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Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

East Asia

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John E. Vollmer (ed)

Berg Fashion Library


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Street and Youth Fashion in Seoul, South Korea

Dooyoung Choi

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch61112

October 2015


Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is located in the middle of the Korean Peninsula and in northwestern South Korea. Since 1394, the foundation year of the Joseon dynasty, Seoul has been the capital city. Approximately 233.67 square miles (605.25 square kilometers) in size with a population of over 10 million, Seoul is bisected from east to west by the Han River. The southern half is called Gangnam, which literally means “south of the river” and the northern half is called Gangbuk, “north of the river.”

In South Korea, particularly in Seoul, perhaps because of the high population density and size of the city, the dress styles of young adults vary according to the district (or even part of a district) they live or work in. Each style of dress is named after its region of origin and reflects characteristics of a specific neighborhood. Young Koreans, ranging from school to college students, dress differently depending on the neighborhood (for example, Gangnam or Gangbuk) and the occasion (such as going to a club, school, or gallery).

There are a total of twenty-five districts (gu) and 424 administrative units (dong) in Seoul. Before the 1990s, districts in the Gangbuk area were the main places for fashion. This was because the northern part of Seoul had been the location of the original capital city of Seoul since 1394, when the southern part of Seoul was not yet fully developed. In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, Myeong-dong was the first and only fashion district in Seoul. One of the primary reasons for its fashion leadership was the fact that the postal exchange for the U.S. army was in this area. Because of the base, Western goods imported from the United States were easily available to local Koreans and worn by family members of servicemen and servicewomen. Thus, the style of dress in the region was heavily influenced by the tastes and preferences of the U.S. citizens working and living in the area. In addition, area boutiques and shops selling tailored clothing catered to the servicemen and their families, supplying them with clothing and shoes.

During the 1980s, the Sinchon area became another fashion district, along with Myeong-dong. Sinchon is home to three prestigious universities (Ewha Womans University, Sogang University, and Yonsei University) and was the center of a student-led democracy movement in the 1980s. Students spent days and nights in long discussions about political issues as well as philosophy and life. Not surprisingly, Sinchon became an important place for college student life, and as a result developed into a commercial district of youth fashion and culture.

The development of the southern part of Seoul began in the 1970s under the government’s Gangnam Seoul Development Project. The project was designed to disperse the population from the northern part of Seoul into other areas to address overpopulation. A number of services, schools, and housing projects were either moved or built in Gangnam and a property boom ignited the Gangnam area. By the early 1990s, this part of Seoul had grown into a significant technological and industrial complex as well as a fashion district. With the Asian Games (1986) and Seoul Olympics (1988) spurring the growth of the Gangnam economy, Gangnam built its reputation as a new, dynamic, wealthy, and influential area. Since then, Gangnam has become a capitalist-focused district popular with the wealthy and educated segments of Seoul society.

Since the mid-1990s in particular, along with the development of the southern part of Seoul, a distinctive regional fashion style has developed in both southern and northern parts of Seoul. The division was quite simple: the style of northern Seoul was named “Gangbuk style” and that of southern Seoul was named “Gangnam style.” This relates to a division of wealth and education as well as style of dress.

Gangnam Style in the 1990s

Youth fashion in both Gangnam and Gangbuk in the mid-1990s was relatively standardized and recognizable. Gangnam style was heavily influenced by the emergence of American hip-hop music and the development of the Internet, which made American popular culture easily accessible. Young singers, such as SeoTaiji and Boys, experimented with hip-hop dance music and succeeded in creating a paradigm shift in the Korean music industry as well as in popular culture among young people. The young singers’ style was characterized by oversized pants and shirts, heavy jewelry and gold chains, baseball caps, and sunglasses. Both male and female Gangnam youth replicated the look of American hip-hop with the added twist of the regional characteristic of wealth with conspicuous consumption.

The standardized Gangnam look was comprised of oversized denim pants worn around the hips so that pant legs sagged down, but bunched up around the ankles, with a long belt hanging from the waist, big shoes, dark black hair often bleached to appear light yellow, and straightened hairstyles. Thumbtacks or a rubber band often secured the sagging pants to the bottom of the shoes. A shirt (often flannel) tied around the waist was also considered fashionable. Dyed or bleached hair was not allowed in middle schools and high schools; however, some students used either beer or hydrogen peroxide purchased from local drugstores to bleach their hair during vacation periods.

