For the scope of this paper, I am focusing on how South Korean urbanites view fashion as a means of expression and how fashion reflects the values of the Korean urban society. Based on my preliminary observations, I have noticed that Korea has a very distinct street style. I have observed that majority of the people on the streets dress in a similar fashion. Unlike in western societies where street style tends to be more varied and unique to the individual, conformity and similarity seems to be the main focal point in Korea. I am therefore interested to find out what exactly drives this phenomenon in Korea? How does the collectivistic culture of the Korean society influences the way one develops street style in Korea? What kind of political, economic and social factors does street style reflect on the society? Moreover, what does street style reveal about the changing landscape of people in the society? Also, I would like to investigate who are the players who dictate the ebb and flow of fashion trends in the Korean society?
The term ‘fashion’ is derived from the Latin word ‘factio’ which means making or doing. Although ‘style’ can sometimes be used synonymously with ‘fashion’, more accurately ‘style’ denotes the meaning of conforming to a ‘prevalent standard’. When combined, the term ‘street style’ connotes the democratization of fashion. (Kawamura, 2005: 3)
Prior to the modern concept of fashion, in the 15th century, fashion was a symbol for class distinction and mainly a product that was only exclusively enjoyed by the aristocrats in society. In the 19th century, the wealthy also had the means to participate in fashion consumption and thus what was initially a closed form of activity now began to open up. This eventually led to the democratization of fashion, which began in the 20th century, whereby anyone, regardless of class or status, possessed the right to look fashionable. (Kawamura, 2005: 5) ‘Street style’ is one such example.
A general definition of fashion would be that it is a common standard of dress that is worn by the society of a certain epoch in time. Because what is considered as ‘fashion’ is constantly evolving throughout history, it is hard to define what exactly is fashion.
Fashion is often confused with the physical form of clothing but what it really represents is the symbols that are hidden beneath the material form of clothing. Finkelstein points out that ‘consumers imagine they are acquiring the added values when they are purchasing ‘fashionable’ items’. Fashion is the intangible value that people attribute to the clothing. As defined by Bell, ‘fashion is the essential virtue in a garment without which its intrinsic values can hardly be perceived.’ (Kawamura, 2005: 4-5)
It can be said that fashion itself is a mental construct because it only exists in people’s minds. People believe that in the act of purchasing fashion, they possess the values embedded within a piece of clothing rather than just the simple act of possessing the material form of the clothing. Clothing is not fashion unless the individual believes it is.
It is unclear as to what exactly are the values that the individual acquires. However, a likely guess would be that these values are linked with identity expression. What values an individual acquires through consuming fashion are the values that she or he wishes to express based on her or his identity. Thus, when a person consumes fashion, what they are in fact acquiring are the symbols of an identity construct rather than the physical act of clothing itself. Therefore, from this fact, we can derive the principle that by gaining a better understanding in the patterns of fashion trends in Korean society as observed, we can decipher how South Korean urbanites construct their identities.
Perspectives in Fashion studies