Korean Underwear Emerges from the Shadows?

(Sources: Naver, Yonhap)

Update, March 2014: First, my translation of a 2006 Joongang Ilbo article on lingerie advertisements:

벗겨라, 팔리리라! Undress the Models and the Products Will Sell!”

에로틱 광고, 잡지에서 거리로 나왔다…예술과 외설 사이 아슬아슬한 줄타기” 광고 속 에로스.  Borderline indecent advertisements formerly only found in magazines are now on the streets (16 December 2006).

▶근육질의 남성과 섹시한 여성이 반라 차림으로 서로를 그윽하게 바라보는 속옷 광고 (서울 지하철 2호선 삼성역). A muscular, semi-nude man and sexy woman furtively looking at each other in this underwear advertisement (Samseong Station, Seoul Subway Line 2).

브래지어와 팬티 차림의 여성이 거리를 점령했다. 잘록한 허리에 배꼽을 드러내다 못해 엉덩이까지 절반쯤 나온 섹시한 여성의 눈빛이 버스 정류장에서 혹은 지하철 역사에서 남성들의 시선을 붙잡는다. 예술과 외설 사이를 아슬아슬하게 넘나드는 속옷 광고들이다.

Advertisements with women in just their bras and panties are to be found on streets everywhere these days, but presenting narrow, slender waists and navels are no longer enough for advertisers, and so many at bus stops and subways stations now reveal women’s buttocks too, which naturally gain the attention of more men than women. Many are not so much artistic, as bordering on the indecent.

과거 잡지 속에서나 볼 수 있었을 만한 아찔한 속옷 광고들이 당당히 거리로 나왔다. 속옷 광고뿐만이 아니다. 녹차 광고나 심지어 커피숍 광고도 일단 벗고 본다. 에로틱한 분위기의 광고는 제품과 관계없이 일단 사람들의 호기심을 불러 일으키는 법. 이것을 광고 제작자들이 놓칠 리 없다. 그러나 너무 많이 벗은 탓일까? 반라의 남녀가 넘쳐나는 거리를 행인들은 무심히 지나간다.

Such revealing advertisements used to be only found in magazines, but now you can find them on the street. It’s not just lingerie advertisements which have such revealing images either: even tea drink companies and coffee shops use them also, trying to attract the curiosity of passers-by with sexual images that have no actual relation to the products being sold. Other advertisers can’t help but notice this trend and be sucked in by it, but don’t you think it’s too much? Indeed, there are so many images of semi-nude men and women on our streets these days that in fact people may be taking less and not more notice of them.

▶위 : (주)좋은사람들이 지난해 8월 20대 후반 여성을 타깃으로 런칭한 속옷 브랜드 ‘섹시쿠키(Sexy Cookie)’의 지면 광고. 아래 : 국내 속옷시장에 패션 바람을 몰고 온 이랜드 계열의 속옷 브랜드 ‘에블린’의 광고판 (서울 지하철 2호선 삼성역). Left: An advertisement for a new kind of lingerie from “Eblin”, set to be quite a trend in the national lingerie fashion market. Right: An advertisement from August 2005 launching Korean company “Good People”‘s new lingerie brand “Sexy Cookie”, targeted at women in their late twenties (both advertisements from Samseong Station, Seoul Subway Line 2).

▶좌 : 반라차림의 여인을 전면에 내세운 속옷 광고판 앞을 한 남성이 무심히 지나가고 있다 (서울 지하철 4호선 명동역). 우 : 여성만 벗는 것이 아니다. 남성도 벗는다. 근육질의 남성 모델을 내세운 ‘코데스콤바인’의 지면 광고. Left: A man absentmindedly walks by a lingerie advertisement. Right: A muscular man in a Korean “Codes Combine” underwear advertisement (both advertisements from Myeong-dong Station, Seoul Subway Line 4).

