White Shirt or Tee Shirt? What's a Guy to Do?
The Korean saying "Osi nalgeda!" literally translates as "your clothes are your wings." In other words, how you dress can open doors and allow you to reach the heights you desire. As a result, Koreans tend to be quite conscious of how they dress and always try to look their best. This practice originates from the aristocratic or yangban class for whom appropriate public dress was formal, jeongjang, and consisted of a hat and a full length jacket called the durumagi. The hat and jacket signified respect to the host or visiting person.
Jeongjang literally means correct or proper dress. When Western attire was introduced to Korea in the early twentieth century, the local formal dress corresponded to it and so it was easily and quickly adopted. This has been the correct way to dress for a long time, but today what constitutes appropriate dress for work is becoming hazy.
The "dress down" phenomenon sweeping many urban centers around the world has upset the former comfortable clarity. Life was a lot simpler when "dressing up" meant wearing polished shoes, a jacket with matching pants and a necktie with a white shirt. There was a time when, if you were unsure of what to wear, the safe bet was to don a suit and tie. Now all that has changed.
Sometime during the early 1990s, Silicon Valley types began making product launch appearances in jeans and tee shirts. Professionals in creative fields decided that ties got in the way of their conceptual pursuits. Naturally the fashion houses spotted an opportunity for a killing and jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting that it was okay to attend board meetings and formal parties in black tee shirts and casual jackets, as long as they were attached to a famous name and therefore expensive.
Now we have grown men hyperventilating when trying to decide what to wear. To wear a tie or not is the big question. And if you choose not to wear a tie, then the question you face is how to ensure that appropriate respect is conveyed to the person you are going to meet?
The most common mistake is equating dressing down with casual dress. There is a tendency to think that dressing casually is license to look sloppy. In the context of appropriate attire for the workplace, this is a serious mistake. Generally, one should remember that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," especially when it comes to matters of dress. What you wear should be based upon your conception of the person you wish to impress, and in accordance with what you think is the appropriate style for the occasion. If one were going to meet with an official at the Ministry of Finance, it would be a safe bet to wear a suit, white shirt and tie. That's if the end is to take care of business without distracting the person one is to meet. By the same token, if you are working in an environment where newness, change and searching for the unusual is the goal, then you certainly should not dress in clothing that links you to old-fashioned ways of thinking.
In most of the Western countries where a more relaxed mode of dress has been adopted, the general standard is that what you wear in the office should be pressed and dressy clothes which are perceived as tidy and neat. Traditional business wear of the dark suit and tie reflected these standards and the same principle can be applied to dressing without a tie.
In matters of personal appearance such as dress standards, Koreans are extremely quick at picking up trends and adapting them. With the fickle nature of the fashion industry, it is easy to forget that what was seemly last year may not be so anymore. I have noticed that there is an increasing number of offices in Seoul where the norm is tie-less, and even in most of these places, employees are still trying to figure out if blue denim and corduroys are acceptable.
The writer is president of Sympact, a design firm in Seoul, and lectures at the Korean National University of Arts.
by Joon Chung