating a more unified image of fashion. Second, America is a highly individualistic society, so individualistic fashion is a natural symptom of its world. On the other hand, in Korea, more emphasis is placed on group units, such as the family, instead of the individual, so while each person may have a slightly different style, Koreans enjoy and feel comfortable wearing fashion styles similar to each other. Individualism is not a worldwide norm, but simply an American one.

In the end, fashion is a construct. It’s shaped by its setting and the cultural norms of that setting. It can be a form of expression not just for an individual, but also a group of people, or even an entire country. In this way, Korean fashion and American fashion have developed quite differently and are expressed in significantly divergent ways.

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