Seoul's Hyperreality, Street Fashion Culture and "Flexible Sociality" as Amplified by the Parametric Multi-modality of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza

An Alien, Parametric Space

Before 2012, the creation and construction of the DDP complex was heavily (and correctly) criticized as a project as motivated purely out of the desire to construct an object of Dubordian Spectacle. (Yun) However, the proof in the theorital pudding that was the DDP megastructure  project, as the prototype and proving ground for Zaha Hadid's heavily theoretical and aspirational new conception of "Parametricism 2.0" (Schumacher), would be found in the burgeoning street fashion culture that was the result of several aspects of Seoul's unique infrastructural and cultural backdrop. Firstly, the burgeoning street fashion culture was clustered (and limited by) the rigidity of a Seoul Fashion Week event that was housed mostly at SETEC and other places, when the so-called paepi could barely find form as a nigh-subculture. The paepi, while SFW was at SETEC, were literal outsiders to the formal fashion field. But when SFW became permanently housed at DDP,  the "multi-modality" (Schumacher) enabled by its Parametricist features allowed the nascent paepi subculture to explode like gasoline thrown onto an open flame when the DDP opened in 2012. When analyzed against the fact of Seoul's already extant "flexible sociality" (Cho), the DDP ended up being a perfect fit with the city of Seoul and its urban(e) cultures, especially as it became both a spatial link to and staging ground for the cultural manifestations of the  industrial infrastructures of the Dongdaemun textile complex. The flowering of the paepi is only the first success case and example, and only the initial fruit of the fortuitous convergence of Seoul's inherent flexible sociality and the multi-modality of the space inside, outside, within, and around the DDP. (277 words)

KEYWORDS: DDP, paepi, street fashion, Dongdaemun, flexible sociality, Parametricism, Seoul Fashion Week

 

By Eugene Lim [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Eugene Lim [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First Things First
I was the first "street fashion" photographer in Korea, with a body of work of clothing-oriented ethnographic portraiture that stretches back to 2006, shooting Seoul Fashion Week "paepi" (플) since late 2007. So, I've been doing ethnographic research on the paepi for more than a decade and was already documenting them when their culture exploded with the opening of the DDP in 2012. Before that, their socio-sartorial energy was relegated to the periphery of the fashion field, and literally and figuratively speaking, to the parking lot of the socio-spatial map of the fashion field as symbolised during important events such as Seoul Fashion Week.

Background of the Paper
During my class on Hallyu Marketing, I had asked the question of how the Dongdaemun Design Plaza building itself worked to define a particular, peculiar kind of social space for the street fashion scene during Seoul Fashion Week. And it occcured to me that one factor in the explosion of the street fashion scene at DDP after it opened in 2012 was the way the nature of the structure itself set the tone for a new kind of social/sartorial culture, bounded spatially by the “alien” structure of the "spaceship" and temporally by the SFW event itself. In short, the conditions of the fashion field shifted, as the DDP helped the paepi rewrite their position on the map of the fashion field even as the paepi changed the very meaning and relative position/power of the main players in that field – high fashion designers and their runway shows – and it is my contention that the relative positions of those formerly at the top and bottom of the field in terms of position and power, high fashion designers on the deep inside and the paepi street fashion “kids” at the periphery, has switched completely. The paepi, helped by the alien spatiality of the DDP, have flipped the field. 

Much ado has been made about the "alienness" of the DDP structure. From "Embracing the Alien Spaceship" in the Korea Herald to the same spacey sentiment being echoed by CNN Travel and The Korea Times, and even received a (literal) sendup video put together by what appears to be some Arirang TV folks in their spare time. 

   In short, the association with aliens was clear and immediate, and initially set off alarm bells around a long, publicly funded project that had been fraught with construction issues, clashing political agendas among myriad actors, and the jarring, sheer alienness of a structure that was a monument to Parametricism and quite likely a milestone in the future of architecture and human relationships to the built environment, but in that very way, was just plain strange.  But it is that very strangeness of the building that I'd like to explore here, as my observations of the street fashion culture at Seoul Fashion Week since it opened the building in 2012 have indicated that the strangeness of the building is what imbued the space it physically defines with a different, broader range of social options and actions that was very un-Korean and enabled a certain kind of social and sartorial freedom to thrive – a place where Seoul’s “flexible sociality” was amplified by the building’s “multi-modal” design imperative. The "spaceship” is surrounded and filled with a "force field" of social and sartorial openness with a power generated by the twice yearly Seoul fashion Week event. The SFW event permanently held twice a year at the DDP defines a unique place in social spacetime in which all bets and restrictive social norms are off, and provide a social cover under which the social "freaks" do indeed feel free to "come out", to use the words of the old Whodini standard. 

Check. 

Check. 

The flowering of the practice of street fashion photography at DDP is elegant "proof" of the intended concepts behind the building's construction. 

The flowering of the practice of street fashion photography at DDP is elegant "proof" of the intended concepts behind the building's construction. 

 

Developing the Aesthetic of Seoul's Hyperreality

As a photographer, I had the goal of creating a lookbook (done in tandem with Korea Fashion News/섬유신문) that 1) addresses the nature of DDP during SFW as an un-Korean space for social aliens, and 2) provides an aesthetic match for the documentation of DDP during SFW as a space of Hyperreality, and 3) offers an aesthetic and stylistic consistency between the pictures in the collection as a lookbook.

The beginning of a lookbook for Seoul Street Fashion Week that captures the textually hybrid and heavily remixed look of Seoul's hypermodern  paepi .

The beginning of a lookbook for Seoul Street Fashion Week that captures the textually hybrid and heavily remixed look of Seoul's hypermodern paepi.

This hypermodern aesthetic is characterized by: 

  1. Heavily mediated reality. Instagram filters, frames, everything. All aspects of the images' initial mediation -- from filters and frames and exposure fixes -- are included as a part of the final image. It's as important as the initial moment of imagemaking itself. 
  2. Spatial and social layering. The images should ideally match the idea of showing the subject in relation to "a space of simultaneity" in which layers of space and spaces of social action are visible, in the way that the unique conception and  construction of the building encourage flow, and the use of the spaces that have no delineated end or beginning, inside or outside, in which "each space is made unique and memorable in its articulation, albeit without fragmenting the overall aesthetic" Photographically, this means a sense of layers and separations between elements and actors, yet they are unified within the frame, without a feeling of discrete separation between them, in the way the building structure allows for the unique kind of relationship and type of social interaction the building was designed to engender.
  3. Surreal affect. A "flashy," commercial, unreal look.
  4. Close-up, direct portraiture. The eyeline of the subject goes directly into the lens and the gazer. It's a direct, intimate connection that anchors what is obviously the central element and offers a point of direct communication with the viewer. 

Two Prongs of Investigation

  1. Documenting an extant culture of Hyperreality with the proper tools, along with written theory, as an academic paper utilizing standard academic tools such as recorded audio interviews. 
  2. An expression of Hyperreality through heavily mediated, aesthetically enhanced Visuals as a commercially viable Lookbook. 

 

Dual sets of spatial and social layers are brought together in this image, in which an open sky stands in sharp contrast to multiple foregrounds composed of concete and steel. The exposure itself utilizes an indoor studio flash unit outdoors and exposes almost to the point of whiteout, but underexposes the sky to accentuate the stormy weather that was indeed fast developing. The social layering of the young, colorful, bright, and shiny Korean youth popped out against a seemingly older, more conservative woman of the Islamic faith looking upon the subject with a mix of surprise and slight disdain is also interesting, and also includes a binary opposition of the subject engaged in an intimate, one-on-one photographic interaction in a public place, against a line of passersby. All the while giving the Janet Lynn/Japanese "V"-sign of extreme optimism while wearing a lavender, ladylike choker/bowtie atop a Madonna-originated "Like a Virgin" meme witten in gaudy, jarringly jagged script that seems to go against the mood of the gesture and its bearer. 

