It has been said that fashion in the reclusive DPRK is as insipid and stagnant as the leadership itself. Lately, however, from titillating short skirts at the Pyongyang fashion show to eye-catching “killer heels” strapped to the soles of the capital’s elites, new trends in authoritarian fashion are taking center stage in the reclusive DPRK.
Fashion articulates society more precisely than any other art form and the styles of Pyongyang’s fashion speak to the influence of Coco Chanel. The structured suit jackets, the feminine waists and masculine lapels pay homage to Chanel‘s early oeuvre. Given official state approval and, by-proxy, the approval of young leader Kim Jong Un, models glided up and down the green felt catwalk with higher hems and lower necklines than have been previously allowed the state notorious for “fashion police” monitoring style infractions.
The styles of Pyongyang’s fashion show are further illustrative of the influence of Ri Sol Ju, Kim’s Christian Dior handbag-wielding wife. Ri appears to be setting the standard from which Coco Chanel inspired ladies’ designs are filtering their way into everyday wear in Pyongyang. Strolling through the streets of the capital it is possible to see women showing off polka dot blouses, bright yellow wedges shoes and the same kind of close fitting skirts, hemlines riding precariously above the knee, on display on the catwalks.
Alek Sigley, director of Australia-based North Korea tour company Tongil Tours and regular visitor to the DPRK capital said, “Women’s dress choice has perceptibly diversified over recent years, with Chinese fashion constituting a key influence. This can be seen on the streets of Pyongyang in a profusion of colors and eclectic yet emphatically feminine outfits boasting sequins, frilling, sheer fabric, lace, ribbons and other such ornamentation. All this is usually topped off with a pair of high heels. Flared trousers are also a major force right now.”
The clothing has more subtle influences. The raised and structured collars, in the buttons on the lapel, pockets and cuffs, and in the contrasted piping, represent the same authoritarian symbolism as existed on the uniforms of Gestapo agents and Soviet cadre.
The khaki look positioned Kim Jong Il close to the military at a time when his Military-First Policy was being rolled out
While the women of Pyongyang take their stylistic cue from Kim Jung Un’s wife, with the designer “clutch” bag the newest fad to hit the streets, from young to old, men tend to opt for khaki or olive green military-style attire or suits, whether of the Sun Yat-sen tunic or Western variety.
Made from the “national fiber” of the DPRK, “vinylon” is a stiff, uncomfortable synthetic product made in Hamhung, North Korea. The khaki look positioned Kim Jong Il close to the military at a time when his Military-First Policy was being rolled out.
Kim Jong Il’s son and current dictator of North Korea Kim Jung Un lacks the credentials of his father. As such, he has modeled his look on his grandfather – the black, broad, greatcoat and shirts with the high and narrow, rounded club collar as his trademark.
The smart, closely fitted designs convey dominance and authority. The suit designs of grandfather and grandson are straight and broad. Rather than cutting close to the figure, they employ ample fabric to create an illusion of width and height. Similar to his grandfather, Kim Jong Un favors black clothes usually featuring broad flat pockets across the chest, expressing strength and masculinity. In these designs, there are the subtle indications of power, strength and solidarity.
From the jackboots of Nazi-era Germany to the 1980s invasion of American blue jeans in the Soviet Union, fashion is a reliable gauge of society’s shifting mores. In the DPRK, wearable designs speak to the influences that permeate the country’s tightly guarded borders. This notwithstanding, we should not be too quick to think that the changing North Korean styles could herald an East Asian Glasnost.
Fashion in the world’s most closed state continues to be dictated from the top down. From the rising skirt of Ri Sol Ju to the Military-First two-piece of the former Great Leader, the hand of the state continues to weave a total authority over its citizens.
All pictures: Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours
It has been said that fashion in the reclusive DPRK is as insipid and stagnant as the leadership itself. Lately, however, from titillating short skirts at the Pyongyang fashion show to eye-catching “killer heels” strapped to the soles of the capital’s elites, new trends in authoritarian fashion are taking center stage in the reclusive DPRK. The
Dr. Markus Bell is a cultural anthropologist and lecturer in the University of Sheffield's School of East Asian Studies. A graduate of the Australian National University, he is a specialist of migration and forced movement in contemporary Asia. Follow him @mpsbell
Markus Bell (pictured) is an anthropologist and Ph.D candidate at the Australian National University researching North Korean defectors in Japan. He has previously published extensively in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Diplomat and the Guardian. Rosemary Listing is an art historian and attorney working out of Australia.