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.

 

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. 

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. 

On "Korean Female" Or, the Odiousness and Offensiveness of Mixing the Street Fashion Aesthetic with the Fantasy of Korean High Fashion Advertising

THE PROBLEM
It is an understatement to say that Koreans are obsessively concerned with their nation's image outside of its borders, especially as the White West sees them. The recent tempest-in-a-teapot freakout over Korea's image centers around the alleged insult to Korean women in an ad/art piece for a Dior bag, in this picture. The Korea Herald, with the bombastic title "Dior sparks outrage over photo for 'demeaning Korean women'" and The Korea Times explaining that "Christian Dior apologizes for defamatory ad photo." The most complete story of three i found in English (here's a long list of news articles on it from a Naver search in Korean) is one from the Jakarta Morning post, and is obviously the more complete version of the Korea herald story, which is a bad copy of it. "Culture critic" Jae-geun Ha is quoted and referred to in the KH story incompletely and the JMP really displays the stupidity of the criticism aimed at the image. 

The entire image, uncropped. [ Source ] 

The entire image, uncropped. [Source

Apparently, "culture critic" Ha Jae-geun (apparently, a prominent blogger and both the "culture critic" and the source of the "outrage" that is "online commenters" since no other sources were cited in the story):

The contrasting image of the Korean woman with Dior’s signature bag in the dark alley implies that she sells herself in bars to possess the luxury good, wrote culture critic Ha Jae-keun on the growing public criticism over the luxury house.

This "culture critic" is obviously a complete and utter, blithering idiot. However, he is cited quite often in both the Korea Herald and the Korea Times. In any case,  here's what people should know about reading cultural texts. One has to read a given cultural text, whether it is a popular song, an advertisement, or a film, in a context, i.e. in terms of all of the things that surround the text, that are material factors in its creation. In order to read levels of subtext, which is the realm in which this entire brouhaha is taking place, one has to look very, very carefully at that text. And in the case of an advertisement operating on the level of art, one has to get into the semiotics of the thing. 

So let's get right into it:

Kristeva defines intertextuality on the basis of two axes: a horizontal one connecting the author and reader of a text and a vertical one connecting the text to other texts.[8] As we become aware of the relationship of one text to another, the influence of different social contexts on the production of these texts comes into focus. The literary word is seen “as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee …and the contemporary or earlier cultural context.”[9] The concept of intertextuality, according to Kristeva, questions the originality of a text, with its layers and echoes of accumulated cultural and literary knowledge, which endlessly build on and influence one another. We, as readers—and certainly as editors—produce the meaning of a text we read as part of an ongoing dialogue with it (and its author) according to its context and subtext, and with other texts to which we have been exposed. [10] [SOURCE]

SO, let's be true thinkers, cultural critics, as it were, and engage in the text, where "the influence of different social contexts on the production [of the text]" come together for easy analysis, if you break it down. And sure, there are myriad ways to read a text, but given that there is a finite range of options in which to reasonably contextualiaze the elements of a given text, we can work towards a reasonable interpretation, given a base set of cultural assumptions/facts and the guiding principle of interests and common sense. 

SPATIAL AND SOCIAL FACTS
First, let's do a bit of basic research to establish a basic fact of this matter, which helps us establish an important piece of context. Using the took of korean, as well as Korean tools (such as the Naver search engine), it is easy to locate this picture in known social and geographic space. So, starting with the most specific and unique search item -- in this case, the 놀이터룸소주방 or "Playground Hostess Bar-style Karaoke Bar", which is, to my knowledge not a chain nor any place I ever heard of -- it took all of 20 seconds and a single attempt to locate this street. Given the same signs (the crooked, yellow tarot/fortune teller's sign, Han's, and the room salon in question) showing up in the Naver Maps shot, along with the yellow sidewalk paint markings and general shape of the sidewalk, it seems like the right place. There are a lot of signs in the Maps shot not in the offending ad shot, but they were taken at completely different angles and times of day (hence, the inflatable signs, which are usually the ones that hawk for prostitution and heavy drinking establishments and partially constitute the the array of offensive signs not extant in the daytime shot of Jungang-ro (Main Street) in the sleepy city of Gwangju). But parts of the shot lead me to suspect that the image was heavily photoshopped, especially since the Jakarta Post called it a "composite photograph," which it obviously is.