Dual sets of spatial and social layers are brought together in this image, in which an open sky stands in sharp contrast to multiple foregrounds composed of concete and steel. The exposure itself utilizes an indoor studio flash unit outdoors and exposes almost to the point of whiteout, but underexposes the sky to accentuate the stormy weather that was indeed fast developing. The social layering of the young, colorful, bright, and shiny Korean youth popped out against a seemingly older, more conservative woman of the Islamic faith looking upon the subject with a mix of surprise and slight disdain is also interesting, and also includes a binary opposition of the subject engaged in an intimate, one-on-one photographic interaction in a public place, against a line of passersby. All the while giving the Janet Lynn/Japanese "V"-sign of extreme optimism while wearing a lavender, ladylike choker/bowtie atop a Madonna-originated "Like a Virgin" meme witten in gaudy, jarringly jagged script that seems to go against the mood of the gesture and its bearer. 

As a structure designedas the pinnacle of Parametricism, a design principle thatcan function as "an interface for multi-modal communication" and integrates interior and exterior, inside and outside, natural and synthetic, land and sky, green and city space, and even light vs. dark, this is one of the only places in the city where one can shoot with these binaries all displayed in their stark oppositions within a single frame, especially as this is framed by the structure itself, which is designed to encourage social uses as mixed as the spaces themselves refuse to delineate themselves from one another. This mixture -- or lack of strict, traditional, spatial delineation-- is perhaps also that which is alien and in fact fits in with a certain community of social users who are themselves very much caught up in a cuolture whose very currency is that of the kind of free-form semiotic remixing and blending inherent to the Hypermodernity they both define and inhabit.  

As a structure designedas the pinnacle of Parametricism, a design principle thatcan function as "an interface for multi-modal communication" and integrates interior and exterior, inside and outside, natural and synthetic, land and sky, green and city space, and even light vs. dark, this is one of the only places in the city where one can shoot with these binaries all displayed in their stark oppositions within a single frame, especially as this is framed by the structure itself, which is designed to encourage social uses as mixed as the spaces themselves refuse to delineate themselves from one another. This mixture -- or lack of strict, traditional, spatial delineation-- is perhaps also that which is alien and in fact fits in with a certain community of social users who are themselves very much caught up in a cuolture whose very currency is that of the kind of free-form semiotic remixing and blending inherent to the Hypermodernity they both define and inhabit.  

I am often questioned, with varying degrees of suspicion and even anger, why I shoot from a low angle. I usually answer on one or more levels of depth, depending on how pointed the inquiry is and how charitable I feel. The obvious, practical answer is that it makes the legs look longer and hence the subject taller, with the head appearing smaller (something that Korean women generally like) and the subject generally looking grand and gigantic against the structures with which she appears. Simply put, the subject looks not only better to the subject herself, but becomes an object similar to the buildings she is set off against. And in a structure like the DDP, this makes the human subject into something of a stature as grand in scale as the built structure. On a slightly more analytical level, the lower camera angle (with a wide-angle lens) allows for a lot more elements to be placed in the frame. In the case of this picture, lining up the subject, the building, the flags, the other people, the sky, and even the drone that had buzzed in to spy on us all within the same frame was the only thing that made such a thing possible. On the level of architectural analysis, it makes sense to place the human subject in the frame with the low/wide angle because the scale of the human subject grows to the point it can enter into a binary with the immense structures around it, in a way that doesn't figuratively put built structures into a mere background. It compresses foreground and background in an artificial, yet aesthetically useful way to placing humans into an active relationship with the built environments in which they are pictured. 

I am often questioned, with varying degrees of suspicion and even anger, why I shoot from a low angle. I usually answer on one or more levels of depth, depending on how pointed the inquiry is and how charitable I feel. The obvious, practical answer is that it makes the legs look longer and hence the subject taller, with the head appearing smaller (something that Korean women generally like) and the subject generally looking grand and gigantic against the structures with which she appears. Simply put, the subject looks not only better to the subject herself, but becomes an object similar to the buildings she is set off against. And in a structure like the DDP, this makes the human subject into something of a stature as grand in scale as the built structure. On a slightly more analytical level, the lower camera angle (with a wide-angle lens) allows for a lot more elements to be placed in the frame. In the case of this picture, lining up the subject, the building, the flags, the other people, the sky, and even the drone that had buzzed in to spy on us all within the same frame was the only thing that made such a thing possible. On the level of architectural analysis, it makes sense to place the human subject in the frame with the low/wide angle because the scale of the human subject grows to the point it can enter into a binary with the immense structures around it, in a way that doesn't figuratively put built structures into a mere background. It compresses foreground and background in an artificial, yet aesthetically useful way to placing humans into an active relationship with the built environments in which they are pictured. 

Here are some theoretical strings I've found that seem to be worth pulling, some possible points of attaching good theoretical handles to this whole thing. 

it's an old article about "flexible sociality" of Seoul's public spaces, and despite the age of its references, you could stick in a reference to PSY's 2012 "Gangnam Style" here without skipping a beat. Given how much has changed since 1999, that's pretty impressive. 

it's an old article about "flexible sociality" of Seoul's public spaces, and despite the age of its references, you could stick in a reference to PSY's 2012 "Gangnam Style" here without skipping a beat. Given how much has changed since 1999, that's pretty impressive. 

Also worthy of consideration is the idea of consuming alienness itself, or difference itself. Of particular interest in the interview and interactions I've had was the idea of differently alien spaces in the trendy Itaewon/Kyeongnidan/Haebangchon are being "exotic" (이국적인) places overflowing with a feeling of "freedom."(자유) Here are a couple of the representative interview/interaction/portraits. It remains to be seen if I'm going to tie this into the DDP Alien structure idea or spin it off as another paper unto itself. 

 

Working Bibliography 

Architects, Zaha Hadid. 2013. “ARTICULATION,” 44–51.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. Routledge. Vol. 36. doi:10.1177/0306312706056409.

Cho, Myung-rae. n.d. “Flexible Sociality and the Postmodernity of Seoul.”

Collection, Proquest Scitech. 2014. “Blend of Design , Art and Technology ...”

For. 2012. “Report Information from ProQuest.” Organization Development Journal, no. April. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17506200710779521.

Goffman, Erving. 1975. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Life as Theater. doi:10.2307/258197.

Hwang, Jin Tae. 2014. “Territorialized Urban Mega-Projects beyond Global Convergence: The Case of Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park Project, Seoul.” Cities 40. Elsevier Ltd: 82–89. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2014.03.007.

Kim, Ji Youn. 2016. “Cultural Entrepreneurs and Urban Regeneration in Itaewon, Seoul.” Cities 56: 132–40. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2015.11.021.

Kim, Ji Youn. 2014. “COMMUNITY OF STRANGERS: ITAEWON FROM ‘AMERICANIZED’ GHETTO TO ‘MULTICULTURAL’ SPACE.”

Križnik, Blaž. 2013. “Changing Approaches to Urban Development in South Korea.” International Development Planning Review 35 (4): 395–418. doi:10.3828/idpr.2013.27.

Leach, Neil. 2015. “(In)formational Cities.” Architectural Design 85 (6): 64–69. doi:10.1002/ad.1979.

Ryu, Chehyun, and Youngsang Kwon. 2016. “How Do Mega Projects Alter the City to Be More Sustainable? Spatial Changes Following the Seoul Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in South Korea.” Sustainability 8 (11): 1178. doi:10.3390/su8111178.

Schuetze, Thorsten, and Lorenzo Chelleri. 2016. “Urban Sustainability Versus Green-Washing-Fallacy and Reality of Urban Regeneration in Downtown Seoul.” Sustainability (Switzerland) 8 (1): 1–14. doi:10.3390/su8010033.

Schumacher, Patrik. 2016. “Parametricism 2.0: Gearing up to Impact the Global Built Environment.” Architectural Design 86 (2): 8–17. doi:10.1002/ad.2018.

Section, Long, and Zaha Hadid Architects. n.d. “A Cavernous Experience.”

