A Long Quest to Be Up to Date

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A Long Quest to Be Up to Date

Korean Women Have Followed Changing Styles and the West

Long straight hair, perfectly made-up face, sleek cigarette pants and slinky rhinestone sandals. You are looking at a striking Korean young woman on the street. But then you notice another one behind you sporting a nearly identical look and still some more on the other side of the street.

If you're a visitor to Korea - and if you're not busy defending yourself from your wife's com-plaints about your roaming eyes - you may wonder why most Korean young women seem to look the same.

It's not that all Korean women look alike, but they do have a strong tendency to conform or follow the look of the moment. Confident as they may seem, these 20-something Korean women appear less interested in individuality than in following the fashion trends and being "modern."

Just a few decades ago, modern clothing fashions were somewhat of a puzzle to Koreans. The term used to be synonymous with "foreign" or "Western" or, to be more accurate, Western fashions symbolized a commitment to social modernization across the board. Near the end of the Chosun Dynasty in the late 19th century, Western clothing styles were introduced and stimulated modernization of society in general. Although Korean nationalists protested that the new styles were a treacherous betrayal of the country, revolutionaries adopted these "fresh off the boat" imports and spread the trend among the general public.

The reform wave first induced Korean men to lop off their long hair and traditional ponytail and don Western suits, a radical symbol of change, a new beginning. But for a majority of Korean women, the notion of the "modern girl" did not appear until the 1930s, nearly a decade after the men switched to Western attire.

Korean women made concessions to modernization by adopting variations of the Korean traditional costume called hanbok: The jack-et became longer, the skirt shorter; long straight hair was a must for fancy braiding and twisting. A few important intellectuals and movie stars influenced fashion in Korea, and their way of dressing became young the Jazz Era. Korea's "New Women" were glam-ourized, just like female fashion leaders in the West, and hair styles moved toward chic bobs and permanent waves. Unlike Western women, though, they still donned the modernized hanbok, complete with a pair of Western-style leather pumps.

While their aunts and older sisters enjoyed the new look, fashion for the younger generation took another step. Under Japanese colonial rule, teenage girls wore school uniforms resembling a
sailor's suit. Blouses and skirts became standard Western fashion as these young women were leaving school and could turn their attention to styling themselves creatively. Stylish young women in the 1940s wearing chic blouses and skirt ensembles stood out as they strutted down dusty marketplace roads.

But their vanity evaporated when the Korean War broke out in 1950. The war wiped out young girls' dreams, replacing them with despair and wretchedness. Their fashion survival meant rising from rags to riches - the rags were the thread-bare remnants of happy memories, and riches were whatever could be scavenged to adorn themselves.

American army surplus seemed to be the only hope for the present, which perversely seemed to stimulate vanity. A girl with a decent dress became a war heroine. A girl who found a lipstick felt like a beauty queen. With a pair of even remotely fashionable shoes, she was on top of the world. The American Sears Roebuck catalogue look became the mainstream among those who craved fashion inspiration. Girls did not forget their fascination with fashion, however difficult it was to attain.

The revival of the post-war economy helped to rejuvenate the fashion industry. Glamour was back and so were the stylish young women. Older ladies in black and white hanboks and matching
pumps were the conservative rear guard in skirt lengths that gracefully fell to their ankles.

Miniskirts of the '60s and the women's liberation movement quickly became part of the identity of young women who were coming of age. Uninhibited young women found their freedom on the streets, parading in skirts whose hemlines reached for the sky. Well into the '70s, Korean young women kept policemen busy with their violations of the Minor Offense Law. (The law at the time prohibited women from wearing skirts with hemlines more than 15 centimeters (6 inches) above the knee. Imagine police officers carrying not a baton but a measuring stick.)

Korean women's passion for fashion kept them alive and strong. Their freedom to follow modern fashions in a Confucian society did not come easily.

Young women living in Korea in the year 2000 are aware of their older, tougher sisters watching over them. From time to time, they are asked to conform, just as the older generation did. To please their elders, girls may own a conservative pants suit or two. And very often, caught up in fad frenzies, they must bow to peer pressure to conform. Here a trace of insecurity surfaces as they blindly follow the ephemeral look of the moment.

But fashion watchers are beginning to spot a few young women with a unique individual mix of styles. Considering what Korean young women have already gone through, it is safe to say that in no time they will have figured it all out by themselves.

by Ines Cho

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