Here's where a bit of context (and close textual reading/just paying goddamn attention) comes in handy. As does doing the due diligence on stuff before writing about it. In any case, after a call to the 놀이터룸소주방) and speaaking with the manager, I confirmed a few things: 1) They exist, and 2) do so on that street in a neighborhood called Hwang-geum-dong, which is downtown Gwangju. 3) This is the center of entertainment and nightlife in Gwangju. And most importantly in this analysis, 4) trash bags are indeed never in view unless in the dead of night or the very early morning, which you can see in the Naver Maps image. 

The location: Gwangju, Korea. 광주광역시 동구 중앙로160번길 25-1 

The location: Gwangju, Korea. 광주광역시 동구 중앙로160번길 25-1 

ON GWANGJU
Gwangju ain't a big town. It's korea's 6th-largest city, with around 1.47 million in population, which doesn't tell you much. But if one knows Korea, there's Seoul (the center of all true civilization and light)  and then there's outside of Seoul (otherwise known as the jibang or the countryside/sticks as an American equivalent, and the place where things are backwards/uninternational/unenlightened/rustic/Korean). It says a lot that this street is shinae (downtown), as the manager emphasized on the phone. The image is quite telling in that regard. And also, it's good to note that this is what many smaller streets, even in Seoul's more popular city centers, looked like this decades ago. Surely, it is not lost on attentive Korean viewers that this is shot likely outside of Seoul, in the jibang. That in itself sends the message that this is Old Korea, Rustic Korea. This is most certainly not "Gangnam Style."  It is crucial to note that one reason all sorts of people, interests, and media stories got behind that representation of Korea is because of how it shows a desired/desireable image of Korea, despite its biting socially satirical subtextual messages, of a rich society filled with shiny, plastic women, European sports cars, skyscrapers, subways, and people engaged in heavily classed activities such as yoga, Pilates, and retirees engaged in domestic tourism. The background of the offending Dior picture that is the subject of our present concern is the antithesis of the Gangnam style. It shows Korea at its most country bumpkin, its most embarrassedly antiquate, and its most reprobrately rustic. That's one thing to consider when thinking about the set of obvious contrasts the picture was constructing for the viewer. 

ON THE BACKGROUND
Semiotically speaking, the picture was dealing in several sets of dualities. The first and most obvious was one set up by the huge and obvious separation between the background and foreground. We have to remember that the image was produced in Gwangju, a city that lies a good deal down the peninsula -- about three hours by normal bus or train -- and defined a pretty large and conscious choice to shoot there and not any brightly lit and busy place in any of many bustling locations in Seoul. If the goal was, as suggested by the "culture critic" Ha, simply to show a place filled with places (known only to Koreans or non-Koreans familiar with not just the Korean language, but the culture) of prostitution, then why not shoot a background in any Gangnam Station back alley or in Non-Hyeon-dong, which are two areas filled with colorful signs, streets littered with room salon/hostess girl bar ad cards, and the neon signage to match? One could make the argument that this would inevitably get too crowded with extraneous people and what the photographer wanted was an background devoid of people, which would explain the choice to get out of the capital city. However, given that the image was a heavily photoshopped composite image anyway, one wonders whether extraneous people in the frame would have been been enough of a problem to warrant shooting up a street all the way down in Gwangju. Had the artist shot at a similar time in the morning as he did in Gwangju -- at say, 6 in the morning or thereabouts -- the scene would have been similarly devoid of people, save a few inevitable stragglers. No, I think the photographer was setting up the background as not merely sordid, but rustic as the main sort of contrast to the pretty and shiny, fancily dressed girl holding an expensive Dior bag. Of course, in the small, urban Korean downtown context, sordid and downtown go together (as do populated and entertaining and lively in the first place).

