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First ladies: On fashion’s front line

First lady fashion usually reflects the popular view of the ideal Korean woman of the time.

Jan 01,2008
Last month, in the midst of the roller-coaster ride that was the presidential campaign, United New Democratic Party spokeswoman Kim Hyun-mi made an unusual fashion comment during a National Assembly briefing.
She said that Kim Yoon-ok, the wife of Lee Myung-bak, then the Grand National Party’s candidate, wore a Frank Mueller wristwatch during the GNP primary in Ulsan in July, worth more than 15 million won ($16,000).
The accusation was supposed to be a well-aimed attack on the GNP candidate, whose top priorities during the presidential campaign included cleaning up its corruption-ridden image from the past. But it turned out to be a bad move by the UNDP.
Kim, Lee’s wife, revealed that the watch in question was actually a Romanson, a cheap domestic brand that mimics Frank Muller designs and costs around 70,000 won. She filed a lawsuit against the UNDP spokeswoman, demanding 100 million won for damaging her reputation.
But her attempts at dressing down will continue to haunt Kim when her husband takes office as the new Korean president in February.
In a country where frugality is considered an important female virtue, the public expects Korean first ladies to look elegant but not overly fashionable.
“They are extremely conscious of the public eye,” says Andre Kim, a fashion designer who has designed many clothes for Korean first ladies. “None of the Korean first ladies have yet worn an evening dress during state functions in the Blue House. When the occasion requires evening wear, they always choose a hanbok. For overseas trips or charity galas, they wear simple skirt suits that fall below the knees. They are very conservative, even more so than Japanese princesses who wear a mix of kimono and evening gowns to state functions.”
Lee Ri-ja, a veteran tailor who designed a funeral hanbok for Francesca Donner, the wife of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, says first lady fashion usually reflects the popular view of the ideal Korean women of the time.
When Roh Tae-woo took office in 1988, for example, his wife Kim Ok-suk deliberately chose to dress sedately, even though she was noted among the wives of politicians for her stylish fashion sense.
Kim was well aware of the fact that the public was hostile toward fashion-savvy First Lady Lee Soon-ja, the wife of former president Chun Doo Hwan, Kim’s predecessor. Later, when Kim’s image of a “humble wife” seemed to appeal to the public, Sohn Myung-soon, the wife of the succeeding president, Kim Young-sam, took a similar strategy.
“Kim dressed way too prudently for her style,” Lee recalls. “She was young and tall and still looked beautiful, but I think she felt pressured to always look modest.”
Despite being accused of dressing too extravagantly, Lee, Chun’s wife, was noted as “a fashion legacy” among designers.
In the book “Korea’s First Lady,” the author Cho Eun-hee writes that Lee consulted university design professors.
While Chun was in office, she encouraged the Education Ministry to lift a ban on high school students wearing uniforms and having long hair at school.
“She often glittered herself in pink,” says Kim Ye-jin, a hanbok designer who designed many clothes for Lee. “She loved elaborate embroidery and golden prints. On every dress she wore, she had pendant trinkets and a set of twin rings to match her clothes. Few women in elevated social positions promoted the hanbok overseas more than Lee did.”
Popular designs of hanbok for Korean first ladies include embroidered patterns representing state symbols like the morning glory or a phoenix.
On her first official visit to the United States, Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former president Kim Dae-jung, wore a pink dress with jade morning glory embroidery designed by Lee Ri-ja. The first lady wore it on her visit to the Smithsonian Institution.
But most Korean designers admit that Yuk Young-soo, the wife of Park Chung Hee, retained the most classic beauty of a Korean first lady, both in Korean and Western-style clothes.
“She was never too extravagant in her choices,” recalls Andre Kim. “Most Koreans remember her elegant hanbok, but she had a fine taste in Western-style outfits as well. She loved a maxi dress that fell just above her ankles. I once made her a purple polka-dot dress that had subtle wrinkles below the waist. She looked classic in it.”
But could Korean first ladies ever be as adventurous as icons like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the late wife of assassinated President John F. Kennedy?
“I think we are ready,” says Hosup Kan, a professor of textile art at Hongik University. “But we need to create an atmosphere where people stop criticizing our first ladies for wearing brand-name clothes. They have every right to represent the nation by using fashion as a diplomatic tool, like the Kennedys, who created a powerful image of royalty.”
But Korea has a history of bashing its first ladies for looking too fashionable.
Lee, Chun’s wife, couldn’t overcome her image of being overindulgent after she showed up for a magazine interview in a gaudy dress and Cartier wristwatch.
During Kim Dae-jung’s administration, an assemblyman of the opposition party accused Lee Hee-ho, Kim’s wife, of wearing luxury brand clothes, including Christian Dior and Chanel.
The accusation turned out to be false.
In later interviews, Lee revealed her frustration, saying she searched her closet after the assemblyman’s complaint to see if she had a Christian Dior dress. She said she found one suit with “CD” engraved on a button, but it was not Christian Dior.
Based on her look during recent public appearances, fashion critics expect Kim, the wife of the newly elected president, to maintain her conservative motherly image. “It’s the typical style of a CEO’s wife,” Kan says. “She seems to enjoy a lot of tweed, St. John-style skirt suits with a big hairdo. That’s popular among high-class wives.”
According to Kim’s aides, she’s more casual than other Korean first ladies. During the GNP primary, she often wore shirts over a sleeveless dress or a blouse with pants.
“She had no fashion advisers or image consultants during the presidential campaign,” says Kwon Yun-hee, Kim’s secretary during the presidential campaign. “Even for television appearances, she didn’t ask for special advice from fashion coordinators.” Some believe the next first lady should be as confident in her fashion sense as she is in charity work or mobilizing women to promote social welfare.
“She shouldn’t be afraid to be more bold,” says Kan. “I’d like to see her do charity field work in jeans and a tennis cap. She should pick the most beautiful hanbok, but also wear an evening gown for official state functions once in a while. She should put on a hat, gloves or whatever strengthens her royal look, like how pearl necklaces became a fashion trademark for Barbara Bush. I think Koreans are mature enough to see a sensible first lady for what she is.”


By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]


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