Yun, Jieheerah. 2014. “Construction of the World Design Capital: Détournement of Spectacle in Dongdaemun Design Park  Plaza in Seoul.” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 13 (1): 17–24. doi:10.3130/jaabe.13.17.

Alien Architecture, Street Fashion, and the Hyperreality of the Street Fashion Scene at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza

NOTE: This is more of an intellectual bookmark than a fully developed argument. Hashing this out in public and shooting down/pumping up parts of it is part of my process for "pre-chewing" this idea before I decide to scrap it or invest more into making it into an academic paper. At the very least, it's something likely to be worthy of discussion for my university classes and could be something interesting to the right researcher/thinker/student. 

Truly Alien terrain, by H.R. Giger. 

Truly Alien terrain, by H.R. Giger. 

By Eugene Lim [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Eugene Lim [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

First Things First
I've never really written a proper Urban Studies or  Geography paper. But given what I've been noticing about the particularly peculiar space in which I have been doing ethnographic data gathering for the past five years (ten Seoul Fashion Week seasons at  the Dongdaemun Design Plaza), I felt compelled to write things up in some organized and marginally academic form. So I'm taking a crack at it and writing out my thoughts, laying them out so I can even better organize them in my head. 

Background of the Paper
During my class on Hallyu Marketing, I had asked the question of how the Dongdaemun Design Plaza building itself worked to define a particular, peculiar kind of social space for the street fashion scene during Seoul Fashion Week. And it occcured to me that one factor in the explosion of the street fashion scene at DDP after it opened in 2012 was the way the nature of the sturucture itself set the tone for a new kind of social/sartorial culture, bounded spatially by the structure  of the alien "spaceship" and temporally by the SFW event itself. Ayway, I think there's a lot to flesh out here. 

An A L I E N  Space

Much ado has been made about the alienness of the DDP structure. From "Embracing the Alien Spaceship" in the Korea Herald to the same spacey sentiment being echoed by CNN Travel and The Korea Times, and even received a (literal) sendup video put together by what appears to be some Arirang TV folks in their spare time. 

In short, the association with aliens was clear and immediate and initially set off alarm bells as a long, publicly funded project that had been fraught with construction issues, clashing political agendas among myriad actors, and the jarring, sheer alienness of a structure that was a monument to Parametricism and quite likely a milestone in the future of architecture and human relationships to the built environment, but in that very way, was just plain strange.  But it is that very strangeness of the building that I'd like to explore here, as my observations of the street fashion culture at Seoul Fashion Week since it opened the building in 2012 have told me that the strangeness of the building is what imbued the space it physically defines with a different, broader range of social options and actions that was very un-Korean and enabled a certain kind of social and sartorial freedom to thrive. The "spaceship is surrounded and filled with a "force field" of social and sartorial openness with a power generated by the twice yearly Seoul fashion Week event. The SFW event permanently held twice a year at the DDP defines a unique place in social spacetime in which all bets and restrictive social norms are off, and provide a social cover under which the social "freaks" do indeed feel free to "come out", to use the words of the old Whodini standard. 

Check. 

Check. 

And check. I'd say that the flowering of the practice of street fashion photography at DDP is elegant "proof" of the intended concepts behind the building's construction. 

And check. I'd say that the flowering of the practice of street fashion photography at DDP is elegant "proof" of the intended concepts behind the building's construction. 

 

Developing the Hypperreal Aesthetic
I had the goal of creating  a lookbook that 1) addresses the nature of DDP during SFW as an un-Korean space for social aliens, and 2) provides an aesthetic match for the documentation of DDP during SFW as a space of Hyperreality, and 3) offers an aesthetic and stylistic consistency between the pictures in the collection as a lookbook.

The beginning of a lookbook for Seoul Street Fashion Week that captures the textually hybrid and heavily remixed look of Seoul's hypermodern  paepi .

The beginning of a lookbook for Seoul Street Fashion Week that captures the textually hybrid and heavily remixed look of Seoul's hypermodern paepi.

This hypermodern aesthetic is characterized by: 

  1. Heavily mediated reality. Instagram filters, frames, everything. All aspects of the images' initial mediation -- from filters and frames and exposure fixes -- are included as a part of the final image. It's as important as the initial moment of imagemaking itself. 
  2. Spatial and social layering. The images should ideally match the idea of showing the subject in relation to "a space of simultaneity" in which layers of space and spaces of social action are visible, in the way that the unique conception and  construction of the building encourage flow, and the use of the spaces that have no delineated end or beginning, inside or outside, in which "each space is made unique and memorable in its articulation, albeit without fragmenting the overall aesthetic" Photographically, this means a sense of layers and separations between elements and actors, yet they are unified within the frame, without a feeling of discrete separation between them, in the way the building structure allows for the unique kind of relationship and type of social interaction the building was designed to engender.
  3. A surreal affect. A "flashy," commercial look.
  4. Close-up, direct portraiture. The eyeline of the subject goes directly into the lens and the gazer. It's a direct, intimate connection that anchors what is obviously the central element and offers a point of direct communication with the viewer. 

Two Prongs of Investigation

  1. Documenting an extant culture of Hyperreality with the proper tools, along with written theory, as an academic paper utilizing standard academic tools such as recorded audio interviews. 
  2. An expression of Hyperreality through heavily mediated, aesthetically enhanced Visuals as a commercially viable Lookbook. 

 

Dual sets of spatial and social layers are brought together in this image, in which an open sky stands in sharp contrast to multiple foregrounds composed of concete and steel. The exposure itself utilizes an indoor studio flash unit outdoors and exposes almost to the point of whiteout, but underexposes the sky to accentuate the stormy weather that was indeed fast developing. The social layering of the young, colorful, bright, and shiny Korean youth popped out against a seemingly older, more conservative woman of the Islamic faith looking upon the subject with a mix of surprise and slight disdain is also interesting, and also includes a binary opposition of the subject engaged in an intimate, one-on-one photographic interaction in a public place, against a line of passersby. All the while giving the Janet Lynn/Japanese "V"-sign of extreme optimism while wearing a lavender, ladylike choker/bowtie atop a Madonna-originated "Like a Virgin" meme witten in gaudy, jarringly jagged script that seems to go against the mood of the gesture and its bearer. 

Dual sets of spatial and social layers are brought together in this image, in which an open sky stands in sharp contrast to multiple foregrounds composed of concete and steel. The exposure itself utilizes an indoor studio flash unit outdoors and exposes almost to the point of whiteout, but underexposes the sky to accentuate the stormy weather that was indeed fast developing. The social layering of the young, colorful, bright, and shiny Korean youth popped out against a seemingly older, more conservative woman of the Islamic faith looking upon the subject with a mix of surprise and slight disdain is also interesting, and also includes a binary opposition of the subject engaged in an intimate, one-on-one photographic interaction in a public place, against a line of passersby. All the while giving the Janet Lynn/Japanese "V"-sign of extreme optimism while wearing a lavender, ladylike choker/bowtie atop a Madonna-originated "Like a Virgin" meme witten in gaudy, jarringly jagged script that seems to go against the mood of the gesture and its bearer. 

As a structure designed  as the pinnacle of Parametricism, a design principle that  can function as "an interface for multi-modal communication" and integrates interior and exterior, inside and outside, natural and synthetic, land and sky, green and city space, and even light vs. dark, this is one of the only places in the city where one can shoot with these binaries all displayed in their stark oppositions within a single frame, especially as this is framed by the structure itself, which is designed to encourage social uses as mixed as the spaces themselves refuse to delineate themselves from one another. This mixture -- or lack of strict, traditional, spatial delineation  -- is perhaps also that which is alien and in fact fits in with a certain community of social users who are themselves very much caught up in a cuolture whose very currency is that of the kind of free-form semiotic remixing and blending inherent to the Hypermodernity they both define and inhabit.  

