The Korea-U.K. culture divide

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The Korea-U.K. culture divide


A few weeks ago in London, an acquaintance accused me of dressing in a “normcore” way. Not knowing what this meant, I turned to a trustworthy source - the reliably hilarious urbandictionary.com. There, normcore is defined as “a subculture based on conscious, artificial adoption of things that are in widespread use, proven to be acceptable, or otherwise inoffensive.”

The key words are “conscious” and “artificial.” There are, apparently, people in my country (and the West in general) who dress blandly because it is, ironically, cool. So cool that there is a whole “subculture” built around it. Some say it started as a joke, but somewhere along the way it became a real thing.

Sadly, there is never any ironic intent in my choice of clothing. Decisions are driven entirely by, “I guess I won’t look completely stupid in that” and “that’s so cheap! I’ll have three!” In being blissfully unaware of my ‘normcore’ status, I wasn’t normcore at all - I was just uncool.

Clothing brand Gap is apparently now seen as the absolute height of dullness by fashionable young people. Attempting to capitalize on this, it introduced a normcore-themed campaign with the slogan “Dress Normal.” Unfortunately, Dress Normal didn’t work, because Gap already was normal, and like me, never previously “ironic” about it. When funkier brands release “normal” clothing ranges, though, people recognize them as normcore and go crazy for them. Male models strutting down the runways at Paris Fashion Week this year could apparently be seen wearing sandals and even “dad jeans.”

Someone who consciously adopts normcore is probably a kind of “hipster.” Not all hipsters are normcore, though; most like to be conspicuous, though also in an ironic sort of way. I’m currently working in an area of London named Shoreditch - a place known as the epicenter of British hipsterdom. The typical style for men there is to look like a cross between Charles Dickens (though having fallen on, forgive me, “Hard Times”) and a member of a prison gang.

In practice, this means having a well-maintained beard (specialist beard oil helps with this), and for the truly dedicated, a moustache that curls up at the edges; covering one’s arms in tattoos; and dressing like either a lumberjack or a homeless person. Doing this correctly is a pastime that requires money and subtlety, though. There’s a fine line between looking like an ironic lumberjack and just looking like a lumberjack.

Music played in bars tends to be willfully obscure, and usually meandering in tempo. If you’ve heard of any of the music being played, the DJ will probably be disappointed in himself. The rule can be broken, though, in the case of music that absolutely everyone has heard of. He could put on some Britney Spears or Maroon 5 and draw wry, knowing smiles - the aural equivalent of normcore.

A part of this culture seems to be the constant search for new, esoteric things. In Britain, Korean food is unknown to most people. This means that hipsters naturally love it. Bibimbap and kimchi - the most normal foods in the world to me and anyone reading this paper - are cutting edge in Shoreditch. Similarly, any mainstream product is considered vastly inferior to one that is “artisanal,” or “produced in small batches.”

A piece in my old paper The Economist last year referred to “the staid young”; it laid out the idea that “millennials” are a more sensible, less rebellious, more economically conservative bunch who would rather sit at home than go crazy on party islands like Ibiza. Maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. But it is a little bit boring, and doesn’t really feel like the youth culture we’ve been used to in the West.

For me, the hipster trend is part of this - it is the conservative young person’s idea of being different. In the past, youth cultures came with opinions and causes. But the hallmark of this dominant form of youth culture now is merely consumption - the right food, and even the right beard oil. Most things are done with a sense of irony rather than positivity; there’s no real belief in (or even anger at) anything. Hippies were into peace and love, and punks used to rip their jeans and hate authority; but fashionable young Londoners now buy expensive, pre-ripped jeans and aspire to work in industries like advertising.

When I’m in Seoul, I sometimes hear older expats who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s postulating that Korea is in the early stages of some sort of youth revolution - characterized by anger over excessive competition and years of study to little reward; much more liberal sexual and social values; a rejection of mainstream social ideas; and so on. I think there might prove to be some truth in this. Maybe they’ll provide an interesting counterpoint to increasingly bland Western youth culture.

Now, where are my dad jeans?


The author, former Seoul correspondent for The Economist, is co-founder and chief curator of Byline and the author of ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’ and ‘North Korea Confidential’.


by Daniel Tudor
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