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The Namhansanseong Project: Mixing Old and New at a UNESCO Cultural Heritage SIte

The Seoul Fashion Report was recently asked to participate in a project designed to attract attention to one of Korea's recently anointed UNESCO World Heritage site, the Namhansanseong Fortress (남한산성), which was the back up capital city during Korea's Joseon Dynasty. The idea was to design an event that would attract some South Korea's most influential foreign bloggers and content producers. The problem was that, despite the undeniably important historical and cultural significance of the site, ancient structures of great cultural and archaeological importance are often not the most compelling subjects to bring people from near and far to cover through words and pictures.

That's where we came in. In the conversation with Tae-Hoon Lee, who had initially been tasked with this event by the Public Diplomacy group (공공외교) created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  as a picnic on the UNESCO world heritage site. I suggested mixing the best and brightest aspects of Korean contemporary culture with the historically weighty, beautiful background of the Namhansanseong site. Photographically speaking, this made perfect sense since the site would provide a beautiful visual backdrop against any pretty posing that would be done by models in front of it, making for a great visual space in which to combine elements of Korean culture, both old and new. I had full faith that it would work out beautifully, but first, work had to be done to just get out to the site with the camera and actually plan angles and times of shooting. What became the working question during the scouting expedition was simply where to place people in relation to the backgrounds and where specific shooting concepts would be staged, as in the specific places where models would stand and cameras would fire. Everything looked good in theory as of a few days before the event. In terms of lighting and where B shadows would fall from about 5 or 6 PM, everything looked good for the plan of offering a short photo workshop and an opportunity to photographers of various levels of skill and experience to shoot live models in the fashion genre, while also offering an opportunity to shoot on one of the worlds most important historical sites as a bonus.

And thusly hast God wrought. While wrangling the models together and getting them to the site was somewhat  touch and go, akin to the proverbial task of "herding cats", the shoot was upbeat and interesting for everyone, which helped result in good pictures. The mix of seemingly divergent cultural elements made for a new, syncretic fusion that wasn't forced or stilted but rather reminiscent of a surprisingly pleasant melange so compelling that it simply begs to be re-created later, again and again. It also seemed quite in keeping with the apt description of the culture here as "dynamic" -- as channeled through the former tourism slogan "Dynamic Korea."

Of course, as with all good ideas, they are often remixes and borrowings from other good ideas. I had always been impressed with what I saw in the well-planned and immaculately executed Korean Cultural Heritage Show, which I had the privilege to shoot as a runway photographer back in October, 2011. Here are a few shots from that show, which was the first and only time I have seen a runway show done on the grounds of one of Korea's most important and famous cultural sites, the Gyeongbok Palace in the center of downtown Seoul.

That was one of the most amazing show sites  I had ever seen in my entire life, and that experience informed the idea I had for mixing elements of old and new in the present. One might note that technically, the traditional Korean culture theme of that show offered itself as a unifying element between fashion and the traditional structure in which the 2011 show had taken place -- a more natural fit between the historical and the sartorial. However, despite the fact of this more natural "fit", it must be noted that the link provided by the common element of Korean tradition was spurious at best. Notwithstanding the fact that the clothing in the show was inspired by  Korean tradition, the chronological and cultural distance between the modern spin on Korean traditional clothing and the actual hanbok that would have been appropriate to be worn at the time is so great as to render that putative link of Korean "tradition" both academic and irrelevant. Basically, many of the models were walking completely modern Korean clothing down the runway, creating a fascinating artistic energy from the anachronistic tension between the clothing and the backdrop. The only times where the venue and the clothing came together to present to the audience a vision directly from Korea's Joseon Dynasty past were in instances in which Korean traditional hanbok were walked down the runway, where the clothing in itself where unaltered and unadulterated artifacts from a time long gone. While that is surely the instinctive and natural fit between clothing and the environment, this"Total fit" was merely one of several delectable morsels on offer in the feast for the eyes during that event. Click on the gallery below to be quickly walked through the hanbok part of the show.

In all the several senses of the words, old and new had been truly, effectively fused. And it was a beautiful sight to see. 

Click to enlarge to the gargantuan proportions of your browser window or mobile device.

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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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Supergirl in Seoul!

Saw this in Hongdae last Sunday. Comic books and kitsch are all the rage in Seoul these days. I like the fact that this popular cover-turned-tee turned up here in Seoul. I need to track down where these are sold, although Dongdaemun is the usual suspect.

"In this issue:Lois Lane can do everthing that Superman can do."

A role-reversal, although not really challenging gender role-norms.

A role-reversal, although not really challenging gender role-norms.

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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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