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Changing Fashion Trends in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-06-21

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ KBS News

In March this year, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper recommended people to wear bright colors in spring—ivory, light blue, light green and light pink for women and light gray, light blue and gray for men. The paper advised the people to diversify their clothes in consideration of their age, body figure, face shape as well as their own tastes and choices. It said that outfits are not just a matter of formality but a symbol of one’s ideology and mentality, adding that a decent appearance improves one’s personality and enhances cultural sensitivity and flavor. When it comes to clothing, North Korea stresses individuality but it seems to be focusing more on the role of the outfits as the symbol of the wearers’ ideology. 

Even in the reclusive North, however, the fashion trends are changing little by little. Today, we’ll learn about changing fashion trends in North Korea from Kim Young-hee, director of the Public Relation Department at the Korea Hana Foundation.

In May, an interesting video was unveiled on a North Korean YouTube channel. Entitled “Join the North Korean girl for a shopping spree and discover the latest fashion trends,” the video was uploaded by a North Korean YouTuber named Yonmi. In the video, she explains, in Chinese, the “Spring Women’s Clothes Exhibition-2023” that was held in Pyongyang from April 24 to May 4. While looking around various kinds of clothes at the exhibition, she tries on a sleeveless white one-piece dress with black polka dots and says she loves it. 

These days, bright-colored dresses are said to be popular among young women in North Korea. 

The large-scale exhibition of women’s clothes is the second such event, following the inaugural one in late October last year. 

At this exhibition, one-piece dresses, Western suits and coats with bright and soft colors catch the eyes of the visitors. The outfits combine the esthetic sense of the times and national spirit, while highlighting their elegant and sophisticated beauty. Here, garment processing companies talk about technical exchanges, while clothing manufacturers discuss with consumers. 

The exhibition was held with the purpose of showing refined, civilized garments that are suitable for the season. Over 50 local enterprises displayed a variety of clothes from the spring and summer collection, including one-piece dresses, two-piece suits, shirts, skirts and sportswear. Analysts say that it is rare to see an exhibition of women’s Western wear in North Korea. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stressed the importance of building a civilized nation, which refers to a country where citizens live in a better urban environment. Decent houses and fashion might be included in this concept. 

In the past, men’s clothes in North Korea typically had a simple design and dark colors. But the situation has changed a lot now. Women’s clothes can contribute to creating a social atmosphere and prove how civilized a society is. 

The number of middle-class people in North Korea has increased since the economic difficulties in the mid-1990s, prompting more people to spend their money on food and clothes as well. In recent years, North Korea has carried out state policies in consideration of what the people want. Also, the country may have attempted to promote the circulation of the local currency. Against the backdrop, the North seems to have hosted the exhibition. 

A 1988 North Korean film titled Being Pretentious revolves around a college student named Hyun-ok, who is greatly interested in fashion. To spice up her outfit, Hyun-ok asks one of her friends to mark English letters on her jacket. But she only gets told off. 

So, Hyun-ok marks English alphabets on her jacket herself. But other friends are also critical of her. 

Her friends all point out that her outfit is eccentric. After all, Hyun-ok dresses in an inconspicuous manner, returning to her previous outfits that are considered suitable for local sentiment at the time. 

Ms. Kim recalls the moment when she attended college in North Korea’s eastern city of Wonsan in the 1980s. 

The North Korean economy is centrally planned. In the socialist state, all citizens have equal rights. In principle, the state plans everything and enterprises produce goods. The state sets the prices for the goods and provides them through state-run stores. 

In the 1980s, female college students in Pyongyang were dressed in a long black skirt and a white jacket. Students in my college would wear a green skirt and a white, orange, red or blue shirt as their school uniform. The outfits they wore after school were dark in color and had almost the same design. The students, including myself, thought it was inappropriate to wear something conspicuous. Some made their own clothes at home, but the number was extremely small. The concept of fashion was totally absent. 

The 13th World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Pyongyang in 1989. North Korea held the international event in response to South Korea’s successful hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Many North Korean citizens, including Ms. Kim, were quite shocked to see jeans during the 1989 event in Pyongyang. 

In 1989, South Korean student activist Lim Su-kyung(임수경) visited Pyongyang to participate in the World Festival of Youth and Students. When she arrived in North Korea, she was wearing a white cotton T-shirt and jeans. At the time, North Koreans called jeans “awl trousers” because the jeans are loose in the hips and go tight at the bottom. The jeans looked really cool. I guess that’s when North Koreans began to show interest in fashion. There was no market whatsoever, so individuals made “awl trousers” at home and sold them to people around them in secret. 