The background is jibang-style distilled into an image. So, in terms of jibang photographic background, we get an interplay between Seoul or sophisticate in the foreground, as marked by her bag (of course), her (by Korean standards) somewhat risqué dress, and equally risqué, surely 10cm/5-inch heels. She's not a normal, everyday woman. She's sartorially and semiotically marked as socially unusual in her obvious, Korean sexuality. An American woman might away with such a dress at a summer deck cocktail party, but Koreans generally 1) do not have decks, and 2) do not have cocktail parties. And 3), yes, in Korea, it is still quite a thing in polite society to show one's shoulders or any bare chest, even without cleavage -- this dress did both. On aa few levels, the background of jibang was the socially opposite of 1) young women (of which there are almost none to be found because of population and other demographic shifts), and 2) attractive, sophisticated young women (which might actually be the basis of a feeling this woman doesn't logically belong here except as one of the few young women who might be down there to do sex work. Still, I don't think that was part of any purposeful subtextual readings intended to be going on in this image (and after all, we are largely talking about intent in this little scandal) that would override the more obvious jibang-sophisticate contrast obviously being set up here. Any-girl-like-this-in-the-jibang-must-be-a-prostitute doesn't strike me as an intended subtextual message here. Still, it might be an unintended subtextual cue-from-social fact at play. I surmise that's the source of a lot of the social consternation, not to mention fear and loathing, directed at this image and artist. 

ON THE LOGIC OF LANGUAGE, SIGNS, AND SIGNAGE
We also have to talk about the Korean language itself here, in a common-sense way. First of all, the signage in question in the Dior image is in Korean. Logically speaking (and there is precious little of that in this little tempest-in-a-teapot), no one outside of Korea could conceibvably read any of the signage in the image, and even if a non-Korean speaker could, would still have to possess some specfic cultural knowledge to even know what the linguistic marker of the "room" is, as a normal karoke place is generally marked as  diferent from a room karaoke place in Korean society. The only people getting some sordid subtext from semiotically sexual signs as evidenced from  actual sexual signage would be literate Koreans (of which there are many, since Korean literacy rates are amongst the highest in the world) or Hangul-reading non-Koreans (of which there are still very, very few)

(this next couple sections were originally written by me here)
ON KOREA'S IMAGE 

POWER, POLITICS, and SADAEJUUI
What I think was really at play here, more than any real, intended subtextual assertions about the sexual mores of the "Korean woman" was an collective, yet individuated anger-as-projection of guilt/shame at a reality Koreans know exists in the figurative background of all that is bright and shiny in Korean culture, which mirrors the fact of the informal or "shadow economy" that still is a big, embarrassing part of the Korean success story even today, in a society in which about 4% of the GDP comes from sex work, more than fishing, mining, and agriculture combined. One might be tempted to say that it ain't just farmers using hoes, but that would, of course, be in very poor taste. 

Image by Michael Hurt. Yongsan red light district, 2006. 

Image by Michael Hurt. Yongsan red light district, 2006. 

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 them was 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. 

