Defining the Mean, Median, and Mode of Korean Street Fashion

OK. It's pretty simple math, Bob:

The "mean" is the "average" you're used to, where you add up all the numbers and then divide by the number of numbers. The "median" is the "middle" value in the list of numbers. To find the median, your numbers have to be listed in numerical order from smallest to largest, so you may have to rewrite your list before you can find the median. The "mode" is the value that occurs most often. If no number in the list is repeated, then there is no mode for the list. [SOURCE]

It's middle school math applied to the process of choosing subjects to represent the totality of Korean social (and sartorial) reality. Because documenting the Korean street fashion culture is essentially ethnography, and faces the same set of bias/sampling concerns that sociologists face. Because -- GASP -- it is essentially sociology you're doing if you're doing ethnographic portraiture, which is essentially what true street fashion photographers who grab people in the wild, are doing. 

But obviously, the ethnographic pursuit of taking people off the streets who just happen to be there is not a mathematical one; but we can take conceptual cues from math to understand what we're doing. 

First of all, the mean is pretty much the average, within a given set of values, say the people you can see on the street. But how do you take the average in the social sense? It's hard. But here's one thing I do know:

Not average people. 

Not average people. 

These people do not look like the average person on the Korean street, in a socially normal place, from most coffee shops or even universities, or in neighborhoods as fairly mundane as Jongno all the way down to Gangnam, or even Hongdae -- if you just stand there and look at ALL people passing by. They are simply not in the majority. I think if we take the mathematical metaphor further, we can agree that these people occupy a "higher" place in the hierarchy of the ideas of "fashionable" or "interesting." They're not in the majority. Most people don't dress this way -- anywhere. Common social sense tells us that these people are outliers, statistically speaking. And they're outliers on the upper end of the sartorial hierarchy. 

And there's a selection issue here. In that they're not statistically representative, such subjects are surely possessed of some kind of specialness  that make them interesting as examples of Korean street fashion, right? Well, since I chose these subjects, I'll explain my logic thusly: 

  1. First, they're wearing trend items that occur (to my knowledge) in higher frequency in Korea, and/or are produced in Korea.
  2. Secondly, they're (subjectively and aethetically speaking) interesting and colorful pieces of clothing that define (often by slightly breaking) Korean social norms of dress and even gender, which I think says something about Korean society in general. 
  3. Thirdly, they're willing to pose, since they're a self-selecting group of people whom many would call "paepi" (portmanteau word for "fashion people" in Korean pronunciation of the English words) who generally want to be photographed. 

So, inevitably, if you want to know what Korean people are actually wearing, and possibly why, or even what it all means, you have to think about the selection bias of the investigator. And that goes not only for weird academics like me who look at street fashion as an inherently social, communicative series of acts,  but at all the other investigators in the field, who themselves are often engaged in carrying out their own quite specific agendas (e.g. showing the "best" street fashion in Korea or proving how "good" Korean street fashion is now vis a vis comparisons to other countries' putative street fashions).  But no matter where you place the investigator's interests or agendas, I think we can agree that anyone representing the man pictured below as representative of what most Korean men are wearing is pulling a fast one:

Or this wonderfully dressed and singularly confident young woman:

While these two subjects are wonderful in their choice of clothing and their overall, respective aesthetics, and are actually quite amazingly focused models in their own rights, this all makes them pretty damn socially unusual.  Not in a bad way, but in a statistical one. 

And yes, their sartorial and aesthetic choices do tell us something about Korea. Even though the girl is actually Japanese. Take the girl, for example. She's wearing fashion items that are all, on the individual level, from the fishnet stockings worn outside and above the pantsline, the large choker that references punk or possibly S&M culture edginess, and the black leather jacket, popular items on the Korean street today -- so what she's wearing occurs in high frequency within a certain group of people whom many call paepi. In that sense, I thought her important to catch, since her particular set of items define a pretty high frequency, the mode, of these items (values) appearing in the population. When it comes to the dude, his choice of white-on-white suit is almost unheard of in real life, on anyone, of nearly any stripe, in nearly any social situation. But his suit was indicative to me of a type of attitude (swagger) that itself could be described as a (male) Korean trait. It's an example of something I as the investigator am arguing to be representative of a certain, gendered, Korean social trait. But here, I am tipping the scales in a very subjective way since the pattern of consuming and displaying certain specific fashion items does not happen for men in Korea in quite the same way as it does for women (e.g. very specific types/colors/styles of shoes, or other accessories such as skirts, hats, or purses) and to the extent that I think there is much more relative freedom for men in Korea to dress as they choose, this can also be a burden. in that the requirement to possess certain items means that the inherent structuring of their sartorial choices means too much to think about and can be a pain. In any case, my choice of the man had a completely different logic than the woman and reflects my choice to simply include men in my examples since I tend to think in terms of frequency when it comes to choosing subjects. But before this post goes too far off in this direction, let me steer things back to the question of averages.

Socially and sartorially speaking, I don't think it's hard to argue that this is a good example of a well-dressed, average Korean woman. And again, I don't mean average in the loaded, value judgment sense of the word, but rather as a person who doesn't define the high extreme of the range of sartorial option in terms of social unusualness. Nor would, I think, she be arguably able to be described as low on the scale of sartorial extremes, taking formality or usualness as defining the scale.

But I think we can identify the problem with street fashion as a practice of ethnographic, visual investigation. By choosing subjects that generally appear in certain places that themselves are quite special, peculiar social spaces, we are often taking the most statistcally non-representative members of the population and assigning them more weight in specific ways that are functions of a specific, overall agenda. Which isn't necessarily a problem, but let's at least think about the agendas that most affect what it is we think we know -- and are representing  -- as Korean social and sartorial reality. 

See, my project as an academic and a photographer (visual ethnographer) is "keeping it real." Of course, as I have other, more journalistic agendas, my focus may shift, but I generally try to keep to the goal of trying to look at clothing not as objects of interest in and of themselves, which I think leads to the same mistake of fetishizing the clothing as material objects and engaging in the same consumptive relationship with them as the subjects I study. If I am in the thrall of the same Warenfetischismus ("commodity fetishism") as my subjects, and was simply using my camera as my way of engaging with clothing, I'd have no critical distance from the subject such that I could see the forest for the trees anymore. 

And that's the big point -- knowing where you are, the limitations (and imperatives) of one's agenda, which allows one to bound the nature of one's claims and assumptions while asking more interesting questions. And getting more interesting subjects. Oh, and knowing how to think of them when you do have them. 

In this case, I knew the field well enough to take someone who superficially looked fairly conservative and much like the young lady whose picture opened this post, but had marked herself as possessed of enough socio-sartorial transgressiveness that her example could be the center of quite an interesting conversation about social expressiveness, gender norms, and sexuality. When taken to the next level of a semi/unstructured ethnographic interview, that's when a lot of interesting things came into view, including the name of the fashion trend item itself.

This is how I used my coup d'œil, or knowledge of the terrain,  to zoom in on useful ethnographic data,  around things I want to know about, namely the boundaries of the definition of the paepi, the changing terrain of street fashion culture, and even how some of the younger generation even defines itself and some of its norms.