▶좌 : 반라의 여성모델을 내세우는 것은 속옷 광고만이 아니다. 전지현의 S라인을 전면에 내세운 ‘17차’의 광고판.(서울 지하철 2호선 강남역). 우 : 화장품 광고라고 해서 얼굴만 대문짝만 하게 찍는 것은 아니다. 살짝쿵 벗어 주는 센스를 보여준 ‘라네즈’의 거리 광고 (서울 홍대앞). Left: The semi-nude women in this advertisement is not advertising lingerie, but is actually the actress Jun Ji-hyun advertising a tea drink (Gangnam Station, Seoul Subway Line 2). Right: An advertisement for Laneige cosmetics in which the model’s face has been greatly enlarged, but with which we somehow get the impression of her being semi-nude (Hongdae University area, Seoul).

▶좌 : 홍대앞 속옷가게 앞에 걸린 광고판을 뚫어져라 바라보고 있는 두 남자. 우 : 벗는 것만이 에로스는 아니다. 살며시 눈을 감은 여인의 얼굴에서 살포시 읽히는 에로틱함으로 행인을 유혹하는 커피숍 광고 (서울 홍대앞). Left: Two men’s gazes penetrate a lingerie advertisement in the Hongdae University area. Right: This women’s softly closed eyes while reading a book give a slightly erotic and seductive impression to this coffee shop advertisement, persuading passers-by to come inside (Hongdae University area, Seoul).

▶풍만한 여인의 가슴을 그대로 노출한 속옷 브랜드 ‘ Yes’의 거리 광고 (서울 홍대앞). A “Yes” lingerie advertisement exposing a woman’s voluptuous breasts (Hongdae University area, Seoul; End)

As a further example, contrast two recent bra commercials with Han Ye-seul (한예슬) for Venus (비너스) with I think a 2003 one with Go So-young (고소영). Whereas Han Ye-seul’s unabashedly presents herself — or rather, her breasts — as an object for the male gaze, Go So-young advertised the ‘Nudy Bra’ on the basis of bra-straps and lines not being visible, and therefore unlikely to attract any unwanted attention from men.

Finally, another article from the JoongAng Daily on the rapid change in fashions and attitudes:

Underwear emerges from the shadows

(September 04, 2007)

Underwear has been an integral part of the fashion industry for so long that saying “underwear is outerwear” now feels trite.

Ever since the 1990s, when Courtney Love sported a rag-doll look, wearing nothing but big red lips and a stark white slip, the boundary separating underwear from outerwear has become very thin. It now seems like the line will vanish altogether.

Looking through a rack of neon-colored swimsuits at the Galleria department store, Kim Ji-eun, 27, revealed her own summer fashion tip. “I’ve been wearing halter-style bikini tops in pretty colors under summer dresses. The little bow on the back [of the swimsuit, made when she ties the loose ends around the neck] makes a great accent and it does double duty as a bra.”

Kim, a fashion-hungry Seoul girl, went on to disclose more underwear secrets as she walked out of the department store. “Do you remember when Winona Ryder wore a bright red bra under a white tank top during an award show and the straps showed?” she said, with a smile. “To tell the truth, I’ve been copying that look all summer.”

Looking around the Apgujeong area recently, it seemed that Kim wasn’t the only one. Han Hye-seong, 25, was wearing a flowy peasant skirt with a loose top, under which her colorful bra straps were strategically placed to be noticed. “Five years ago, these [straps] would have been clear. But now, I hardly ever see clear straps being sold,” she said.

Until recently, Kim and Han did their underwear shopping at Internet sites which stock foreign underwear labels like Victoria’s Secret. “I couldn’t find underwear made by Korean labels which had any pretty patterns, bold colors or high-fashion elements,” said Kim.

It seems as though Korean companies are finally catching up. The triad of underwear brands – Try Brands, BYC and Taechang, have faltered, making room for new names.The triad’s standard white, black and beige selections with a small variety of designs couldn’t withstand the new wave of outer/inner wear. By 2005, Try Brands’ sales had fallen from 220 billion won ($24.2 million) in 2003 to 129 billion won. BYC’s sales also went down significantly, from 182.5 billion won in 2003 to 151 billion won in 2005. Taechang sold their underwear division to E-Land in 2005.