Brand name garments contributed to the regional distinctiveness of the look. In order to indicate the wealth of Gangnam, specific brand names were important. For example, boots needed to be either Dr. Martens or Timberland, often with Polo socks, and clothing needed to be imported brands (for example, Polo, Guess, Calvin Klein, Marithé et François Girbaud, Jordache, Boy London, Michiko London). Having a luxury brand bag (such as a Prada shoulder bag) or sunglasses (Gucci, Versace) was also desirable. Brand name items were important because they projected the socioeconomic status of youth in Gangnam and communicated a higher socioeconomic position than an average-income family in Seoul. The brands not only indicated the ability to purchase but also someone who had studied or traveled overseas, that is, someone who could afford to study or travel outside the country and purchase items outside Korea.

A few students had the wealth to study abroad and only returned to South Korea during vacations; in the early 1990s, many of these students formed a subculture within the Gangnam area called Orangejok (oranges were emblematic of expensive imported fruit). They primarily gathered in Apgujeong-dong, one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the Gangnam area, and were associated with a culture of pleasure, extravagant consumption, and Westernized sexual attitudes. Some Orangejok were also called Yatajok, which refers to Orangejok who drove around in expensive cars and asked random girls to hang out for a night. (Ya, ta means “Hey, get in [the car].”) Many dressed in expensive imported brands and their cars were imported ones bought by their wealthy parents. Female Orangejok were not ashamed of showing some skin, unlike the conservative general public, who adhered to a higher standard of modesty. The consumption of the Orangejok increased public outrage at the disparities of wealth between Gangnam and Gangbuk. Orangejok gradually disappeared after heavy criticism about excessive imported brand item consumption when South Korea faced a sovereign debt crisis, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) financial crisis, in 1997.

As the desire for expensive imported brands grew, so did consumer demand for counterfeits of desirable brands, which were purchased by young people across South Korea, including those living in the Gangnam area who could not afford to buy originals. A large range of counterfeit items (such as wallets, belts, and sunglasses) were available in three major counterfeit markets: the Gangnam underground shopping arcade, the campus town near the Ewha Womans University in Sinchon, and the Itaewon located in Gangbuk by the Han River. Besides these three markets, counterfeits were easily purchased in small local stores and from street vendors. For the experienced shopper, lower-quality counterfeit products were often easy to spot. For instance, the brand name “Guess” was misspelled as “Geuss,” and the red question mark symbol of Guess was replaced with an exclamation mark; “Nike” was misspelled as “Nice,” “IVIKE,” or “Иike.” Less obvious counterfeits were also available at a higher price point. Wearing counterfeits involved a certain degree of risk, because wearers might be caught by their peers, resulting in social embarrassment.

Gangbuk Style in the 1990s

Brand consciousness and the desire for branded apparel were also found in the Gangbuk area, although less intensely than among Gangnam youth and popular brands also varied. For example, while Nike was in demand in both Gangbuk and Gangnam, Dr. Martens and Timberland were less popular in Gangbuk. Also, a few popular brands in Gangbuk were associated with sports (Arnold Palmer, Fila, Lacoste); these sports brands reflected the fashion of members of the Korean mafia, who were keen to wear golf apparel. Another mafia-inspired fashion item was the clutch bag for men (mafia men used iconic clutches to collect cash from local businesses in the Gangbuk region). The style of mafia members, who often dressed in suits, might also explain the popularity of men’s suits in the Gangbuk area.

The standardized Gangbuk look was in stark contrast to that of Gangnam, and consisted of tight, skinny pants, tight jackets, shoes with pointed toes, floral print or colorful shirts, and flamboyant patterned scarves. Although many Gangbuk young people wore casual clothing, when they went out for parties, a tight suit was considered the most fashionable thing to wear. When it came to hairstyles, well-groomed sideburns for men and the “perilla leaf bang” for women were fashionable. (The perilla leaf bang hairstyle resembled the leaf it is named for. This hairstyle had a far side parting, with bangs pulled tight across the forehead above the eyes and secured with bobby pins near one ear.) While Gangnam style was influenced by Western hip-hop, Gangbuk style was mainly influenced by the retro fever in South Korea before the new millennium. The retro style in the Gangbuk area was called Bokko, which means “restoration of old.” Particularly, the IMF crisis in 1997 intensified nostalgia. Bokko in the 1990s revisited the culture of the 1970s and 1980s, when folk songs and disco were popular.

School Uniforms in the 1990s

Secondary school students in both the Gangnam and Gangbuk areas remodeled their school uniforms according to their regional styles. A difference in fit was the easiest demarcation: students in the Gangnam regions wore loose clothing while students in Gangbuk wore tighter clothing. Male students in Gangnam wore their pants two or three inches (five or seven centimeters) wider and longer than students in Gangbuk, who preferred to reduce the width and length of pants and alter them into tight, ankle-length pants. Some students even tailored them to a boot cut.

