First published at NK News on the 16th of January, 2019.
By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
A recently-produced glossy points to changing trends in the DPRK
I’ve recently had a few North Korean fashion magazines come into my possession. These magazines cannot be found in any of the bookstores in Pyongyang that are intended for foreigners, such as the bookstores inside the international hotels or the specialist foreign languages bookstores such as the one on Kim Il Sung Square.
They can be purchased from roadside book stalls, or ones attached to subway stations, and other such places that foreigners generally do not frequent. This, to some extent, supports their authenticity as documents which provide a measure of insight into everyday life and fashion culture in the DPRK.
They speak of the continued development of the country’s consumer economy, and the emergence of more people with disposable income to spend on things like restaurant dinners, electronics, pets, and clothing.
It is during this period that regular visitors to North Korea, including myself, have noticed increasingly colorful, diverse, and modern fashion on the streets of Pyongyang and the country’s other cities. This is the case mostly with women’s fashion, but with men’s fashion to a smaller extent too.
According to the cover, the magazine is put together by the “Clothing Research Center” under the “Ministry of Foodstuffs and Daily Necessities Manufacture”.
The “Ministry of Foodstuffs and Daily Necessities Manufacture”, as suggested by its name, oversees the production and quality of control of basic cooking ingredients such as cooking oil, soy sauce, doenjang, gochujang and the like, as well as processed and packaged foods, and daily necessities such as soap, toothpaste, and cosmetics.
The “Clothing Research Center” is involved in the design of North Korea’s school uniforms, which are standardized on a nationwide level from elementary school to the university level (in this Uriminzokkiri article where the director of the “Clothing Research Centre” is interviewed you may recognize the model for the female university student uniform as one of the ones in this magazine).
In addition to creating and popularizing clothing designs, it also assists clothing factories and tailors with production technologies.
The “Clothing Research Center” also manages its own “Comet Pilot Plant (Factory)” on Tongil Street, has created a fashion design computer program called “Comet”, and oversees the training of runway models for fashion shows. It does a lot of work on chosonot (traditional Korean clothing) design and fashion shows.
As the only center of its kind in the country, it sees its mission as to “make Korean women more beautiful”, and “take responsibility for the cultural advancement of the country” through “creating and spreading designs that meet the needs of the times and the tastes of the people”.
What appears to be the logo of the “Clothing Research Center” appears in the top left of the front cover. There’s a silhouette of a figure wearing a dress, outside of which feature the electron orbits of an atom and the word “clothing” in Korean.
Atoms are used everywhere in North Korea as a symbol for science. The evocation of science here only further hints at the still somewhat Marxist inclinations of the North Korean state, in attempting to apply rational and scientific methods to understanding every aspect of society and the natural world—including fashion.
So in a sense this is indeed a magazine of state-approved styles. The North Korean state has for long circumscribed people’s fashion with uniforms, through institutions such as the kyuch’altae(sometimes referred to as the “fashion police”). But when people aren’t at work or school, i.e. in normal clothes and not in uniform, what kind of clothing is it that the state suggests, rather than forbids that they wear?
After opening the cover, the first page of the magazine features—as is customary– a quote from Kim Jong Il (whose name is always bolded), here written in revolutionary red and inscribed within a decorative border:
“Clothing ought to be varyingly made in order to meet modern sensibilities, while at the same time correctly embodying the innate characteristics of our (Korean) people.”
The table of contents, seen above, features clothing for all four seasons, as well as “common sense” tips on “When your clothes get blood stained,” and “How to iron your skirt.”
The spring suits section. I’m no expert on women’s fashion, or any fashion for that matter, but North Korean women’s suits seem to be greatly indebted to the Chanel suit, with their close-fitting jackets and skirts and elegant, feminine designs.
We can see a selection of matching handbags on the left of the second page. The one on the bottom in particular looks like something from Louis Vuitton or Gucci.
A couple of pairs of high heels too. Note that high heels are de rigueur in North Korean women’s fashion, and everybody from office workers to security guards can be seen wearing them.
If you look closely you’ll also see that a ribbon motif features on one of the handbags and one of the pairs of shoes.
The suit on the left is marked out by a “1”, with a reference to its design being on page 83. All items are marked in numeric order, and when a design is featured in the back of the book, that is also mentioned.
The background it this next one familiar to me. Feels like somewhere I’ve been in downtown Pyongyang.
You may be beginning to notice that some of the model’s faces appear to be completely photoshopped on. There seem to be some cases that are obviously edited, while others seem natural. Then there are cases where you’re not so sure which of either it is. Perhaps some of the photos come from outside sources and a more Korean looking face was needed.
At any rate, the exact face as on number 10 appears multiple times in this magazine (37 on page 18, 62 on page 22 and 116 on page 38, for example). You may notice other repeat appearances, sometimes even on the same page.
While most of the model’s faces repeat throughout the magazine, the one on the right here seems to only appear once. Is this an intentional hapax legomenon the authors put in to screw with our heads?
The cowboy motif in this one, I feel, is pretty unique for this magazine and what you’d see on the street in North Korea.
