words & images andrea y. lee
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”), or North Korea, is generally regarded as one of the world’s most isolated countries. However, an examination of North Korean fashion reveals a multitude of influences conspiring to make the DPRK aesthetic as unique as the country itself. It is fairly easy to observe the influence of Russia and China in the modern military garb of DPRK soldiers, and in the DPRK, military fashion extends naturally into civilian style. Growing tourism from Europe and the Americas has been accompanied by exposure to western fabrics and trends, which has inevitably had an effect, albeit a muted one, on North Korean fashionistas. Also not to be ignored is a reportedly steady influx of foreign media on the black market, most notably South Korean films and television dramas. These and other influences are woven into the anachronistic tapestry of modern life in the DPRK, so that it is not uncommon to see trends that are out of step with the rest of the world. At the same time, this firm connection with the past makes the DPRK a living exhibition of classical Korean fashion, a place where donning traditional Korean clothing is much more commonplace than in the South. I travel to the DPRK from New York almost every month, and am amazed at the changes that have taken place in the country in the last decade alone. This article shares just a few of my unscientific observations on North Korean fashion. Of course, more than anything I encourage you to pack a bag and experience the country for yourself.
The DPRK Attitude
My exposure to DPRK fashion began like everyone else’s: on my first plane ride to Pyongyang. It was 2003, and Air Koryo was still using IL-18s for their Beijing–Pyongyang route—classic Russian propeller planes that made for great stories and bumpy rides. The North Korean stewardesses were young, confident, and pretty, neatly dressed in red uniforms, skirts slightly above the knee and suit vests on top of white, collared shirts. They wore nude stockings with black pumps and had their hair tied back in a quintessentially Asian manner. The stewardesses are just as fashionable on Air Koryo as they are on Korean Air, but if fashion is really about attitude, the two are worlds apart. The flight attendants on Air Koryo were terse and utilitarian, a demeanor which shone through their no-fluff communiqués. The typical litany of safety instructions was replaced with a functional and efficient (grossly paraphrased) “Sit down, fasten your seatbelts, and look around for the exits.” Some of their no-nonsense aura may have been due to the language barrier (the less they said, the less English they had to speak), but the stewardesses’ attitudes reflected the fact that people of the DPRK possess a certain rugged pragmatism borne of the hardship that they have collectively faced over the last half-century. This pragmatism is coupled with an uncommon warmth and concern for others—a tough but genuine hospitality that is the chief trait of the North Korean people first noticed by visitors.
That’s Sooo 2003
When I took my first trip to the DPRK, I traveled with a group of Korean-American businesswomen, including my mother. The whole trip was business formal and business casual, but the group had told me beforehand that I shouldn’t bring jeans. I didn’t think anything of this at the time, but when my younger sister took a tourist trip to the DPRK two years later, she told me that her jeans were held at the airport until she exited Pyongyang! Yes, the fashion police do exist.
A decade ago, airport officials might have searched bags to scrutinize your blue jeans, and you might have had to leave them at the airport along with your cell phone. Today, hardly any bags are searched at Sunan International, and officials have made their peace with the clothing and technology that westerners typically bring into the country. We can now take our cell phones, telescoping camera lenses, and blue jeans with us when we travel through the DPRK. Since January of 2013, when the DPRK began offering voice plans and 3G mobile Internet to foreigners, I’ve posted pictures to Instagram, tweeted, and even conducted a Reddit AMA, all from within the country. While I still haven’t seen many Pyongyangers wearing jeans, exposure to western technologies and fashions has definitely made an impact.
On that first trip, I did have a white denim mini-skirt with me that managed to turn a few heads on the streets of Pyongyang. In fact, my guide later told me that even the length of my business suit skirt caused a bit of a stir at the airport. I might just be getting older, but my skirt length (which is modest in the States) doesn’t receive much attention any more. In fact, last July, Kim Jong Un sanctioned the Moranbong Band, a North Korean girl band that wears sequined mini-skirts and flitters around like North Korea’s (more serious) brand of K-pop. This is certainly reflective of the changing times, as it seems more and more North Korean women are showing a little more leg every time I make the trip.
In an open society, countercultures are responsible for birthing the truly enduring trends in art and fashion. Bold artists and civic icons are able to channel the restlessness of entire generations and, through their particular styles, speak truth to power in a manner that resonates with the marginalized. The styles and fashions of these artists and icons endure because the courage of their defiance lends them an authenticity that cannot be manufactured by those who don’t take the same risks. Americans need only to look back at the history of R&B and Rock & Roll to understand the durability of fashion trends that emerge from new and exciting countercultures. For a contemporary, international example, one can observe how the psychedelic balaclavas of Pussy Riot have captured the imagination of a generation of Russians and have been referenced in the performances of American fashion icons like Madonna. Such shared symbols of identity and self-realization become part of who we are, and entire generations construct their identity by contrasting themselves philosophically and aesthetically with the generation that came before them.
It is easier for observers to identify countercultural fashion trends in a plural society than in a unitary society, because in a plural society such trends are more readily publicized by the populace. In the DPRK, there are certainly modes of public expression and sources of identity separate from the state, but they are not as easily discussed with foreigners. One example is the reportedly steady influx of pirated media from China.
By many accounts, North Koreans love television dramas as much as their brethren in the South, and exposure to South Korean dramas and films may be driving some of the trends that I’ve noticed over time. When I first traveled to the DPRK, Pyongyang women were making themselves up like they were in the 1980s. Think of something between Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles and Cindy Lauper on any given day in 1985. In other words, the makeup had an identity of its own. Paleface and bright red tones were in; blending and flesh tones were out. Now it’s quite the opposite and makeup styles have caught up with the ‘natural’ look more prevalent in Euro-American fashion magazines.
Andrea Lee is the CEO of Uri Tours, the premier U.S.-based tour company specializing in tours to North Korea. She has been traveling to the DPRK for over ten years.