Fashion Forward Into 2011

Popular South Korean girl band ''Girls' Generation''.

I saw skinny jeans for the first time while I was visiting Stockholm a few summers ago. They were unveiled at Swedish H&M in Europe before they hit the US market. I was afraid of them. More accurately, my thighs were afraid of them. Why would anyone want to wear pants that make their legs look like they were shoved into sausage casing? Seriously. Even if your name is Madonna and you create the fashion line yourself, I thought a person had to be pretty bold to put those on and strut around a European capital. Especially the white ones. But alas, a few things have changed since 2007: I bought my first pair of skinny jeans and so have the women of North Korea.

North Korean women have embraced skinny jeans after the government lifted a ban on “fashionable pants”.  Kim Young Soo, a political science professor at Seoul’s Sogang University, said Tuesday that skinny jeans were one of the most popular items on the market in North Korea today. Professor Kim interviewed about 2,000 recent defectors from North Korea. He said that the new fashion trend was a sign that “North Korea is easing its isolation.” Due to the highly secretive nature of North Korea’s regime, defectors are one of the few reliable sources of information for what is happening inside.

As part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s campaign for public morals, he forbade women from wearing trousers rather than skirts. Human rights group Good Friends said offenders can be punished with hours of forced labor or fined about a week’s salary.  Good Friends director Lee Seung-Yong said disciplinary officials monitor intersections to catch women violating the pants ban. Jong Il also banned women from wearing skirts above the knee, tight trousers, flared trousers or any garment that reveals the body’s contours.

In a Radio Free Asia story about the changing fashion trends in North Korea published earlier this year, Ahreum Jung reports that North Korean defectors who recently arrived in South Korea say colorfulconfident fashion is increasingly common in Pyongyang and that brighter colors first appeared in the northern capital as early as 2007, after North Koreans began to watch South Korean TV dramas for the first time. But other defectors say such ostentation is likely limited to urban women who can afford it.

A North Korean defector who recently resettled in Washington said the difference between the “haves and have-nots [in North Korea] is astounding,” and that such bold styles are most likely popular only with Pyongyang residents, who are far more affluent than people living outside the capital.

Although some women may be able to buy skinny jeans, women are still not allowed to ride bicycles because it is ”unbecoming”. 

Kay Seok, a Seoul-based researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote last year that the ban on women wearing pants and bicycles “is symptomatic of a range of other, often-overlooked, problems. Across North Korea’s conservative, male-dominated society, there is discrimination against women, a knowing disregard for the consequences of such policies, and an opportunistic manipulation of power by police officers trying to make easy money by preying on an undervalued and underprivileged population…In North Korea today, where the vast majority of the population, especially women, almost completely depend on this market system to earn a living and bring food home, a woman losing a day’s wages due to a fine or the confiscation of a bicycle may lead to her entire family going hungry.”

In other North Korean fashion news, perhaps go-go boots and platform shoes will make a comeback there: Jong Il’s exact height is unknown, but estimated around 5′ 1” (155cm) tall. To compensate for his shortness, he frequently wears three-to-six inch platform shoes.

Kim Jong-il and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

For a look at the couture of nine of the world’s dictators, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, Burma’s Than Shwe and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, check out Foreign Policy’s fantastic piece The Devil Wears Taupe.  North Korea’s state-run newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, calls Jong Il’s couture “chic”. While I certainly don’t have the fashion expertise of The Material Girl, I can confidently say that taupe is not his best color.

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