In the case of female students, the hemline difference was distinctive. Students in Gangnam schools often rolled up the waist of their skirt to shorten it but still keep the shape of the skirt as it was initially designed. Since modifying skirt length was against school regulations, rolling up the waist of a skirt was a convenient and safe choice as compared to actually hemming the skirt to make it shorter, because skirts could quickly be dropped to the regulation length in front of school officials. Meanwhile, Gangbuk schoolgirls preferred to remove the hem of their skirt to extend its length. Unlike young people in Gangnam, who did not modify jacket fit but rather wore the right size or bigger, the jackets of Gangbuk students were tailored to fit tightly and the length shortened by three inches (seven centimeters). Overall, the look of a long skirt and short jacket was somewhat reminiscent of the hanbok, that is, traditional Korean clothes.

The rules about how to wear backpacks were also clearly different, even when wearing the same popular brands (such as Jansports or Eastpak). Gangnam students wore their backpacks loosely, extending the shoulder straps so the bag was located low, around (or below) the hips. In contrast, Gangbuk students tightly strapped them to wear them high on their back, and consequently nicknamed them as a “tortoiseshell” or “turtle sack,” since the backpack was positioned right below the neck just like a turtle’s shell. Because the fad for tailoring school uniforms was so prevalent and prolonged, some high-school deans visited local alteration stores and asked owners not to take orders from students who wished to modify their school uniforms inappropriately.

Regional Styles in the Early Twenty-First Century

As the twenty-first century started, the simple separation of Gangnam or Gangbuk style gradually faded and several segments of styles have evolved from the cultural and economic development of different parts of Seoul. Dress styles have become a vehicle for various collectives of cultural consumptive space and reflect the characteristic of that space. By 2014, there were four distinct areas where young people projected specific fashion images: Gangnam station area, Cheongdam-dong, Hongik University area, and Itaewon.

Gangnam Style

Gangnam station is in Gangnam-gu, south of the river, on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway Line 2. The station is a transit hub and links to Teheran Road, where various domestic and international financial and business headquarters are located. The area near the station has developed as a symbol of modern Seoul, with expensive real estate and skyscrapers. Because the Gangnam station area is the prime area for educational institutes, businesses, hotels, retail stores, beauty salons, and entertainment, it is one of the busiest areas in Seoul, with a large floating population.

The desirable dress style of the Gangnam station area reflects the modern mood of the neighborhood and it is named “Gangnam style” or “Gangnam station style.” Gangnam style is chic, sophisticated, modern, intellectual, and tidy. Its goal is to achieve a fashionable look that communicates “effortlessness,” as if the wearer has a natural or innate sense of good taste and style that does not require much effort. For example, the wearing of neutral color outfits with colorful, trendy accessories is one way to achieve this look. A straight-cut coat better describes Gangnam style than a leopard-print fur coat.

The character is not only defined by chic casual wear, but also luxuriousness. Gangnam style is often completed with luxury brand handbags or shoes. Because it is so easy to spot women with high-end brand handbags in the Gangnam station area (although no one may be able to tell if the bag is authentic or counterfeit), people have given a ridiculous nickname to a particular high-end handbag: the Louis Vuitton Monogram Speedy bag (which costs over $1,000), calling it a “three-second bag.” This title refers to the huge popularity of the bag, which can easily be seen every three seconds in this part of Seoul. Another nickname for this bag is “Jiyoung-e bag,” referring to a common female name in South Korea, Jiyoung.

A girl in an all-black outfit in Gangnam, consisting of a jacket made of a drapey fabric, with rolled-up sleeves, and a pair of trendy skinny jeans. Achieving a stylish, yet natural look—as if one did not have to try hard to achieve the style—is the goal. Keeping one’s style simple and polished is desirable; a high-quality dark jacket better describes Gangnam style than a leopard-printed fur coat.Photograph by Miyelle Karmi, me-elle-you.com, October 2012, Seoul, South Korea.

Cheongdam Style

Cheongdam style, or Cheongdam-dong style, is the desirable style of the most luxurious neighborhood in the southern part of Seoul, Cheongdam-dong. Cheongdam-dong can be compared to Tokyo’s Ginza or Beverly Hills in California. Premium restaurants, cafés, upscale boutiques, flagship stores of luxury designer brands, and boutiques for a first-class lifestyle line the streets. In addition, galleries, cosmetic surgery offices, and the headquarters of entertainment management agencies collectively contribute to the upscale, trendy atmosphere of Cheongdam-dong. The Cheongdam-dong area links to Apgujeong-dong, which is also considered a luxury fashion mecca. Apgujeong-dong, particularly Apgujeong Rodeo Street, attracts young people in their teens and twenties, while Cheongdam-dong draws a slightly older crowd for socializing, often in fine dining establishments, or a getting a facial massage at a beauty salon.