As a structure designed  as the pinnacle of Parametricism, a design principle that  can function as "an interface for multi-modal communication" and integrates interior and exterior, inside and outside, natural and synthetic, land and sky, green and city space, and even light vs. dark, this is one of the only places in the city where one can shoot with these binaries all displayed in their stark oppositions within a single frame, especially as this is framed by the structure itself, which is designed to encourage social uses as mixed as the spaces themselves refuse to delineate themselves from one another. This mixture -- or lack of strict, traditional, spatial delineation  -- is perhaps also that which is alien and in fact fits in with a certain community of social users who are themselves very much caught up in a cuolture whose very currency is that of the kind of free-form semiotic remixing and blending inherent to the Hypermodernity they both define and inhabit.  

I am often questioned, with varying degrees of suspicion and even anger, why I shoot from a low angle. I usually answer on one or more levels of depth, depending on how pointed the inquiry is and how charitable I feel. The obvious, practical answer is that it makes the legs look longer and hence the subject taller, with the head appearing smaller (something that Korean women generally like) and the subject generally looking grand and gigantic against the structures with which she appears. Simply put, the subject looks not only better to the subject herself, but becomes an object similar to the buildings she is set off against. And in a structure like the DDP, this makes the human subject into something of a stature as grand in scale as the built structure. On a slightly more analytical level, the lower camera angle (with a wide-angle lens) allows for a lot more elements to be placed in the frame. In the case of this picture, lining up the subject, the building, the flags, the other people, the sky, and even the drone that had buzzed in to spy on us all within the same frame was the only thing that made such a thing possible. On the level of architectural analysis, it makes sense to place the human subject in the frame with the low/wide angle because the scale of the human subject grows to the point it can enter into a binary with the immense structures around it, in a way that doesn't figuratively put built structures into a mere background. It compresses foreground and background in an artificial, yet aesthetically useful way to placing humans into an active relationship with the built environments in which they are pictured. 

I am often questioned, with varying degrees of suspicion and even anger, why I shoot from a low angle. I usually answer on one or more levels of depth, depending on how pointed the inquiry is and how charitable I feel. The obvious, practical answer is that it makes the legs look longer and hence the subject taller, with the head appearing smaller (something that Korean women generally like) and the subject generally looking grand and gigantic against the structures with which she appears. Simply put, the subject looks not only better to the subject herself, but becomes an object similar to the buildings she is set off against. And in a structure like the DDP, this makes the human subject into something of a stature as grand in scale as the built structure. On a slightly more analytical level, the lower camera angle (with a wide-angle lens) allows for a lot more elements to be placed in the frame. In the case of this picture, lining up the subject, the building, the flags, the other people, the sky, and even the drone that had buzzed in to spy on us all within the same frame was the only thing that made such a thing possible. On the level of architectural analysis, it makes sense to place the human subject in the frame with the low/wide angle because the scale of the human subject grows to the point it can enter into a binary with the immense structures around it, in a way that doesn't figuratively put built structures into a mere background. It compresses foreground and background in an artificial, yet aesthetically useful way to placing humans into an active relationship with the built environments in which they are pictured. 

Here are some theoretical strings I've found that seem to be worth pulling, some possible points of attaching good theoretical handles to this whole thing. 

it's an old article about "flexible sociality" of Seoul's public spaces, and despite the age of its references, you could stick in a reference to PSY's 2012 "Gangnam Style" here without skipping a beat. Given how much has changed since 1999, that's pretty impressive. 

it's an old article about "flexible sociality" of Seoul's public spaces, and despite the age of its references, you could stick in a reference to PSY's 2012 "Gangnam Style" here without skipping a beat. Given how much has changed since 1999, that's pretty impressive. 

Also worthy of consideration is the idea of consuming alienness itself, or difference itself. Of particular interest in the interview and interactions I've had was the idea of differently alien spaces in the trendy Itaewon/Kyeongnidan/Haebangchon are being "exotic" (이국적인) places overflowing with a feeling of "freedom."(자유) Here are a couple of the representative interview/interaction/portraits. It remains to be seen if I'm going to tie this into the DDP Alien structure idea or spin it off as another paper unto itself. 

 

Working Bibliography (my reading homework, actually)

Architects, Zaha Hadid. 2013. “ARTICULATION,” 44–51.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. Routledge. Vol. 36. doi:10.1177/0306312706056409.

Cho, Myung-rae. n.d. “Flexible Sociality and the Postmodernity of Seoul.”

Collection, Proquest Scitech. 2014. “Blend of Design , Art and Technology ...”

For. 2012. “Report Information from ProQuest.” Organization Development Journal, no. April. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17506200710779521.

Goffman, Erving. 1975. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Life as Theater. doi:10.2307/258197.

Hwang, Jin Tae. 2014. “Territorialized Urban Mega-Projects beyond Global Convergence: The Case of Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park Project, Seoul.” Cities 40. Elsevier Ltd: 82–89. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2014.03.007.

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The Lookbook of Korean Hypermodernity and Street Fashion as Social Cipher

Fashion Is Important, But Not for the Clothes
Here's the thing. I'm not a fashion guy. I'm not a fashionable guy. I'm not really into fashion. But I do find Korean street fashion endlessly, academically interesting. And have, since stumbling into its direction, in around late 2006. Let me tell you why you might also find it intellectually interesting. 

Street fashion in Korea isn't interesting because of the clothes. (Since I'll refer to "street fashion" as just "fashion" from now on, stick with me.) Fashion in Korea isn't inherently interesting. Trends change but pretty much stay the same. Debating about what's coming next season or what particular trend is good or bad is like debating about whether or not you're a good person because you do or don't like the color Royal Blue. Or whether you like French or Russian caviar. It's pointless. 

Postcolonial hypermodernity.
Korea is a place where people enjoy tonkatsu while wearing blue jeans and listen to gangster rap while wearing English word-emblazoned fashion tees made in the city's unique vertically-integrated fast fashion sweatshop/department stores and chat on Facebook on android cellphones made by Samsung.

Rethinking "Creativity"
But what is awesome about Korean street fashion culture isn’t the amazing styling, although you can like it for that if you want to; it isn’t the subcultural aspects, cuz there ain’t any, really. The Korean paepi doesn’t really constitute a counterculture, or any subcultural values different from the mainstream. Instead, they are fascinating as a new class of Korean superconsumers, as a group of youth who have found a way to gain social validation quickly and efficiently, as superconsumers who turn what Marx called the “commodity fetish” (Warenfetischismus) into a creative endeavor. They flipped a failing of capitalism into a veritable artform. They turned consumption into creation. Fucking think about that shit.

As the cultural product of hypermodernity, the Korean paepi are a testament to the power of human creativity to make the best out of a soulless system, to remix various social tendencies of postcoloniality, Korea’s compressed development, and the cultural hybridity and textual impurity that helped make K-pop a culture industry juggernaut.

Korea is barely shaking off the reins of fasco-capitalism (not the actual democracy that came as a response to it) and still lives with the accumulated leftovers of its all-rationalizing ideologies. Now that it's a consumer society in which the new ideology that rationalizes social action is a function of the structural requirement to consume, consume, consume, and even understand one's own identity as constituted by things one consumes or the choices one makes (or even sees oneself as a commodity for consumption), and young people have become socialized into seeing themselves and everything they do as part of this system, it makes perfect sense that young people -- who have never known a society not possessed of this rationale -- have increasingly developed a fashion culture that reflects these values of identity expression through consumptive acts. So, understanding Korea street fashion culture as the ultimate expression of these consumer values as the culture of a young class of super-consumers, should be a pretty straightforward thing to do. 

Fashion As Cipher
In this way, fashion is a cipher for understanding the biggest cultural-structural shift in Korean society right now. It's the ultimate expression of dominant (not counter- or subcultural) values, of (predominantly) youth culture making sense of the master imperative to eat, consume, and die and, above all, do not question authority unless it's a "Critical Thinking Question" in the the back of the textbook chapters. It's the end of a pretty weird and unbalanced equation in which the Confucian "iron cage" of ideology says one should respect authority, the hierarchy, and the Way Things Are Done™ yet participate in the new Creative Economy™, and be a good critical thinker, but not actual toooo critical.

