Korean Fashion 101

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Before we dive into the world of Korean fashion, there is something you must know and accept first. Korean women will always be:

  • thinner than you
  • more dressed up than you, which often includes 4-or-5 inch heels
  • in full make up, with their thick, shiny hair done as well

No matter how thin you are feeling on a particular day or how much thought and time went into your outfit, the Korean women will beat you every time. But to be fair, they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, if not infuriatingly gorgeous.

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s another important fact:

In Korea, fashion is a way of life, maybe due to the Koreans’ large disposable income.

Both men and women take pride in the way they present themselves and are incredibly fashion forward and trendy – even in the suburbs, where I live. And if you work here, or are traveling around for a considerable amount of time, it’s important to do the same.

While I don’t wear stilettos or carry a huge designer handbag into work everyday like my Korean coworkers, I do make it a point to dress nicely, and do my hair and makeup. Not only is this important to my boss, but I’ve found that Koreans in general are much more receptive to me.

And now for my number one piece of advice for foreign women coming to Korea: cover up on top.

Korean women wear some of the most outrageously small shorts, skirts, and dresses, but you will be hard pressed to ever find one in a spaghetti-strap top, even in the steamy summer months.

Skimpy tanks, tube tops, and low-cute shirts are very rare, and should be left at home. And while you can definitely get away with baring your arms, and even the occasional spaghetti-strap, avoid cleavage-baring tops at all costs. It’s just not done here.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Idhren

The few places I have seen them have been strictly at foreigner bars at night.

If  you’re looking to shop during your time in Korea, you’re in luck. Boutiques and street shopping can be found almost anywhere, and in Seoul you can also find some huge Western stores as well, like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara.

A few things to know:

  • Difference in sizing

It is often very difficult for foreign women to find bras and shoes here. Korean women are almost strictly in the A to B cup sizes for bras, and shoes sizes rarely run above a US size 8 or 9.

It is best to come here with plenty of both so you aren’t frantically searching Seoul for them. (You can find almost anything in Seoul, if you search hard enough. Smaller towns are always hit or miss.)

And despite the minuscule shorts and skirts favored by Korean women, ironically thongs and G-strings are almost nonexistent here (something to keep in mind if you are buying underwear).

  • Bang for your buck

In general, Korea is much cheaper than the US, and the dollar to won ratio is in your favor.

Aside from the high-end boutiques and Western stores, it’s easy to shop without spending too much.  Just avoid imported goods. For example, the Gap here is extremely expensive.

  • Don’t get discouraged!

I have heard stories about store employees telling foreign women that they are too large to shop at a particular clothing store.

It’s important to understand that in Korea, they say these things as helpful facts and not in a malicious way. Yet often times, foreign women have no trouble finding clothing that fits them perfectly.

This is where you can use your foreign status to your advantage: just smile and nod, and keep looking through the racks.

  • Korean Beauty 411

Be careful when buying cosmetics.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Idhren

It is very fashionable to not only be very pale here, but to use skin-bleaching agents in the face lotion and make-up.

Even big name brands like MAC, Clinique, and Bobbie Brown have much different make-up here, some of which contains bleaching cream.

You can definitely find what you are looking for, but you need to check the labels first.  And just forget about buying bronzer here. That’s just not going to happen. (Trust me, I tried.)

Despite being a bit intimidating, Korean fashion is great.

It’s actually very refreshing to be in a culture where both men and women take pride in how they look – you don’t get the feeling they just rolled out of bed and threw on yesterday’s sweatpants.

And while Korean women are absolutely beautiful, so are the men, who tend to favor skinny jeans, fitted blazers, and designer eyewear. No sagging here! Every day is a fashion show – enjoy it!

What has been your experience with global fashion? Any favorite trends you’ve taken back home with you?

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About Author

Claire is a recent college grad turned expat, who is currently teaching English in South Korea. When she's not exploring Korea and writing about it, Claire enjoys fantasizing about future trips, shopping, dancing, and drinking dangerous amounts of caffeine. She plans to move to Buenos Aires in 2012. You can follow her adventures at www.sokogigglygirl.wordpress.com.

4 Comments

  1. What a cool post! Makes me assert that Korea is on Japan’s heels when it comes to fashion.

    The sizing, so true. I’m a mixed blood Asian, so you’d think I could fit them clothes, but nope. One day I went into a store in Vancouver’s Chinatown and tried on a silk jacket.

    The owner looked at me, grimaced and said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk… toooo small for you!”

    Her hands mimed putting on a jacket over her chest, to signal that my girls were toooo large. I balked. I can pull it over my B size… huff… I can do this… hrmphhh.. was that fabric giving way? GIVE UP.

    I put the jacket back on the rack and left embarrassed.

    And whitening cream is tricky… I tried buying a neem face mask yesterday in Delhi and if I hadn’t read the fine print (after 2 uses your face will be lighter!) I’d wake up with a Michael Jackson peel.

  2. Great observations about Korean fashion and makeup. I hate that most makeup and personal hygiene products in Asia are whitening…even deodorant! Everything Korean is huge in Thailand…actors, singers, movies, soaps, fashion, hair, etc. I tend to dress up more when I’m in Bangkok.

  3. Totally agree. I’m 5’7″ and 140 lbs and it’s hard to find clothes that fit. But, like you said, if you look hard enough you can find your size 🙂

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