In their place, a new triad have emerged, including E-Land World (with brands like Roem, Who.A.U and Hunt), Yeshin Persons (including brands like Maru, Codes Combine and Noton) and Good People (with Bodyguard and James Dean). Yeshin Persons was in the forefront of this new group with Maru Underwear (a domestic sportswear brand) in 2004. “Maru Underwear features casual lingerie with a bit of a fashion edge and it targets women from 19 to 25,” said Lim Sae-un, a Maru media representative. Following the initial success of this brand, the company made another underwear line – Codes Combine – which also stems from one of their sportswear brands. This line, targeting people in their 20s and 30s, includes underwear with bohemian and vintage-inspired elements like fringes and neutral tones. The two underwear lines alone made the company 45 billion won in 2005.

E-Land World has been following a similar path. Besides Hunt Underwear and The Day Underwear, they launched Body Pop and Petite Lin, the former for teenagers and the latter for kids under 10. Both have been a great success. Good People launched underwear lines which target women in their late teens to 20s, including Sugar Free and Sexy Cookie.

One factor behind the success of these lines is their affordability. Along with the growing popularity of affordable cosmetics lines like Missha and The Face Shop, these underwear lines provide a sense of adventure at prices that do not involve the risk of a big investment. “Customers feel free to take risks and buy colorful items with patterns instead of your basic white or skin-colored underwear because these items are so affordable,” said an E-Land representative.

Along with domestic brands, underwear brands from other countries have also been selling well. Women’s Secret, an underwear brand from Spain, was introduced in late 2005, with its first shop in Apgujeong-dong. “Underwear is no longer hidden beneath clothes and consumers are now more daring and wear colorful, showy underwear. We decided to bring in this brand to meet these needs,” said Kim Hyun-hwa, the brand’s assistant marketing manager. “Customers are smarter as well. They don’t want cheap material or poor tailoring. Underwear nowadays has to be fashionable and practical with a reasonable price tag.”

Choi Young-jip, head of Princess TamTam Korea, an underwear brand based in France, agrees. “Customers not only look for good designs, but also for underwear that is a good fit for their body. So material and cut are very important.”

These factors have led to some adjustments in tailoring. “We have introduced a line of bras and panties just for the Asian market for this fall/winter season,” said Kim Hyeon-hwa at Women’s Secret. “The panties in this line support the hips, with more coverage, as opposed to thongs or Brazilian-style pieces which are popular in Europe.”

Adding to this boom are celebrities who have launched their own underwear lines through home shopping, the Internet or off-line stores.

Actress Park Jeong-su launched Sooanae last year, an underwear line targeting middle-aged women which offers stylish yet form-flattering foundation garments. Next was actress Hwang Shin-hae with Elypry, which was first offered through Hyundai home shopping but branched out to CJ home shopping this year. Actress Hyeon Yeong and actress/singer Um Jeong-hwa both used their sexy image to full advantage by launching underwear lines this year. “Finally, there are now lots of choices [for underwear] in Korea.” said Kim Ji-eun as she flipped her hair and continued to search for the perfect bikini/bras to match her new shoes.

Reporting by Lee Eun-joo

By Cho Jae-eun Staff Writer [jainnie@joongang.co.kr] (my emphases)

3 thoughts on “Korean Underwear Emerges from the Shadows?

  1. I’m sorry to comment on such an old post when the newer ones have been flooded so regularly lately (congratulations on all the traffic, by the way!), but is the article you translated from the blog an opinion piece of some sort? It doesn’t really sound like a news article, per se.

    I was actually surprised at the JoongAng Daily one, though. It might be the best English-language piece I’ve ever read in a Korean newspaper, which I imagine speaks more to the quality of the English-language sections rather than Korean journalism altogether.

    • Not at all, and sorry myself for taking so long to reply. And yes, I’d have to agree with your take on both articles: the former does indeed look like an opinion piece, albeit from this newsy website, and come to think of it the latter is indeed very good quality for the English-language press.

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