Following the changing faces of modern Korean women
Gaebyeoksa, one of the first Korean magazine companies that published various types of magazines which functioned as the foremost agency in forming and developing colonial Korea in the 1920s, celebrates its centenary this year.
Starting with publishing a monthly magazine “Gaebyeok,” followed by “Byeolgeongon,” “Children,” “Shinsonyeon” and “Student,” Gaebyeoksa led the growth of journalism, creating a renaissance of literature.
One of the most controversial magazines that captivated female readers here was the publication of “Shinyeoseong,” which can be translated as “Modern Women” in English. The first issue of “Shinyeoseong” dates back to Sept. 1, 1923, and was published monthly for 10 years.
Despite playing an important role in driving new values and attitudes as well as forming feminist discourse in the 1920s and 30s, no exhibition has been organized to look into the history of this modern women’s magazine.
The Korea JoongAng Daily takes this opportunity to exhibit in text how “Shinyeoseong,” which also celebrated its anniversary on Sept. 1, played a part in creating and propagating the new values for modern Korean women, by taking a look at the history of its cover images.
For publishers, the cover of a magazine is the face of the corresponding media that attract consumers. Therefore its visual presentation is regarded as most important.
For the covers of “Shinyeoseong,” different faces of unconstrained modern women moving into the new epoch in the 1920s were featured, allowing people today to witness the image of women required in those days or dreamed of by women themselves.
Appearance of modern women
In 1920 Japan’s imperial rule was transformed into the so-called cultural rule after the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919. Cultural rule was a soft-line policy Japan adopted to its colonial country — Korea — after realizing the need to conciliate the people of Joseon.
This involved authorizing the establishment of Korean publishing companies as well as holding assemblies. Although many Koreans today criticize such political approaches as Japan’s “plot to slowly wipe out Korean culture and force theirs on Joseon people,” it allowed Koreans to be relatively more free to express their political and cultural will.
Under the cultural rule, the publication of newspapers and magazines became possible, which enlightened the public by emphasizing the need for acquiring new knowledge and promoting education.
With emphasis on the “new culture,” interest in women as principal agents increased. For example, women’s education became invigorated and women began to advance in society. Such available manpower and the transformed atmosphere led to the birth of modern women’s magazine, “Shinyeoseong.”
Including the suspension of the publication for about four years from late 1926 to 1930, about 40 issues of “Shinyeoseong” were published over 12 years. There’s no exact finding on the circulation or the distribution channel of this magazine.
But old news articles and announcement notices on other magazines of Gaebyeoksa, detailing the selling out of “Shinyeoseong” attest the popularity of the magazine. “Shinyeoseong” was not only distributed in bookstores across the country but was also sold through branch offices of Gaebyeoksa in various cities.
One issue had about 100 pages, featuring a wide range of articles about women, such as short stories, poems, essays as well as articles on pop culture and the hottest trends.
Some sections were quite political as well, featuring theses that urged the enlightenment of Korean women, with titles like “The Class Status of Women,” “The Origin of Weak Women and the Working Class” and so on. Such characteristic of “Shinyeoseong” differentiated the magazine from other women’s magazines.
In fact, “Shinyeoseong” was a newly coined word (shin meaning new and yeoseong meaning women in Korean) that was introduced. Different words began to emerge referring to modern women who were at that time categorized according to education level, marital status, age and so on and received titles like jubu (housewife), cheonyeo (unmarried woman) and soneyo (girl). In a male-centric Korean society, such a change meant that a new worldview was formed that recognized women and men as “equally different.”
Different terms that finely classified women were introduced, each of which formed and reinforced their own personality. Modern women’s magazines of that time continued to create new representations of women by constantly naming and defining them.
“Shinyeoseong” was a major women’s magazine that led such modern views of the world. It shaped many of the agenda-setting discussions concerning women, dominated that change and presented an image of an ideal woman. Stories and images that introduced different types and images of women, from the “new women of Joseon,” which referred to young female students with an intelligent and elegant appearance, to the “international modern girl” image, which shows off urban beauty and cutting-edge styles, captivated the readers of “Shinyeoseong.”
The new women of Joseon
But by adding unique facial expressions, “Shinyeoseong” managed to create a new image of the new modern woman.
For example, on the cover of the September issue in 1924, there’s a female student with fair skin, neatly trimmed eyebrows and cherry red lips, suggesting that she had carefully put on her makeup. Her eyes are deep and dark and her nose is sharply raised. The image is somewhat distanced from the typical image of an Asian woman.
“Shinyeoseong” continued to feature female students with such looks and it soon became the image of the modern woman at that time. They all exhibited similar facial expressions — their heads tilted slightly and their eyes gazing vacantly into space.
Lips are firmly closed, making them look stiff. Their expressions often look like they are contemplating something.
Why did they make such an expression?
Kim Ki-jeon, who was an editorial writer of “Shinyeoseong” criticized in the August issue of 1924 that women in those days only “lust for pleasures of bourgeois” and argued that “they should self-examine and torment themselves.”