These, however, I feel are the closest so far to what you’d see commonly worn around Pyongyang.
“Shirt” here, pronounced “syatchŭ” (샤쯔) is a western loanword, but a slightly different one to the South Korean word syŏch’ŭ (셔츠). The former seems to sound closer to the Japanese shātsu (シャーツ).
Despite it being often said that North Korean lacks English loanwords, I’ve found that it still has a great many which came in via Japanese during the colonial period, and more than a few from later too.
This section features a range of brightly colored, casual shirts for women. But you won’t see any t-shirts, or rarely anything with hoods or zips other than sportswear and padded winter jackets in general, so even when things are casual they are relatively formal.
I’d also add that like their compatriots in the South, North Korean people take great pride in their appearance, including their dress. You can see from the streets that North Korean people put a lot of effort into their clothing, which they prefer to keep neat and on the formal side.
Now onto the summer range.
Some coats for the autumn. Here the Western loanword k’ot’ŭ (코트) is used—the same as in South Korean.
That’s a very bright shade of pink on 116. Reminds me of one time when I saw a young woman walking down the street wearing a really really bright orange blazer.
That really stood out at the time because I very seldom see people wearing that bright a color in Pyongyang – she was rocking the look very well too.
I feel we’re really getting into ajumoni (“auntie”, middle-aged lady) territory now.
Now onto winter jackets.
134 is a very common look in the winter in North Korea. North Korean men and women both love the coats with the fur collar. 135, however, is a very “modern” look I don’t see a lot though.
Now, some knitwear: essential for the chilly North Korean winter.
Sportswear now – colorful indeed.
Swimwear. Nice dolphins, no bikinis though.
Cloth bags on the left below – some may recognize Tuzki the rabbit. On the right, the beginning of the “Original Designs” section, with a chart at the bottom explaining the chosongul (hangul) code for different body measurements.
Top left below, a measurements chart used for reference in designing/tailoring women’s clothing. Height in centimetres and various average body measurements.
Bottom left, a chart explaining the symbols used in the designs.
Right, the beginning of the section outlining designs featured in the photos in the earlier sections.
One of the things I like about clothing in North Korea is that while people do buy a fair portion of what they wear as off-the-rack clothing from the market or shops, tailors are still frequently used.
Tailor shops can be found on almost every street in Pyongyang, and I’ve found them to be cheap (just an honest but unsurprising note though: the tourist hotel tailor prices are massively inflated) and the work to be skilled.
Taking such a design and going to the tailor not only means the clothing fits you perfectly, but also allows you to add your own individual twist to the clothing through modifications or different fabrics.
Below, bottom left, are some “Common Sense” tips on “How to Iron Your Skirt”:
“Flip your skirt inside out and place it on the ironing board, then iron the lining and waist thoroughly. Then turn your skirt back to the outside, move it onto an ironing board for sleeves and iron it while pulling so as to create a receding line. When ironing a skirt you must also use an outer cloth.”
On the right, credits for the designs, editing, and “examination” (in which the name of the director from the Uriminjokkiri article is included), as well as publishing details.
I’m quite struck by the high quality of the printing and binding of these magazines, which feature full page color images.
It’s also interesting to note that these designs don’t really feature anything that looks particularly communist or militaristic, which you still do see a fair bit of all over North Korea in both women’s and men’s fashion. The models also do not feature portrait badges.
It seems that in North Korea, the state/society explicitly forbid certain clothing (such as jeans, clothing which is too revealing or outlandish, and for the most part clothing with words and faces printed on them). Then, certain clothing is actively prescribed, e.g. uniforms.
But that still leaves some room in the middle for people to negotiate a space where they can to some extent express themselves individually through what they wear.
They can, for example, take the designs recommended here and riff on them. They can also wear things that are neither recommended here nor at the same time proscribed (so please do not represent this magazine as saying that you “must” wear something like this as some have done with the hairstyle boards in North Korean barber shops—they’re just recommendations/suggestions). Trousers, for example, don’t really feature in this magazine, but are commonly worn by women in North Korea.
Some of the fashion here looks decidedly retro. Chinese friends who’ve seen it say it looks like 90s women’s fashion in China (and there are at least hints of Chinese influence). But by local standards I would say these styles are modern and cutting edge.
It’s interesting to note that in North Korea, while there’s always an emphasis that stays on maintaining tradition and the unchanging essence of what is Korean, there’s also at the same time a tendency to aspire for what is “modern”, as shouldn’t be surprising with a socialist state, which this magazine fits into the context of.
I’ve seen people, and even academic articles, discussing ryuhaeng (류행), which could be translated alternatively as “fashion”, “trends”, or “fads”.
So there is acknowledgement that things must change, but that those changes must fit within a dialectical relationship with tradition, and of course be mediated by the state—a logic which also functions within North Korean cultural production and is quite similar to what I had to study in my Literary Theory class at Kim Il Sung University.
Fashion in the outside has swung towards retro because trends move too quickly and it needs inspiration. Meanwhile, in North Korea, things have changed so slowly that the fashion looks retro to us. Does that make North Korean fashion unintentionally hip?
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Alek Sigley