It's the way theorist Stuart Hall says that yes, while there is a structural imperative that we should all just shut up and be lemmings and consume culture and All the Pretty Things it hawks to us without question or exception, people do talk back to hegemonic control in their own ways. They read the meanings of cultural texts different, strip and denude them, break them apart and construct them, remix them, repurpose them, and a whole myriad of other things. To the extent that the Party Propagandist, the movie director, the poet, or the fashion designer ENCODE the texts with specific meanings, individuals and communities of individuals DECODE them in different ways. And in the wild consumer society that is Korea, in the age of the "Han River Miracle" having given way to "Hell Joseon", the creative act of resistance that is created by the critical space cleared/made possible by the idea of Hell Joseon is what constitutes the creative impulses behind Korean street fashion, especially in youth. In this way, Korean street fashion culture could no more spring up in the older culture of say, Korea in the 1990s (towards the end of the old Han River Miracle paradigm, for which the Korean "IMF Crisis" of 1997 was the death knell) could no more provide the soil for such a culture than a bottle of vinegar coud be expected to yield a flower from even the best possible seed. 

A Melange of Meaning
Fashion has long been the medium in which signs and symbols -- the referers -- freed from their original meanings and contexts mutate, merge, and metamorphasize into a completely new thing that id completely separate and unmoored from their original referents. You can do it consciously, like the playful mix of mix going on with the orange-and-green girl directly below, or you can participate in a branded irony that makes a new meaning and thing out of a random mix of words and brand symbols, in the shirt that is a quite nearly an avant-garde art piece in the way it pairs up words and symbols into a sea of meaninglessness. It's genius. And that's the meaningless (or meaningful?) remixing that modern Korean culture is super-adept at. I talk about this here, in a post I called "ON THE HYBRIDITY, IMPURITY, AND POSTCOLONIALITY OF KOREAN POPULAR CULTURE TEXTS", which is a pretty theoretically useful read if you want to understand what's going on on these mean Korean streets. 


 

Defining a Hyperreal Aesthetic
What I'm actually trying to do with this lookbook of Seoul street fashion is take a disparate group of people who are not being funneled into the aesthetically controlled and formally consistent shooting box of the runway and placed into a regime of visual conformity through highly technical shooting and editing into a consistent regime of visual conformity defined by a clearly visible and palpable style and aesthetic. And I want that aesthetic to logically, tonally, and stylistically match the hyperreal nature of Korean hypermodernity as represented by Korean street fashion's extreme textual remixing. I want the lookbook to have such an aesthetic consistency that even given the fact that the subjects in the pictures will be in so many various and random poses in front of myriad backdrops, the look will define a kind of connective tissue between the pictures that in most fashion lookbooks from the runway is created through having all the models pictured in the exact same positions on the runway, in the same, exact, highly controlled body positions and poses. 

In short, our lookbook is attempting to provide an aesthetic consistency to highly varied sartorial subjects that would normally be provided through formal consistency in traditional fashion media. So, the look is that of a turbo-boosted reality that resembles life looked at with the Saturation slider pushed half its range up to the right, in which the Real still looks too real, and nearly too much so. It visually gives the feeling that what is being pictured is almost Simulation and not unfiltered reality itself. It's documentary, but feel feels a bit fake. Like the pictures we see on Instagram, and indeed in a variety of mediated forms on the Internet and through our mobile devices,  this reality is heavily filtered. Through filters. Which is why on Instagram nowadays, it's a mark of pride and veritable bravery to post something proudly labeled as #nofilter. we are so used to looking at a heavily filtered, mediated, made up reality that it's hard to look at #unfiltered reality without its makeup on. The goal of this lookbook is to remind the viewer of this layered on hyperreality by photographing in a way that makes everything more enhanced, pumped up, saturated, manicured, curated, and Photoshopped. That's why I like to edit with Instagram filters and frames as my main tools, autosharing and hence saving the "originals" on Flickr as I upload them through Instagram and publish the images to be seen, LIKEd, and hopefully commented upon. I want the images in the Seoul street fashion lookbook to evoke the consciously felt, tingling sensation on the nape of the neck that we live in the world of Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacra; I want the viewer to feel like something's a little off, in the niggling way one often feels the wash of deja vu that Morpheus told us indicated the existence of a glitch in The Matrix

Hopefully, it's working.

 

Announcing: Seoul Street Fashion Week's Spring 2017 Lookbook MVP

Of all my 150+ images shot this season, I have a favorite, an M.V.P.

In this, SSFW's inaugural lookbook season, our Most Venerable Paepi award goes to SHIN Jiyoung, a 3rd-year middle school student hailing from Gangweondo, out in the west side of Korea. 

Why, do you ask, does Little Miss Shin deserve this great honor? Well, it's pretty simple -- her effort and attitude, which is all channeled through her awesomely cute outfit. 

  1. She (and her buds) came in all the way from the West Coast to do the Seoul Fashion Week thing at likely great psycic and fiscal cost as a middle schooler. 
  2. Even as many paepi older than her shy away from self-classifying with that term lest they be thought of ass arrogant or insufficiently humble, Jiyoung and her buds eagerly embrace the term and concept. As true "fashion people" (hence, pae-pi in Korean) who are obsessed with clothing and clothing culture, she certainly fits the bill, even if others might want to cast aspersions.
  3. Her concept, despite what my older Instagram caption says, is that of a "country girl" (which she technically is), unironically and straightforwardly argued through her old-fashioned, lace-encrusted Peter Pan collar, gaudy color choices, and outlandishly bright and ferociously feminine bag from Japan. She just loves it all. And her look. And it takes major gonads to walk around Fashion Week in an outfit no older, more mature and established paepi type would ever take seriously. She took a real risk. She's brave. She felt her fashion enough to possibly get snickered at. And she's in middle school. Now, that's true grit right there. 

And I just think she's a positive, smart young lady who makes me happy to know she exists and is out in her schhol with friends personifying the Revolution. It is from 3rd-year middle school kids such as Jiyoung that the change will come. This is where the true creativity lies, how great sartorial and aesthetic attention is gathered. And she did it with her clever and cute concept, some effort, and a whole lotta chutzpah. And I very much like to see that out there.

It was an honor and a pleasure to meet you, kid.  See you out there again soon!

On Watching the Changes in Korean Fashion and Society

My chamber music instructor always reminded me, "Watch the changes." In key; in tempo; and in dynamics. Otherwise, you lose the music and you get lost. The same is true when one is looking at any society.

As someone who is looking at the big picture -- not just the individual notes and marks on the paper -- I realize that the thing one really must pay attention to are the changes.  If one is looking at clothing and clothing practices as a marker of social change, one also must note the changes. In gender norms; in sartorial practice; in tone and tempo. 

And after living in the Korean provinces in the 1990s then returning to live since 2002 in the capital city of Seoul and deciding to watch and note the changes with my camera, I got to indulge the the hunch that something interesting was afoot here. And roundabout the end of 2006, after having decided to retire my SLR film bodies and go fully digital with my Canon EOS 650d DSLR, I decided to blog these changes as I recorded them with pictures. By 2009, after three years doing street fashion photography pretty much on my own in Seoul, I had published a book called The Seoul Fashion Report, in which I made the following announcement/pronouncement:

 

Pretty bold prognostication, but it pretty much came troo, dinnit?

Pretty bold prognostication, but it pretty much came troo, dinnit?

I hadn't finished my doctoral dissertation yet (and wouldn't until 2014), as i was caught up with photography and the street until that combined into "street fashion" -- and did that for many years, in thrall as I was to what documentary photographer Walker Evans called "the hungry eye." 

Of course, as I track changes in Korean society through fashion, and as the documenting of everyday fashion and shooting folks on the streets has itself become a fashionable thing to do, I have been confused with those who market, consider, and call themselves "street fashion photographers." But the reason I bristle at this moniker lies in the fact that for me, the cloths that people hang from their bodies are not the main items of interest for me, and is actually not what gets my juices going and flowing. 

