January 07, 2014

Korea's Two-Dimensional Fashion

There is something about Korean fashion and style that I don’t quite understand. It is true that they are a fashionable and stylish set, and wear nice clothes and no doubt take fashion quite seriously, but the effect it has, its strength, potency, its expression, just doesn't seem right to me somehow - it seems to lack power, it has no statement about itself. And I can't quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s because I’m not that fashionable myself? Or perhaps it’s the definition of the word ‘fashionable’? A middle-aged man wearing a classic tweed jacket and a nice pair of brogues, for example, would be defined as, by me anyway, as stylish, rather than fashionable. Furthermore, said middle-aged man in tweed jacket would be saying many other things like: I’m not a biker, I’m not a chav, I’m not a builder, and so on. Of course, he might be saying none or any of these, but he’d certainly be giving off the impression of, well, something. Wearing the jacket and brogues wouldn’t be an empty statement. The simple fact is, in the West, it would be a statement, about something. Wearing a biker’s leather jacket is a statement. Clothes are a statement, even if the statement is ‘these are all I could wear today because I’m doing my laundry’, ‘I’m getting married today’, ‘I’m going to a funeral’, or ‘I ride a skateboard’. Fashion in Korea seems empty, devoid of having anything to say, other than 'I've bought some clothes recently'.

Fashion here smacks of a limited imagination, a reliance on 'being told what to do', of conformism. Of getting your ideas from a magazine. But also importantly, and often missed here is that if you wear the latest ‘magazine clothes’ you hand over your statement about what you’re wearing to a magazine editor, whose only statement on your behalf is ‘look at me I’m fashionable’. It's why fashion here is fashionable, if fashionable means empty and vapid.

Maybe the problem is that there's no 'anti-fashion' in Korea, and in turn that may be because of Korea’s relatively recent entry into, if you like, the world of ‘Western fashion’. We may have had punks and b-boys and so on in the '70s and '80s, but Korea almost certainly didn’t, or if they did, they were so few in number as to have little effect on mainstream culture. If I see, say, a pair of Dr Marten boots in a store here, they will, for me, have many connotations, for example, work boots, punk boots, skinheads, 1980s fashion and so on, but for a Korean they may just look like 'boots'. That's not the man- or woman-on-the-street's fault, but it's true nonetheless. We make decisions based on decades of previously traversed fashion phases ("I'm not wearing that I'll look like a '90s raver"), but countries newer to the forefront (and let's be honest that's Europe and the USA) of fashion do not have that historical luxury. Everything is new, but simultaneously, everything is meaningless.

That Korea has little or no 'anti-fashion' doesn't necessarily mean it should adopt a whole-hearted punk [or other alternative] ethos with safety pins through noses or knee-high cyberpunk boots, it means Korea doesn't have the guys down the pub who make a fashion statement by simply not being fashionable. Deliberately. In Korea, you're either in or out. Back home, the guys in jeans and bikers' leather are saying 'we don't want to look like the inside of a fashion magazine'. 'That would be uncool'. And suddenly you’re entering into an arena of anti-capitalist, or anti-something, sentiment, of not wanting to shop in Top Man, or wear Abercrombie and Fitch, or wear Gucci sunglasses. To me and many others this wearing of current middle-to-upper high street brands would be highly uncool – like popping the collar on your suit jacket, or holding a  cigarette between your teeth – I’d never do it – to me it looks like ‘trying too hard’, like ‘Top Gun’. Trying to be cool isn't cool. Trying to be fashionable isn't necessarily fashionable. Clothes and the way you wear them, including choosing not to wear something, is a statement of attitude, a subscription to who you are and want to be. In many circles, being 'magazine fashionable' is considered uncool.

Korean fashion lacks any statement outside of ‘I’m fashionable’. Could you tell who likes jazz or hip-hop or rock from it? Doubtful. Could you in London or San Diego or Bruges? Probably. Clothes are an expression, of who you are, of what you believe. Even if you believe fashion is a fat waste of time your non-conformist, conformist jeans and t-shirt (or whatever) are saying so.

I think it will take a decade or two for Korea to realise its full potential in fashion. Many here think it's made it now, but I disagree. Fashion here says nothing, and until it does, it doesn't. It's not cool to try and be cool.  It's a kind of Catch 22 that I think fashionistas in Korea often don't understand. It's simply not that fashionable to be fashionable.

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