Basically, Korea is a nation so concerned with its national image that the sight of trash pile in the frame of the Dior image is going to start blood boiling -- this is a common reaction to showing too much of Korea's gritty underbelly as opposed to the bright and shiny PR KOREA that CJ likes to package into neat, little plastic facades that flatter the Korean ego. This is why Seoul city made the Avengers production team and Marvel Studios promise to show the city in a positive light, meaning an image of advanced industrial success in metal and glass structures, superhighways filled with shiny, late-model cars, and other nice things™. In the end, the real violation here was that of mixing in the aesthetic of true grit into the literal picture, more than any intended slight about the tendency of Korean to prostitute themselves for designer bags. That connection was mostly the projection of another perceived slight that originates in a deeper, darker place in the Korean psyche, down in the DNA of Korean modern identity itself, down in the depths where sadaejuui still lurks, where Korea's partially unfulfilled will to racial purity expressed as national power and concrete markers such as the GDP and how many Prada (or Dior) bags one can spy on the street. And showing designer bags juxtaposed with trash bags does make the sensitive Korean viewer wonder if the semiotic suggestion might not be that the women are somehow akin to that trash themselves, but I think this to be too literal of a reading. It's just that the trash in the background reminds the viewer of the inconvenient truth of Korean modern development, making the image an artistic representation of how the true grit and dirty moral compromises of development backgrounded the bright and shiny present, how the ability to buy a Dior bag today was very well partially created by the exploitation of female bodies and labor (and yes, that did include sex work), how the shadow economy is intricately bound up (quietly) with the formal one -- which all results in "Korean Woman" standing as a metonym for the contradictions  of Korean society itself. This socially uncomfortable, quietly aggressive assertion of this true work of art masquerading as an unassuming advertisement is responsible for the present, fundamental misreading of the work's meaning and is why the overly-simplistic reading of "it's demeaning Korean women" becomes the easy one, especially given the great deal of potential for polysemic play inherent to such a multilayered and deceptively simple artistic work. 

In short and put simply, people are just reading it wrong and they're rightly picking up on the bat-to-the-knees subtextual roughness of the picture's very palpable social critique. But the work is not simply saying that "Korean women are hoeing for bags" but rather, that all of Korean society has prostituted itself, implied as what we see in the foreground of our reality comes into sharp relief only against the barely hidden piles of dirt and the bags of moral garbage that defines the Gritty Real that undergirds Korean life. 

THE THICK OF THE PLOT
As the first street fashion photographer and blogger in Korea  (shooting what people were wearing, and blogging it since Fall, 2006) and active street photographer since August, 2002, I've been caught up in the attempt to convey through images what it means to be Korean. I have been caught up with issues of identity, the notion of Koreanness, and the meaning of it all since 2002, and very much obsessed with the natio of conveying the Real in Korean culture, which inevitably means the need to express the True Grit of Korean life not just in terms of subject matter, but also an aesthetic of the Real. However, since the Korean sadaejuuii complex is by definition allergic to this aesthetic, it should be little surprise to see a ludicrously high sensitivity to perceived national slights, especially as it occurs in the contested (and contestable) realm of visual representation. I'll just ease into explication by way of starting with History and development.

Now, we come to the point of looking at the short history of Street Photography in South Korea, where the few photographers shooting "street" busied themselves with documenting a post-war, development-era society living in conditions of relative poverty and undergoing massive, rapid social change. 

Choi Min-shik, based in Busan, took some of the most iconic and outright critical images of the era, depicting abject poverty and social destitution in a hard-hitting way that outright stings eve to this day This image, converted into full-motion form, defined a major photographic, visual touchstone in the opening long dolly through the International Market in the film of the same name (in Korean as 국제시장), also known in English as Ode to My Father. This film was a tour-de-force as an extremely rose-tinted exercise in reconstructing nostalgic popular memory through  and on film. This is one of the most important, historically seminal images in Korean history.  

How the Other Half Lives  , Korean-style, by Choi Min Shik. A critical gaze worthy of that of Jacob Riis. 

How the Other Half Lives, Korean-style, by Choi Min Shik. A critical gaze worthy of that of Jacob Riis. 

This shot, taken by Jeong Beom-tae, demonstrates, all in a single image, the conflicted and complex emotions that come with living in close quarters to a new, neo-colonial master. 

This is one of the most iconic images of development-era Korea, and was a staple in Korean history textbooks. It is definitely one off the best-know street/documentary photography images in the Korean mind. 

LIM Eun-Shik, "Gu-jik" ("Seeking employment").

LIM Eun-Shik, "Gu-jik" ("Seeking employment").