Which is one reason I purposefully resist and thumb my nose at the new cadre of "street fashion photographers" and those who use that social position and identifier as an additional cache of cool. I think as a photographer who documents social change through sartorial changes, and do not fetishize clothing in the original sense of the term, which is the worshipping of inanimate objects believed to have magical powers -- totems of power not much different from the magical objects and amulets seen in films such as Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the totemic objects of power in modern, consumer societies are largely sartorial, i.e. objects of adornment that follow the prevailing winds of fashion. Much like totems in "primitive" societies, modern totems denote group belonging via brands (such as the LV of Louis Vuitton), identification with a lifestyle (such as with tattoos or piercings), or even the possession of taste or distinction itself (of which the Korean paepi are displaying they are amply possessed).

 

As a photographer and visual sociologist, I am much more interested in clothing as social texts, as specific social statements about the wearer, as opposed to being looked at as mere fashion fetish objects. In short, I am a photographer/sociologist who became interested in what clothing as social text conveys about society; I'm a photographer who became concerned with fashion, not a fashion person who picked up a camera to be cool.

Which is one reason I often -- very often -- choose to take a close look at things that aren't necessarily fashionista-level fashionable but still occur in high frequency for some reason, reasons I'd like to know more about. That is the way I am guided to document trends -- initially not merely by my preferences, but also by what I notice,  as an observer of the streets, occurring in higher levels of statstical frequency. So if girls are wearing socks with sandals all of a sudden and all over Seoul, it's worth recording. 

People often ask why I shoot girls most of the time. The answer is easy, although people often think I'm being flip or facetious. I simply state that fashion, as a field of sartorial concerns, is dominated through and through by female subjectivity. Yet women, in the big picture, are fashion's biggest object. Put more simply, women tend to be those most interested in, concerned with, and objectified by fashion. That being said, the male gaze dominates the fashion field, even if all those who possess the heterosexual "male gaze" are not all male. Or even heterosexual. Again, from the 2009 Seoul Fashion Report:

Put more simply, I am possessed of a strong, heterosexual male gaze, tinged with a good bit of interest in the standard objects of totemic, sexually fetishistic, mainstream, straight male desire. I used to feel quite guilty about this coming through in my photographs and tried to suppress it. However, not only was this hard to do, it was dumb to do, since this fact of my identity and sexual subjectivity still comes through, but just more muffled and distorted -- in a word, dishonest. Denying this just makes for dishonest-feeling photographs, watered down statements, a mumbled and jumbled message. Even shorter, it makes for weak sauce work. So, I decided to stop apologizing for it and trying to deny its existence and do the best, logical thing: harness this heterosexual male gaze to allow it to lead me to best seek and target fashion items that are, as just mentioned, themselves objects of that very male gaze, within a field of social concerns in which women are both main subjects and the object. If fashion items are totemic objects of fetiche, then what better thing to harness than a totem/fetish object-sniffing sexual-sartorial sense? That's my story, anyway., and I'm sticking to it. 

My  kind of street fashion portrait.

My kind of street fashion portrait.

This picture defines my style of and approach to street fashion photography: from the ground up, full of the real feels that define not just the motivations of the voyeur but the subject's exhibitionist imperative, of both objectifier and the self-objectified. In the instant of the fashion photographic moment, one should be able to get a feel of the relationship between the subject and photographer, since it's a two-way street. Especially with street fashion, it's not just voyeurism at play -- it's very much about a subject who wants to exhibit, to be exhibited. It's a proud moment for both. In the picture above, Hyeran's prideful pose is metonymic of the pride the entire photographic portrait itself represents for me, the photographer. It sounds complex when stated, but I think that's why this picture works. She knows me and trusts me 1) because I've shot her before and 2) she's looked me up and has seen my long track record with street fashion in Korea , and 3) she is thereby confident that I'm not just taking the picture to get a look up her skirt (on top of the fact that she's been shot enough to know that I know exactly what I'm doing, especially if the key light from the flash is coming from the above, which preserves a nice, necessary shadow that obscures everything under her skirt and which also happens to help obscure under-the-chin rolls). This is why I keep up with Hyeran on social media and watch everything she does in terms of the conscious and unconscious statements she makes in terms of clothing, self-adornment, and gender.

All this is also why my interest in street fashion photography has only grown over time, instead of fading, and why -- with all the interesting things roiling and boiling inside of out of Korean society and popular culture, enabled as it has been by world-connecting social media and the Internet -- Korean street fashion has definitely become something the entire world has started to take a closer look at. And given how fast Korean society changes, there are a lot of things to watch develop, complexify, combine, split, then recombine again, metamorphasize, mutate, and grow into even more fascinating things worth watching. 

An Elucidatively Ethnographic and Slightly Sartorial Consideration of the Foreign Ethnic Enclaves Itaewon and "Haebangchon" on Christmas Eve

제목: “The T100 Fishnets Couple” 
쵤영 장소: Itaewon, Seoul
촬영내용: Itaewon has become the new hot destination for Christmas and Christmas Eve, which is a romantic holiday for young people in their 20s in Korea. We caught this student couple in one of the hottest coffee shops in the area, the T100. The girl is wearing one of the biggest fashion items we saw on the street from last Seoul Fashion Week, wide fishnet stockings, along with the winter miniskirt. 



제목: “SKECHERS Eskimo & Minidress Couple” 
쵤영 장소: Itaewon, Seoul
촬영내용: Itaewon has become the new hot destination for Christmas and Christmas Eve, and we caught this working couple in one of the hottest areas in Itaewon, where a place once full of bars for Americn GIs in years past has now become full of coffee shops and clothing stores, along with many trendy restaurants. 

 

 

제목: “Christmas Girlfriends” 
쵤영 장소: Itaewon, Seoul
촬영내용: Itaewon has become the new hot destination for Christmas and Christmas Eve for young working girls in their 20s, and and not just for couples. Here, 3 students in their early 20s, are having a communal Christmas date, just like many groups of young girls who meet on the holiday to help round out the year with friendship and food. Itaewon has become a place for gendered consumption, led by women in their 20s and 30s — the only Korean men you really see here these days are almost always brought there by women, often their girlfriends. 

 

 

제목: “Christmas Sisters” 
쵤영 장소: Itaewon, Seoul
촬영내용: Itaewon has become the new hot destination for Christmas and Christmas Eve for young working girls in their 20s, and and not just for couples. Here two sisters go out on a “Christmas date” because they claim to have no boyfriends. The sister in red is studying to become a police officer, while the sister with the amazing super-short winter minidress tells us that “it is never too cold to look good.”

 

 

 

제목: “The Le Cafe Girl” 
쵤영 장소: Haebangchon, Seoul
촬영내용: “Haebangchon” is the nickname for the small neighbourhood that was originally a North Korean refugee camp area after the Korean War since it was right next to the US military base. It became a haven for foreign residents, first American GIs looking for cheap, off-base housing, then for the growing ranks of foreign English teachers looking for US-style rent. Now, it’s become a trendy destination for young Korean women looking for the next exotic thing to eat with their friends. And hence, fashionable people flock here nowadays. we caught this young lady, a fashion designer in her mid-20s outside a local cafe with a trendy, formal miniskirt to die for, along with the trendy black loafers
of the season. 

 

 

제목: “Hackney Girls” 
쵤영 장소: Haebangchon, Seoul
촬영내용: “Haebangchon”, as a trendy destination for young Korean women looking for the next exotic place to go with friends, is now a destination to which fashionable people flock nowadays. We caught these two young ladies outside the HACKNEY coffee shop, this is absolutely the most popular one in the area for young, Korean girls in their early 20s. 