The severe economic difficulties in the 1990s, known locally as the Arduous March, changed North Korean society overall. The collapse of the state rationing system prompted the private market or jangmadang to crop up across the country. Through the unofficial market, local residents experienced fashion from the outside world. Some people were able to accumulate wealth through market activities, and their demand gave rise to garment producers. As the rationing system fell apart, manufacturers began to produce clothes people actually wanted, not the clothes required by the authorities. As a result, North Korean citizens themselves chose and purchased outfits they wanted to wear. 

When I left North Korea, the rationing system was gone. Of course, the state no longer provided clothes to citizens. They bought outfits they like at the market instead. Chinese goods flowed into North Korea, and many North Koreans followed Chinese fashion styles. 

I experienced what a market is like in North Korea before coming to South Korea, so I thought I knew well about the market. But the situation was very different in the South. In 2003, I was discharged from Hanawon, a resettlement center for North Korean defectors. I didn’t know about what kinds of garments were popular in the South, so I chose clothes similar to what I had worn in North Korea. Products varied vastly in price and quality, and it was difficult to choose the right ones for me. 

It was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju who sparked a new wave of change in the local fashion scene. 

In 2012, Ri attended an opening ceremony of the Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground. North Korean media officially identified her as the leader’s wife. Her every move has since created a great sensation. Her fashion style, such as above-knee length skirts and bright-colored blouses, drew public attention. A North Korean fashion show displayed many fashion items inspired by Ri’s, including two-piece skirt suits, high heels decorated with fancy accessories and short skirts with their hemline well above the knees. 

In 2015, China’s People’s Daily reported on its online website that high heels and mini-skirts are in vogue among the middle class in Pyongyang. The paper analyzed that North Korean women are imitating Ri’s fashion style after they see her accompanying her husband in his public activities, with the first lady emerging as a trend-setter. As Ri’s fashion style set local women abuzz, North Korean fashion began to see a new change. 

Her fashion was quite unconventional. People were surprised to see her above-the-knee skirt, among others. The short skirt looks elegant and chic, and makes her look taller. The style is definitely different from the previous national, socialistic lifestyle, in which one’s skirt length should reach ten centimeters below the knee and tight-fitting clothes are shunned. But the outfits similar to Ri’s became available in the market, as local women believed that they would also be allowed to wear such clothes. 

In North Korea, the fashion styles of the top leader and his family greatly influence the public, as they set the standard for the national, socialist lifestyle. In the past, former leader Kim Jong-il’s signature jacket was all the rage and became the uniform of the entire public. Similarly, Ri Sol-ju’s polka-dot dress was so popular that North Korea imported a huge amount of fabric from China. Most recently, Kim Jong-un’s daughter Kim Ju-ae was seen wearing a padded jacket with white fur collar, which is expected to become an instant hit. 

According to the 2023 North Korean Human Rights Report released by the Ministry of Unification in South Korea on March 30, North Korean authorities crack down on the possession of South Korean videos and even the clothes and lifestyles that could be influenced by such content. The report included testimonies indicating that the North has ramped up its crackdowns on “decadent” Western fashion trends, such as tight pants and colored hair. 

It is said that South Korean movies and TV series have had a great impact on fashion trends in North Korea. The so-called “fashionistas” or followers of the latest fashions in the North often emulate styles shown in South Korean cultural content. Since the mid-and late-2000s, in particular, the expansion of digital technology has provided easy access to South Korean films and TV dramas. As a result, South Korean fashion is no longer unfamiliar to North Korean residents. 

Once a pretty one-piece dress appears in a South Korean film, fashion-savvy North Koreans ask tailors to make the same dress. They imitate everything South Korean, including clothes, bags, umbrellas and shoes. 

In fact, North Korea does not import South Korean garments. But Chinese people purchased used South Korean clothes and circulated them in North Korea. Also, some North Koreans who visit their relatives in China get South Korean goods through North Korean defectors in South Korea and bring the goods into North Korea. When re-entering the North, they remove clothing labels and say the products are Chinese. They compress hundreds of kilograms of bulky clothes for packing. When unpacked in North Korea, the volume increases again. They sell the clothes at retail across the country. If they are caught selling South Korean goods, they will be in a big trouble. So the goods are hidden below the counters at the market. 

North Korea’s fashion trends and industry have been changing, due to the collapse of the state rationing system, the spread of private markets and the influx of outside culture. Locals are now familiar with South Korean fashion, in particular, as South Korean cultural content has permeated deeply into the North. In addition to fashion trends, we hope South and North Korea will narrow their differences in other areas. 

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