According to Kim, the true modern woman should know how to “establish a system of ideals and emotions of her family through self-distress.” In other words, for opinion leaders of the time, modern women were those who behave well to set their family and house in order.
As stressed in the editorial, the faces of modern women featured on the covers of “Shinyeoseong” all look dignified and solemn.
The face of a modern woman in this period, with a solemn expression of self-distress and boasting beauty with Western features, reflects the confusion of the times, lost between tradition and modern values. She is wary of the modern culture, emphasizing internal values such as self-distress and introspection, but on the outside, shows a face similar to Western women.
In the first issue of “Shinyeoseong,” there was an article that pointed out how more and more gisaeng (female courtesans) try to follow the Joseon student look, urging the need to find a way to differentiate the two, such as distributing real uniforms with school badges for “real” female students.
Such image of a modern women continued to appear on the covers of “Shinyeoseong” throughout early 1920s. These women often appeared with items like books, parasols and musical instruments in an attempt to create a sophisticated, intellectual image.
During the early years of the magazine, traditional brush strokes were used to depict the title “Shinyeoseong” in Chinese characters. The characters were written in bold, yet forming a gentle curve that conveys a feeling of softness.
As illustrated, the softness, gentleness and delicacy from the traditional point of view were embodied not only through the image of a woman on the cover, but also through the typography. Such a cover image is in contrast to the magazine “Shinsonyeon,” or “Modern Boy” in English, published during the same period.
The magazine, which targeted young men in the 1920s, used bold yet angled fonts to convey the impression of being strong and rough.
International modern girl
From the mid-1920s, the women on the cover of “Shinyeoseong” began to change. The Joseon-style modern girl image was soon taken over by a new image of a woman whose nationality could not really be distinguished. Illustrations were often used to depict such women in a more simplified way.
These women usually had long, thin eyebrows and a sharp and narrow nose, creating a rather sensitive impression. The lips were no longer cherry red, but toned down and the gaze was straight on, making eye contact with the reader. Such an image was in stark contrast to the cover women of the previous issues, who gave a passive impression as if avoiding something by looking into space in the distance.
Researchers say that such a transformation is also related to the widening range of painting techniques that the art world embraced. The introduction of Western illustrations in the mid-1920s allowed Korean painting styles to break away from its traditional technique where realistic description was essential.
In the book “The Faces of an Era: Studying modernization with magazine covers” (translated), the author Seo Yu-ri writes that the female images on the cover of “Shinyeoseong” originated from French designer Erté. Such Erté-style works abundantly use thin brush lines and the women are adorned with embellishment. The style gained popularity in the mid to late 1910s through Harpers Bazaar, a popular American magazine. The trend then moved to Japan, appearing on the cover of its women’s magazine, “Josei.”
Korean painters in the mid to late 1920s actively referred to this new style of art and tried to create the “Korean image.” As a result, the so-called “international modern woman look” was introduced.
These women were portrayed wearing either Western or modernized versions of hanbok, delighting the readers’ eyes. Sometimes the woman wore Western dresses that were heavily laced, making her look like a princess from the West (October issue, 1932), while some appeared as a Greek goddess wearing elegant draped gowns.
Wealthy ladies from the city boasted their own sophisticated and fashionable looks, showing off trendy items like a cloche hat on top of a short layered bobbed hair.
For example, the woman on the April issue in 1931 shows a sense of aesthetics by gently wrapping a scarf of bright colors and patterns around her neck.
Other issues of this period also featured various styles of women, such as one wearing a swimsuit and another wearing uniquely patterned clothes while having her hair braided up on her head. As such, Western fashion became widely popular among Korean women.
The modern trends from the West also influenced the typography style of the magazine once again. There was no more paint brush calligraphy, and instead a new style of graphic-like typography emerged. Moreover, Japanese design characters known as “kinema characters,” designed under the influence of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, were introduced in Korea, and were applied to the title design of “Shinyeoseong.”
As illustrated on the cover of the March issue in 1926, the design of the title is sharp and straight as if it were drawn using the hard, square nib of a felt pen. The thickness of the strokes differ, which is another contrasting aspect to the previous fonts.
Due to such a design, the traditional and soft image disappeared, creating a modern and sophisticated look.
Since then, diverse attempts were made by “Shinyeoseong” to change the design of its typography, each of which harmonizes with the image elements on the cover, contributing in shaping the image of modern women.
As seen through the covers of “Shinyeoseong,” the image of modern women of Korea transformed from the serious female student in the early 1920s to a more Westernized look with a freer spirit. Such a transformation was made by mutually exchanging influences with not only various social and cultural phenomena of the day, but also with the actual female readers of the time.
Researchers insist that the cover of “Shinyeoseong” acted as a medium to project the modern desires of Koreans. By identifying herself with the woman on the cover, female readers dreamed of the modern era.
BY ANN DA-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]