Cheongdam style captures the essence of elegant luxuriousness. The term is often used to describe women’s appearance, while other regional style titles can be applied to men’s style. The “Cheongdam-dong daughter-in-law look” is another term used to describe the refined style of Cheongdam, referring to the dress of women who are married to the plutocrats, the upper-class families. The look is wealthy, high-end, luxurious, high quality, classic, elegant, and dignified. Since a graceful, luxurious look is desirable, knee-length pencil skirts are more appropriate than trendy miniskirts. A slim-fit, H-line dress with a tweed jacket better illustrates Cheongdam style than a tight, body-conscious dress with a deep slit. In Cheongdam, women are more likely to wear refined designer clothing than showy luxury items with obvious logos. Natural makeup that highlights smooth skin is desirable, which indicates a healthy lifestyle and accessibility to frequent skincare treatments. Because Cheongdam style is so desirable, many online shopping malls advertise that they carry it in their stores.

Hongdae Style

Hongdae style is distinctively different from that of Gangnam or Cheongdam. “Hongdae” is an abbreviation for Hongik University. The Hongdae area refers to the college town neighborhood in Mapo-gu, a northern part of Seoul, near Hongik University, which specializes in art education. The campus area has developed as a unique cultural area for young artists. Street culture in the Hongdae area has thrived since the early 1990s, yet the use of the term “Hongdae style” to refer to the collective neighborhood style only started in the mid-2000s. Many independent bands perform at the live music venues in the area. These include punk rock clubs, techno music clubs, and several other bars. The annual street art exhibition held by young artists at Hongik University has also contributed to the unique artistic culture of the neighborhood. A flea market takes place every Saturday, where students and artists display and sell their handmade crafts. Every day and night, the streets of Hongdae come alive with energetic street performers, festivals, graffiti, and surging young crowds.

Exhibiting the spirit of the Hongdae neighborhood as a center for underground cultures and freedom of self-expression, the unique dress tastes seem appropriate for the area. Hongdae style reflects creativity, individuality, personality, and uniqueness; it is energetic, full of character, bold, and wild. Mixing individuality with current fashion trends is the predominant and distinctive characteristic of Hongdae style, unlike Gangnam or Cheongdam, where the focus is on classic or more established styles. Luxury brand items are not necessary to complete the Hongdae look: do-it-yourself items often show up on the streets. Tattoos are welcome, even though tattoo parlors are illegal in South Korea. Casual wear is more prevalent than formal clothing. For women, both heavy, bold makeup and minimal or nonexistent makeup are accepted as consistent with the desired Hongdae look. It is also not surprising to see men wearing light makeup and nail polish.

Itaewon Style

Itaewon, located in the northern part of Seoul, is a popular and culturally diverse area. It evolved from a small souvenir shopping area for U.S. military personnel in the 1950s to a major attraction for tourists and foreigners as well as Koreans. Itaewon is known for its numerous restaurants serving international cuisine, pubs, bars, clubs, and various stores offering everything from custom-made suits and imported ready-to-wear clothing to high-quality leather products and antiques. In recognition of Itaewon’s cultural diversity and popularity with tourists, retail stores have multilingual signs and the counterfeit market is huge. Another distinctive feature of Itaewon is its active LGBTQ social scene.

A couple holding colorful skateboards in the Hongdae area. The young man wears a graphic T-shirt and sneakers in a matching color. The young woman’s hair is dyed blue and carefully styled. Hongdae style is characterized by energetic creativity, reflecting the artistic spirit of the neighborhood.Photography by Sol-Sol, sol-sol-street.tumblr.com, September 2013, Seoul, South Korea.

Because the Itaewon area is a multicultural district, it is a place where people can truly show their unique identity through dress; there is no standardized style and no one way of appearing. Itaewon’s style is one of freedom: it is diverse, liberal, tolerant, and unrestrained. While Hongdae style contains artistic creativeness, in Itaewon, all types of dress style are acceptable, from the fashion-apathetic look (clothing that reflects indifference toward trends or style) to drag queen style. Revealing styles of dress (such as low-cut, cleavage-showing tops), while considered embarrassing and disgraceful in other areas of Seoul, are welcomed here.

