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The Cultural Politics of Short Skirts in Korea

While South Korea still likes to think of itself as a “conservative” Confucian culture, and Koreans will often still parrot that line, It is still apparent in the contemporary culture that this belief isn't much more than a pleasant fiction around which many people still organize their identities. Still, in Seoul, the Code and Cult of Demure Domesticity dictates that, despite wearing a Ludicrously Short Skirt, the shoulders should be covered. Somehow, the Korean fashion culture code doesn't see what Americans would call "Daisy Dukes"-length attire showing lately all the way to the bottom curve of the buttocks as at all provocative or even sexual.

 

The original Daisy Duke, from the Dukes of Hazzard show (1979-1985 on CBS)

 

However, showing any amount of shoulder or upper arm is seen in terms of a very sexual connotation and is very much frowned upon. In fact, Korean-American visitors to Korea in the late 1980s still recount tales of Korean middle-aged women slapping them hard on the shoulders for having been exposed during the summer and scolding them for having ripped jeans, which were fashionable items in the late 1980s.

 By American, or one might even say  Western, standards, the summers in Seoul seem to breed a lot of ludicrously short skirt lengths and shorts. The average skirt length in Korea, and this includes even office uniforms, is what would officially be termed a miniskirt. And remember, the  original definition of miniskirt was any skirt with a hem under which to place your 4 fingers  above the knee. While that strict original definition has gone to the wayside, any stroll down a Korean street will yield lots of leg from a Western standard. And combined with high heels that regularly reach past the 3 1/2 inch  de facto limit of what many Westerners would consider casual heels, and the effects of hem length become all the more emphasized. And it's something that Daisy Duke herself seemed to know, since any appearance in the show in her extremely short cutoff jean shorts included  stockings and pretty high heels. The funny thing is that the character of Daisy Duke was once somewhat of an issue on American television but in the land of the conservative Confucians, people dressing like her every day doesn't seem to cause anyone to bat an eye.

 Not that we're complaining, but it is an interesting fashion-based cultural difference worth pointing out. What's also interesting to note is women wearing extremely tiny micro minidresses such as the one pictured below, but along with a sweater to cover the top, even on one of the hottest days of the summer in Seoul. were not saying that's bad or good, but just that  it seems kind of contradictory, especially even as the  wearer herself recognizes the sexual valence of the dress itself even as she wears another piece of clothing seemingly at odds with not just style of the thing it's covering, but with the season itself.

 Of course, this attitude and social rule regarding exposing the upper arms and shoulder is just that: a rule to be violated. Any social norm is not defined by a reality in which everyone follows it, but the norm itself is worth looking at since it is the dividing line that meaningfully tells us something about people on both sides of it as well as attitudes that created the rule itself and what that rule was meant to protect. Of course, even the space of one picture, one can see different attitudes towards how much skin to expose and what that means.

 And then there are  individual interpretations and interesting remixes of  trends and their constitutive social norms around clothing and appropriate gender roles. I like to call the picture below an example of “Geeky Dukes.” I see this as the result of the fact that the Daisy Dukes, or what Koreans would call simply “hot pants” have become so trendy and popular that the original type of girl who would wear them in the culture of their origin, or the kind of Korean girl who would wear them as somewhat socially transgressive trend items in Korean culture, have simply become what every girl is expected to wear in the summer. So, to put it simply, you get conservative  girls who would never imagine themselves as wearing anything socially transgressive in what Americans might simply call Daisy Dukes, even if they are watered-down versions  of them.

Watch closely to see Catherine Bach's "Daisy Dukes" in action.

And here's the opening of Wonder Woman, from the new one they did in the middle of season 2. Wonder Woman's look alawaays changes with the times, and her "satin tights" were hiked up particulrly high.

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Ajumma -- Style Influencer!

Korean fashion culture brings more attention to Korea in Audrey, an online Asian American fashion magazine. The amazing ajumma takes center stage here, although my feeling is that the writer didn't have much in the way of a variety of Korean street fashion pictures to choose from. That's where we can help out a bit. 

OG Ajumma .

You want eclectic? Mismatched patterns and colors? We got ya. Oh, and visors?

Under the ajumma visor.