 

 


제목: “The Fancy Kobawoo Couple” 
쵤영 장소: Haebangchon, Seoul
촬영내용: “Haebangchon”, as a a trendy destination for young Korean women looking for the next exotic place to go with friends, is now a destination to which fashionable people flock nowadays. We caught this couple outside the Bonny’s Pizza sports pub/pizza place, which has become the place to experience American foreignness for young Koreans. People definitely dress their best to go here, and this couple was the most dressed up in the line on Christmas Eve, which is a hard competition to win. Interestingly, formal looks can be deceiving — or at least, concealing — he’s a tattoo artist and she’s a fashion design student.

 

 

제목: “The Matching  Bonny's Couple” 
쵤영 장소: Haebangchon, Seoul
촬영내용: “Haebangchon”, as a a trendy destination for young Korean women looking for the next exotic place to go with friends, is now a destination to which fashionable people flock nowadays. We caught this couple outside the Bonny’s Pizza sports pub coffee shop, which has become the place to experience American foreignness for young Koreans. It is also directly across from the most iconic place in Haebangchon, the Kobawoo Supermarket. This young couple in their mid-20s was very Korean and super-matchy in a wintery way — with coats and Adidas shoes. This is absolutely THE thing for Korean couples to do, as it publicly declares their couple status to all who can see, and this was one of the best examples of the winter, on the most romantic day of the year, in one of the most popular places for young people in Seoul these days. 

The Cultural Politics of Short Skirts and the Social Disciplining of Women in Korea

Hyeran poses in a Dim E. Cres skirt, top, and bag for this story. The Korean flag notebook was really just an accident, owned by a nearby student who lent us his books as props for the shot. 

Hyeran poses in a Dim E. Cres skirt, top, and bag for this story. The Korean flag notebook was really just an accident, owned by a nearby student who lent us his books as props for the shot. 

Recently, a public debate on the women, sex, rape, and male power has been ignited, mostly in response to the brutal murder of a young woman in a Gangnam Station area bathroom. But a conversation has been brewing -- nay, brimming over with fear and loathing -- about women's roles and proper place in society, and appropriate behavior and comportment of member's od society's "fairer sex." BUt the conversation has been anything but fair. It never has been, as the social conversation about what women should wear, consume, and do in various social situations is an old and long one. For a long time, the moral pulse of the nationsociety/culture of South Korea could be taken by watching what women buy or don't buy, how they comport themselves in public, by what they wear. This defines a certain kind of "social disciplining" of women that occasionally bubbles over into social rage, scandal, and even violence.

But this is an old story, one that goes back into the deep, dark reaches of Confucian notions of gender and the state, with Confucian idea that the woman's body is a sacred vessel, the literal womb of the people and the state, something which should be regulated and controlled. Hence, women in the Joseon period weren't supposed to leave the house, and if they did, they should be acccompanied and monitored, and had to cover up from face to toe. Sounds pretty Taliban, right? Right. 

This notion of the female body, along with its maintenance, display, and adornment, is where traditionally old-fashioned notions that pooh pooh women engaging in many of the vices of life in which men engage, such as smoking, drinking, and fornicating, tend to come from. But before I get ahead of myself here, let me just clearly establish that I'm not about to engage in that age-old, analytically bereft, lame-ass cop-out that "everything's Confucianism," since that pat reading of the situation is so obvious and easy, without any real critical teeth with which to do anything useful, that to go down that path should be more than what the discerning reader would need to stop reading right here.

The Confucian cultural pattern of thinking in Korea is a chimera that looks real good at first glance, before you realize that what you're looking at is a monstrously complex creature composed of a lot of wildly different, stitched-together parts. Yeah, there's that thing you're looking at, but then again, it isn't what you think it is. When you look at the social disciplining of Korea in the modern, South Korean state, you have to see that the Confucian frame is used as a facile means of control that speaks to very present-moment concerns. That's how it works most of  the time when you hear "Confucianism" invoked in modern Korea.  It's a tool of hegemonic, social control. It's a way of making the dominated think their domination by the dominators to be natural, as much a part of what it means to be, say, Korean as it is for a fish to breathe water, or a bird to take to the air.

I cobbled this montage together from  here  -- and i'm very glad to see alternate shots of the woman being measured in the infamous 3rd frame. 

I cobbled this montage together from here -- and i'm very glad to see alternate shots of the woman being measured in the infamous 3rd frame. 

This conversation about proper social comportment really came to the forefront of popular Korean consciousness in the 70s, when the Korean police under the popular dictator Pak Chung Hee grabbed young men with long hair in the streets and gave out involuntary, inpromptu Supercuts with Scissors and took young women into the police station to measure their skirts. 

Although men were part of the symbolic acts of social control by the state, it was always much more important to regulate the dress, actions, and general comportment of women. Of course, the rationale is always that women's reproductive role makes them special objects of scrutiny, but then again, this is just one end of a spectrum of regulations and controls on women's bodies. There's always  a social excuse for this. And this gets extended out to everything from tattooing to sexual promiscuity, whether women should drink or not, do certain things in public, or dress in certain ways. 

But let's get down to brass tacks here. what happens to women who flagrantly violate certain social norms here, sometimes ones that society didn't even really know it had? That's when we get to the 2005 of the "dog poop girl."

Source:  OhMyNews . Part of the vigilante "fun," themselves. 

Source: OhMyNews. Part of the vigilante "fun," themselves. 

I don't want to get into the gory details, so you should just click away here for a moment, since I'd rather spend my neuronical powers on crunching the issue itself, rather than having to rehash it. But in the end, if you break down what happened back in 2005 to this woman, you have to think about the intense viciousness of the social backlash against her in terms of some obvious facts, as well as a few not-so-obvious ones:

1. She's a "girl." In Korean, an agassi, someone who is unmarried and not yet completed her singular, uterine contribution to society. 
2. She is engaged in a lifestyle choice of leisure -- owning an expensive dog and carrying it around in its own carrier, a glaring symbol of conspicuous consumption in a time (2005) it had certainly not even been a decade or much more since dogs-as-pets were certainly not generally thought of as pets to be kept indoors, but were rather mere dirty animals, yet certainly a step above dogs-as-meat. That in itself was offensive to traditional Korean mores about consumption. And that's just for having the dog in the first place. 
3. Her elevation of a dog over the concerns of her very human elders was a nearly unconscionable act by traditional Korean standards. Refusing to clean up the feces was something that cause most Korean netizens to symbolically banish her from the fold. That's the moment when she became, to crib a great title that has some relevance here, "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman." To indulge myself (and this metaphor) further here, she became the bitch/witch, she played the role of Anne Hutchinson to a tribunal of shocked Puritan elders.

In any case, what "Dog Poop Girl" had in common with the many other cases in which great social anger is directed at individuals who behave in ways that violate social norms so much that they cause social scandal and sensation is the fact that it almost always involves the social transgressions of women.  Social handwringing over the apparent moral decay of society and general societal mores usually revolves around the behavior of women that is seen as a symbol of where things are going, like a social litmus test with women as the active agent. 

It is in this sense that clothing comes into consideration. And the social disciplining of women's sartorial choices often comes from the symbolic values that certain clothing is seen to represent by those controlling the conversation. 

THE UPSHOT
1. Before the runaway phase of consumer capitalism in which Korea presently find itself, women's roles in society were coming into some degree of change in that women were taking on new roles and wearing new clothes, even as society was in the throes of a more existential identity crisis centered around old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, East vs. West. Then, there was greater concern given to deviation from the old, Joseon-era, neo-Confucian social controls on women which that society had constructed. That is where the impetus behind skirt measuring seemed to come from, in that the miniskirt seemed to signify the influx of western thinking about social freedom, the perversions of feminism, and other threatening aspects of assertive female sexuality. 

