Korean Street Fashion Editorial: Spring Sogaeting with Cherry Blossoms

The Golden Mean
Too often, fashion editorials focus on only one extreme of aesthetic reality, namely the tallest, the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest -- all statistical outliers. But there's a very large middle range of height, style, and level of social normalcy. So we decided to do a concept on a look that really defines the dead center of a the  relatively conservative Korean women's fashion code. This idea comes from Korean comments that a lot of the paepi fashion and photographs of them are pleasant thought pieces but are so far removed from many people's sartorial and social reality that the subjects don't even seem Korean.

Which is a very Korean thing to say. But there's something to that idea. What can street fashion photography tell us about Korean culture? And to  take this line of thinking even further, what is even particularly Korean about Korean street fashion, if it's not all particularly Korean material, patterns, or even brand that we are looking at? Does this mean theonly true Korean fashion is the traditional hanbok? What is Korean fashion, really? This is the crux of the existential problem with street fashion of any kind, especially if we are looking at fashion as a window towards understanding culture. This was exactly the problem when world-reknowned street photographer Scott Schumann visited Seoul several years ago and took some shots of "Korean" street fashion. 

Herein lies the problem. This picture of a dapper and debonair gent peacocking around Gangnam is certainly fashionable and great to look at, but he is as much an outlier case in Korean society as he would be in any and many other countries. He's not representative case of what anything approaching how any kind of majority of Korean dress, no matter how broadly dressing "well" is defined, which makes him have much more in common with kindred spirits in London, Berlin, New York, Rome, or LA. What many street fashion photographers across the planet are actually documenting is an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman's much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea -- the Korean fashion field, actually -- had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal since the days when former president Kim Youngsam's new segyehwa policy seemed like an overly hopeful pipe dream. 

Herein lies the problem. This picture of a dapper and debonair gent peacocking around Gangnam is certainly fashionable and great to look at, but he is as much an outlier case in Korean society as he would be in any and many other countries. He's not representative case of what anything approaching how any kind of majority of Korean dress, no matter how broadly dressing "well" is defined, which makes him have much more in common with kindred spirits in London, Berlin, New York, Rome, or LA. What many street fashion photographers across the planet are actually documenting is an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman's much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea -- the Korean fashion field, actually -- had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal since the days when former president Kim Youngsam's new segyehwa policy seemed like an overly hopeful pipe dream. 

Power, Politics, and Sadaejuui
What Scott Schumann surely didn't know about Korean culture was that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking were responsible for the extremely warm welcome he was given in a country where most everyday folks and fashion civilians had barely even heard of him. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 andofficially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial  relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justifieda and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do themwas not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power. 

The "Global Fetish"
And yes, Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid. And it was within that general historiopsychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national deveopment took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, many Koreans like to conveniently forget), while that development process founf internal validation through external markers. Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself. 

Fashion Control Groups
Hopefully, the way in which Korean street fashion is evolving in relation to the increasing international attention it enjoys should be much clearer, along with the understanding of the cultural context in which Schuman did his first work in Korea, the reception it received, and why. And hopefully, it should be clearer why identifying the KOREA in Korean street fashion photography is increasingly problematic, especially when understood within the context of how the qestion of identifying the specific and the local within a larger entity that is becoming increasingly popular by virtue of its universal appeal -- should be easier to understand. Where is the local in an entity whose popularity mostly comes from its globality? Where is the specific, the Koreanness, within an aesthetic system whose very logic and language is expressed in universal terms? Whhat I find fascinating about understanding culture through fashion in Korea is looking at aspects of Korean fashion culture that have remained essentially unchanged for decades and are largely unaffected by greater global changes in preferences, or even by many more fleeting, specific trends; certain looks and genres of clothing are like the control group in an experiment, the constant, common factor that helps place into sharp relief that thing that you're looking for. If one is concerned with Korean fashion, one has to think about this control group, the pure and unchanging Korean fashion points and what they indicate. 

This look, in it's social innocuousness, its demureness (shoulders MUST be covered!), and its sheer, unabashed femininity, is oh, so Korean.

This look, in it's social innocuousness, its demureness (shoulders MUST be covered!), and its sheer, unabashed femininity, is oh, so Korean.

But there's a quiet charm to the girl waiting on her date under the cherry blossom tree. And it comes through despite even the thick stockings, and real fear of looking improper without something to cover her bare shoulders. Change the angle, you might catch a different nuance to the message that's being conveyed in the communicative act of fashion consumption.

But there's a quiet charm to the girl waiting on her date under the cherry blossom tree. And it comes through despite even the thick stockings, and real fear of looking improper without something to cover her bare shoulders. Change the angle, you might catch a different nuance to the message that's being conveyed in the communicative act of fashion consumption.

So I had the idea to bring the content, and not just the aesthetic, into the realm of the everyday, with the cliched concept of a photo shoot with cherry blossoms, which is something lots of Korean women want to do around this time of year. But with a specific hook. "Sogaeting (blind date) in Spring." A blindingly normal and desperately nice young lady waiting on her blind date partner, who doesn't seem to be coming anytime soon -- Korean dating culture is rife with stories of people who show up to a blind date only to be scoped out and categorically dismissed from a distance, at which point the dastardly date in question does a disappearing act resulting in a no-show from the point-of-view of the hapless, lonely soul who politely waits far past the appointed meeting time. 

Even nice (chakhan) Ji-hyun starts to wonder if something's amiss...

Even nice (chakhan) Ji-hyun starts to wonder if something's amiss...

News of her fate seems positive, as a non-committal message chalks the lateness up to traffic...

News of her fate seems positive, as a non-committal message chalks the lateness up to traffic...

And what might a Korean girl do with all this extra time? Selfie!

And what might a Korean girl do with all this extra time? Selfie!

SELCA (SELf CAmera/"Selfie") by Ji-hyeon (Charlene) KWON

SELCA (SELf CAmera/"Selfie") by Ji-hyeon (Charlene) KWON

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Time to kill? Strike a pose!

Time to kill? Strike a pose!

Don't think this guy is coming...

Don't think this guy is coming...

So, one must make the most of a little cherry blossom find in the middle of the city, even iff it has to be enjoyed alone. 

So, one must make the most of a little cherry blossom find in the middle of the city, even iff it has to be enjoyed alone. 

Whutchagunnado? Life gives you lemons, time to serve up some lemonade. Might as well enjoy the moment!

Whutchagunnado? Life gives you lemons, time to serve up some lemonade. Might as well enjoy the moment!

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MODEL: Ji-hyun (Charlene) KWON

STYLING: Ji-hyun (Charlene) KWON (green dress), Saet-byeol HONG (white sweater) Michael Hurt (stockings and shoes)

BRANDS: All clothing were non-brand items.

HAIR AND MAKEUP: Saet-byeol HONG

PHOTO ASSIST: Saet-byeol HONG

LOCATION: A set of benches around a cherry blossom tree outside of Samgakji Station, Exit 11