And you can't forget an ajumma's dog.

"Say hello to my little friend!" An ajumma's dog I bumped into in hongdae. Apparently, the doggie bites.

And an ajumma who brings the sexy back.

Deep Gangnam ajumma in heated discussion.

And the ajumma does colors like no one else.

Ajumma power.
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And then there are ajumma who are just awesome, forces unto themselves.

Ajumma or halmoni? Either way, she's busting through!

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The Korean "Sports Jersey" Look

I first noticed what I now call the "sports jersey" look on young Korean women back in September of 2013 when talking with a fashion design major in my university. I was really struck by how much her top looked like a football jersey, down to the mesh holes and inexplicably large  lettering in stark, football-team allcaps that I at first thought said "LOWELL" -- as in perhaps a football team from a high school in Lowell, Massachusetts. On closer inspection, I realized it said "LONELY", with a superimposed V over the N to double the stencil as "LOVELY."  But it struck me that it was definitely in the style of an American football uniform, down to the high cut, mesh holes, and all. But I saw it as a one-off. But that was going into fall and winter's colder weather. Now, in the subsequent summer, I realized again that no matter what, whatever fashion-forward Hongdae kids are wearing will become the thing within 6 months, no exceptions. Exhibit A:

Got a football jersey in there with player number on the flautist, as well as a stark capital A on a flowery, girlish print with the gayageum player (the girl playing the thing that looks like a harp on its back). And of course, the ubiquitous hot pants that all young girls not in a convent must wear here. 

And the combination of football jersey text with girlish flowers and even lace doesn't end there. Behold:

Besides just winner teams such as the Eagles -- which surely a pronto moda house in Dongdaemun picked up on very recently from American sports follies -- aren't the only teams and things found on women's jersey tops around Seoul.

An actual sports Jersey meets snobgirl faux classism, with oversized, allcaps lettering on the skirt. We also have pictographs meeting faux Boy London here.

Which brings us back to "LONELY."

And back to the first fashionista who started both my thinking on this trend and this post, when you combine an actual, full-on football top with a conservative, school uniform-eque collar, coquettishly quaint miniskirt, along with thick socks and sandals, you get interesting things going on.

But inevitably, all memes evolve into new directions, according to the rules and dictates of their particular ecosystems...

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MY A-DI-das!

Rockin' the Adidas gear.

I ran into this very sporty young lady while catching  a taco after my run to the bank.  since I've been keeping an eye out for especially sporty outfits this summer, I couldn't help but ask for a portrait. And I happen to bump into her again when I circled around to go back to my office, at which point I got a candid shot as well. I also took the opportunity to officially ask her, as the representative of all Korean women wearing summery outfits with stockings, why young Korean women like to wear stockings in the summer, which is a question sometimes foreign women ask me. the answer I got from her in Korean was to have a "보정된 느낌," which means to basically cover and smooth out the look, actually explained to me. It covers bruises and other marks and make everything look clear and even, she explained. of course, many non-Korean women will remark that wearing stockings kind of defeats the purpose of wearing cool clothing in the summer, but remember,  appearance seems to trump comfort here in South Korea.

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Pleasant Korean Contradictions

A GREAT dress caught during the noontime lunch hour in Yeouido. So full of pleasant Korean contradictions. It's demurely conservative with the high buttons and covered shoulders, but with a pretty high hemline, and yet there's a hint of wanting to cover even the neck, but the whole thing is still almost as form-fitting as a cocktail dress, for the most part. As full of seeming contradiction as Korean femininity itself does these days.

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The Performance of Gender and Fashion in Korea

There's a lot going on here that I can see. There's that sports jersey thing that's been going on lately on otherwise demure women's clothing, except this time on the skirt. There's the socks with sandals thing, and the typically really high skirt is coupled with an almost puritanical coverage on top. Oh, and we can't forget the bad English on the skirt. "Weird but adore" is an attempt to appeal to a sense of consumer individualism as a way of putatively allowing people a means of self-expression and "being different," to put an Apple spin in things. But hey, despite the fact that I think it's weird, I adore. Therein lies my conflicted view on Korean female fashion and the particular way Korean women of perform gender identity.

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