2. The more recent handwringing over the meaning of women's consumptive choices in Korea is not new under the sun, but there is a different ideological undertone to it. As Korea has shifted into a different sort of capitalist moment very different from one in which all good citizens simply worked at their jobs, performed their social functions, and asked few questions, the state tried to regulate consumptive choices in the context of helping achieve national goals. What women chose to consume and how they did it only really mattered to the extent that they controlled the wallet of the family. (See Laura Nelson's excellent treatise of this subject Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea for a deeper discussion of this). But Korean society has again shifted into a higher gear of consumer capitalism, the Age of Conspicuous and Concupiscent Consumption. More than just women's consumptive choices in the aggregate as the financial heads of families, women are participating in the economy at higher rates than in the 70s and 80s and 90s in Korea, are possessed of consumer choice, and are eager and happy to use it in a society that has defined individual consumption and participation in the economy as a positive good.  

Indeed, girls and women are "doing their jobs" as consumers by making choices and participating in the economy. Can't they have fun while doing it? Isn't this what fashion is all about? 

Indeed, girls and women are "doing their jobs" as consumers by making choices and participating in the economy. Can't they have fun while doing it? Isn't this what fashion is all about? 

 

It's very telling that there are few big social conversations or arguments about the consumptive choices of men, the unnecessary and over-powered , expensive cars many drive, or how these are also as concspicuously displaayed as the Prada purses or Manolo Blahnik shoes that Korean women are castigated, as the so-called "dwaenjang-nyeo", for owning. And so it goes with the miniskirt and skirt lengths in the present, which go into the ways many men judge the apparent morality of the individual wearer, as well as the symbolic state moral affairs of "women these days." 

 

Why Street Fashion Is Part of the "Creative Economy" and Will Be the Next Part of the "Korean Wave"

This is a high-resolution scan from the inaugural piece in this series on fashion culture, which was published on Sunday, May 8, 2016. 

This is a high-resolution scan from the inaugural piece in this series on fashion culture, which was published on Sunday, May 8, 2016. 

Preface: My Original Title was "Why Street Fashion Is Sociologically Important", but a lot got changed in the process. A translator -- Korea University professor of Sociology Oh Ingyu --  did the Korean. 

Much to my surprise, I have become known as a street fashion photographer. In my academic work, i have mixed in my photography to call myself a “visual sociologist.” Even though I do a lot of “street fashion photography,” I don not consider myself a fashion person because I am actually not interested in clothing as fashion objects. I am more interested in clothing as wearable cultural texts that are important because clothing, taken as wearable cultural texts, is quite a special thing, a category worthy of special consideration.

Clothing is special in that it is inherently personal in how the wearer makes an active choice to participate in a public, semiotic conversation in which fashion items not only have cultural meaning, but the items themselves are chosen as part of a statement that says something about the wearer. Fashion items are individual objects possessed of various meanings that have been societally assigned to them, much like words within a language, with the wearer choosing to construct these various objects into a greater whole, much like a speaker constructs words s/he learned elsewhere into a sentence. There are grammatical rules that govern the sentences we make, such that they are understandable to other speakers of the language, but we are free to make the statements we want. We can play with the rules, make puns, construct poems, or even choose to obfuscate meaning for rhetorical purposes. And there are myriad styles of speech, some formal, some filled with slang, and some that even purposely violate grammar and usage rules so as to make a certain kind of point. But inevitably, we tend to know what the speaker is trying to say, even if it is unconventional or even sometimes difficult to decipher. And it is sometimes in the violation of these rules, or their reworking or purposeful misapplication, that the fun in language lies.

What can street fashion photography tell us about Korean culture? And totake 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 the only 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. 

I found this young woman, Gyu-eun, a 3rd-year high school student presently in the final stretch of preparing for the all-important Korean college entrance exam coming up this November 17th, of particular interest this past Seoul Fashion Week (SS 2016) mostly because of her inversion of a basic piece of fashion grammar by her wearing of her shirt backwards. It is a surprising choice, and technically "wrong" (bad fashion grammar), but it works quite well and naturally to the point that I did not consciously notice the choice until I had already decided to start shooting her. Subconsciously, I may have noticed something peculiar, as it may have caused my initial interest in her look, but it was not a conscious reason I chose to photograph her. Her goal of appearing fashionable and unique (despite her having gotten the idea from the fashion pop icon Kim Na Young) was accomplished, but with "bad" fashion grammar. Still, it succinctly and successfully conveys the point, and with a great deal of eloquence that cannot be conveyed with mainstream, "proper" grammar. 

Fashion is sociology-in-motion, is a sartorial text worn and displayed on the body, and is more than just a mode of consumption, but is a social conversation that is even possessed of a discernible grammar. In any case, it is certainly indicative of social change, and especially in Korea's case, a marker of how definitions of gender and the modes of its performance are shifting, how basic social norms are metamorphasizing faster than many people can make sense of. And it is through street fashion photography -- the visual medium -- that one can track the actual markers of these changes in a concrete, presentable way, as raw visual data. 

Therefore, our project looks at Korean street fashion primarily through the lens of sociology and takes up closely looking at Korean fashion not out of any interest in the pieces of cloth themselves, their branding, prices, or their sale, but rather out of interest in considering their importance as social texts, as ways of knowing how identity is constituted, communicated, and consumed, and how this changing discourse marks significant patterns of social and cultural change.

In short, I am interested in fashion objects as part of a greater discourse, a greater social conversation. And in this way, we see the official event of Seoul Fashion Week as important now because of its accidental role in the formation of what we see as far more culturally important: a social institution centered around fashion, what I like to call “Seoul Street Fashion Week.” In fact, my main reason for regularly covering SFW these days is to cover the street fashion. And I am not the only one.  The movers and shakers in this sartorial community are of tantamount importance now, of greater interest to the overseas fashion press than the shows themselves, as recent stories filed about Korean fashionin both the NYT and Vogue USA (both of which completely ignored the runway shows) demonstrate. They’re concerned with the Korean paepi.

In short, the new Korean paepi (패션피플=패피=Korean for "fashion people" or its shortening pae +pi) are engaged in a creative remixing of sartorial grammar on both the individual and group levels.  In this sense, they are being quite creative as they express their individuality in a social space that has been long regulated by not just other members of society, but by even the state itself. The sartorial realm has become both a site of identity assertion and contestation for paepi youth, complicated yet even more by the consumptive and commercial nature of fashion as a social endeavour. 

Their power isn't in each one being the best dresser ever, or being completely original, but in the act of dressing up itself, in the choice to create a new identity related to the consumption and wearing of clothing. From this culture of consumption, they've created a new class of creative consumption, of asserting identity through clothing in a way new to Korean society.

In this sense, the creative act here Like a 1930's jazz musician in a club, or a early 1980's rapper performing at a local block party, it's not just what they're performing, but the social bravery in the performance that sets the paepi apart, that gives the creative act of riffing or remixing meaning. This is the source of a new kind of creativity in Korean society, a real part of a “creative economy” that is completely missed in the idea that creativity can only be found in traditional institutions and hierarchies such as large jaebeol or large, well-funded professional organizations. The next part of the “Korean Wave” will be found in organic, underground cultures such as the so-called “paepi” as opposed to the runway, in dark, dirty, underground hip hop clubs playing “trap music” as opposed to the military-like training regimes of entertainment conglomerates, and in street food stalls that only take cash within a shadow economy, as opposed to the official food campaigns of large companies trying to package Korean food like western fast food franchises. This is not the culture that will sell overseas; in the new Youtube-enabled, reality TV-influenced media culture, people want the Real. They want authenticity. Culture packaged in plastic isn’t going to go far in the future. We need to look at the cultures of the street right in front of our eyes. 

Fashion Sociology: On Fetishized Femininity

While men still set the rules of a patriarchal power structure in Korean society, it is women who control and dominate the sartorial conversation as it has to do with gender rules, roles, and the nature in which they are performed. Women define the rules of fashion and beauty's semiotic grammar so completely that it is no surprise, at the sartorially serious, extreme end of the spectrum, to see prettified Korean men wearing makeup, feminine colors, and even in this case, white fishnet stockings, and it make a certain kind of sense here. He's not cross dressing, e.g. breaking cisgender role norms. He just looks in place here, i.e. very dressed up for fashion week.

Photographer: Michael Hurt

Photographer: Michael Hurt