Categorization of Fashion Styles

Before the 1990s, even though there were districts that were popular among young people (Myeong-dong, Sinchon), distinctive fashion styles associated with each region had not yet emerged. Accordingly, no implicit or explicit categorizations for regional fashion styles were established. The mid-1990s was the beginning of a period in which defined regional fashion styles developed, taking the name of each particular area. Similar to the concept that different occasions each have an appropriate dress code, young people in Seoul know the particular regional fashion images and dress according to where they live, work, or spend their leisure time. A decade later, new places for local culture were continually evolving but many had not yet developed a clearly demarcated fashion image, one that succinctly expressed the lifestyles and values of its residents. Garosu-gil at Sinsa-dong is emerging as a new boomtown for youth and it is becoming a fashion district, but the term and standards for a Garosu-gil style have not appeared.

The Korean fashion media continuously investigates youth street fashion and informs young people how to dress properly for the individual regions. It provides tips about how to stand out while staying within the unwritten parameters of any particular regional fashion category. The influence of street style is often seen on television series, where certain characters gain popularity for outfits that are categorized by certain regional fashion styles. Shopping malls use these same categorizations to communicate their store’s identity and promote sales. The regional style a person wears not only shows where he or she spends their time but also to some degree communicates their personality. Young people may describe individuals using these categorizations: if someone is called a Gangnam-style person, that person is probably smartly dressed, owns some brand-name items, and is concerned about their socioeconomic status.

The formation of regional fashion style may be understood as part of the collectivistic culture of Koreans. As a collectivistic culture that values conformation within a group, the social context (for example, regional culture, including dress style) provides important cues about how to dress and behave as a group member. Of course, there are some individuals who do not conform to a dress style in accordance with a regional fashion style. For this lack of conformity, there are several potential explanations. Possibly they are simply indifferent to fashion or they intentionally reject being labeled and placed into distinct categories. Despite this, however, there are shared images of style in each region and the young people in each area know the meanings and images of each style.

There is no guarantee that the residents of Seoul will continue to keep these distinctive regional, metropolitan fashion styles. Since the formation of these regional fashion styles is part of a greater social evolution, the processes through which they emerge and change can be investigated within a variety of theoretical frameworks, which attempt to explain how particular cultural expressions (for example, modernization theory explains that economic growth leads to a rise of individualism, which may result in no collective fashion categorization) are part of the overall cultural, economic, and social development of Seoul.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Choi Minwoo, and Hyeckjae Guan. “There Is Gangnam Gangbuk in School Uniform.” Joongang Daily, 21 May 2006.

Find in Library Ha Jisoo. ““Significance of Changing Korean Youth Subculture Styles”.” Asian Culture and History 3, no. 1 (2011): 23–30.

History of Myungdong.” Myungdong.net, n.d. http://www.myungdong.net/history.html.

Kang Seongmin. “When ‘Hip-Hop Fashion’ Is Popular in Gangnam, in Gangbuk ….” Joongang Daily, 1 November 2012.

Find in Library Kim Eundeok, and Jane Farrell-Beck. ““Fashion in Context: Apparel Styles Worn by Young Women in the United States and South Korea in the 1970s”.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 23, no. 3 (2005): 180–202.

Find in Library Kim Hyunkyong, and Inseong Lee. ““A Study on the Club Fashion Styles for Designing Clubber Fashion—Focusing on the Hongdae and Kangnam Club Areas”.” The Research Journal of the Costume Culture 18, no. 4 (2010): 626–639.

Find in Library Lee Young-Jae. ““The Analysis and Preference of Contemporary Street Fashion—Comparative Analysis of Kangnam and Kangbuk”.” Journal of the Korean Society of Costume 53, no. 2 (2003): 87–100.

Moon Jaeyoon. “Chapter 1: 1960s to 1990s.” Trend Backstage, 11 December 2013. http://cft.or.kr/sub/?num=646.

Moon Jaeyoon. “Chapter 2: 2000s.” Trend Backstage, 11 December 2013. http://cft.or.kr/sub/?num=647.

Moon Jaeyoon. “Chapter 3: 2010s.” Trend Backstage, 11 December 2013. http://cft.or.kr/sub/?num=648.

No Chung-guk, et al. SEOUL: A Journey Through 2000 Years of History. Seoul, Korea: City History Compilation Committee of Seoul, 2009. http://ebook.seoul.go.kr/Viewer/DU0AT3KOEFYW/.

Find in Library Park Judy. ““Do School Uniforms Lead to Uniform Minds?: School Uniforms and Appearance Restrictions in Korean Middle Schools and High Schools”.” Fashion Theory 17, no. 2 (2013): 159–178.

Seoul Metropolitan Government. “From the Third Republic to the Present.” http://www.seoul.go.kr/v2012/seoul/review/general/now.html.

See also Overview of Korea: Modern; Overview of Korea: Traditional