Free The Nipple in Korea? Why Not? Uncovering the history of a taboo

Earlier this month, the Korean media ignored a Free the Nipple event held by Womenlink. This lack of coverage is just one reason why the campaign may struggle to take-off in Korea. But stranger things have happened. Once, men too were forbidden from exposing their chests in public. As Korean summers get hotter and drier, soon these double-standards may seem as absurd as no-pants laws and the skirt-length police.
(Source: @womenlink)

Boobs don’t get much love in Korea.

If they’re larger than average, their owners are often criticized for flaunting their femininity, and stereotyped as sexually voracious. Those same women also struggle to find comfortable, attractive bras that will fit them.

This, despite Korean women’s breasts getting larger for decades as Koreans’ diets have changed.

Of course, women the world over struggle with these issues. But it’s not just size, it’s exposure in general, and standards in Korea are that much stricter. As I’m no Picasso explains:

“Base line standard in Korea: If you are showing even the tiniest centimeter of a crack of cleavage, you are not dressed appropriately for work. Shoulders are also largely taboo, although we have noticed this changing a bit this past summer. Even too much exposed skin on the chest above the cleavage mark can be considered risque.

It’s a pain in the ass for girls with larger chests, because it’s really difficult to find garments that won’t show any cleavage, no matter what position you are in. I’ve also had to take to having an army of undershirts on hand, in order to be sure that not even the shadow of a bra can be seen…”

That probably explains why, per capita, more Korean women plump for breast reductions than enlargement or lifting operations. Also, why bust-reducing bras are so popular, despite Northeast-Asian women’s genetic tendency to have much smaller breasts than—for want of a better catch-all term—Western women. I suspect why braletteswhich can only be really worn by women with small breasts—haven’t been available in Korea either, as Korean women may not have considered them concealing enough. (Although this recent campaign to start producing them has been very successful, and this Japanese-sourced one is also making waves.)

In the midst of this, the Korean media and K-pop industries occupy ambivalent positions. On the one hand, the latter stumbled onto a strategy of emphasizing female performers’ legs instead, considered a “safer” body part in Korea and its Asian markets (well illustrated by this classic cartoon, and the surprising modesty of these “sexy dances“), which simultaneously sexualized the girls and women while deflecting criticism. On the other, the entire industry is centered around securing endorsement contracts with the advertising and beauty industries, which have vested interests in creating new markets through encouraging bustier, more revealing beauty standards.

Image Source: Rok Kim. Anonymous source (quoted with permission): “What are you, ladies? Personally I am 가슴 B컵 for Boobs Are Great In All Sizes and 얼굴 F급 for Fucks Given About Your Opinion Are Zero.” (Advertisement Caption: Breasts, D-cup; Face, A-grade.

But these are all necessary generalizations. The reality is messy, undercut by age, class, marital status, motherhood, occupation, and region. Every morning while working on this post, the range of women’s fashions and levels of exposure I witnessed even just on the subway would defy any of the neat conclusions I’d arrived at the night before.

So, two weeks of pondering nipples and breasts later, as one does, the only generalization I’m still confident of making is that all women suffer from the inconveniences—and, ultimately, the dangers—of the double standards of men’s and women’s fashion.

Most of the negative effects I’m aware of have been covered in those earlier links. But I also happen to be a guy, so I would appreciate female readers’ input. One I didn’t know about for instance, because I don’t shop for women’s clothes, one anonymous woman told me:

“When I came back here 5 years ago, I was shocked because…dresses and/or skirts were way too short in general even when they were meant for the ‘office look’. When you buy clothes online, often the pictures are very misleading because companies often use very petite models so dresses/skirts look something of a normal length. I’ve learned it hard way and started to double-check the length. Nowadays I tend to stick with only a few sites when I shop my work clothes. I should probably start exploring offline stores again.

I don’t mind sporting short skirts/dresses every now and then when time & place is right—I just don’t wanna be surprised when I expect to receive something in a normal length for my work.”

Continuing, I’ve just been wearing short-sleeved shirts to work for the last month, and just long-sleeved shirts before that. In contrast, as a Womenlink activist wrote on her placard at the event (see below), women always have to wear unventilated padding to hide their nipples; to wear bras to hide their breasts; to wear vests to hide their bras; and to wear t-shirts to hide their vests.

No wonder my very well-developed, very active 11 year-old daughter is so reluctant to make the transition from her flimsy training bras. Fortunately though, her school has no uniform, whereas many schools that do have one end up slutshame their female students and forcing them to wear such uncomfortable clothing.

Even more alarmingly, in one 2013 survey of Korean police officers, over half considered revealing clothing to be a cause of sexual assault (indicating little had changed from back in 1996). To those who would make fun of and dismiss Free the Nipple and Slutwalk campaigns in response to such attitudes, and continue to police women’s bodies so unfairly, I’m genuinely curious as to where they would draw the lines. Especially if they claim to still support women’s rights. For to whom else but misogynists, could so much shame and blame hinge on an exposed bra strap or visible nipple?

“I dropped a lot of money on a nice bra…one with frills and made of lace, not like all my other ones that I bought from Uniqlo.” / “Minju! You can see your entire bra! Don’t wear a white t-shirt!” Source, above and below: @bambooblock)
“But what about her? That’s the fashion!!” / Fashion you say… / Jeez… [put this on].” Ironic coincidence: this picture of Korean duo Love X Stereo appeared in my Facebook feed as I was translating!

But where did these attitudes come from? Again, the question is more difficult than it appears, and there’s no handy introduction akin to Laura Miller’s “Mammary Mania” chapter in her excellent book on Japanese body aesthetics.

So, I spent most of those last two weeks laying the framework for what may be my own equivalent chapter on Korea someday. Allow me to present the fruits of that research, in the form of themes and trends I’ve identified that any answer must cover, as well as some highlights from new sources I’ve discovered (please let me know if you have any difficulty obtaining copies of the journal articles). As you’ll soon see, there’s a lot of things to consider, and it can be very difficult—even naive and counterproductive—to separate nipple and breast exposure from taboos surrounding other body parts:

For a discussion of late Joseon Dynasty art, notions of eroticism, and dress codes, as well as a great introduction to a painter who turned out to be quite a maverick and social commentator for his time, see Saehyang P. Chung’s “Sin Yunbok’s Women on Tano Day and the Iconography of Common women Washing Clothes by a Stream,” Oriental Art, vol. 47, no. 5 (2001), pp. 55-69. For instance, consider Chung’s description of Women on Tano Day, painted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (p. 56; my emphasis):

“[Most striking of all] is the provocative portrayal of semi-nude bathers in the lower left-hand corner, where a woman stands sensually, her face turned in the direction of the beholder. Equally daring is the inclusion of two young monks, who observe the bathers with unequivocally frank poses and facial expressions…Considering that even in the West, the female nude in a contemporary setting—devoid of classical or biblical context (e.g. Diana or Susanna in Her Bath)—did not appear until the 19th century, the representation of bathing women in Sin Yunbok’s painting is all the more remarkable.

(Source: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that the working woman carrying a load on her head is fully-clothed, but has her breasts exposed. This is because, as explained by Hyung Gu Lynn in “Fashioning Modernity: Changing Meanings of Clothing in Colonial Korea” in the Journal of International and Area Studies (2004; pp. 77-78):

“…during the Chosôn period, clothing was not a unifying medium for all Koreans, but rather a means of social differentiation. Considerable scholarly energy has been directed to the study of the regulations that governed what clothes and colors could be worn by [whom]. The results show, for example, that it was only women of the upper class who wore long coats and head covers called chang-ot when venturing outside. In contrast, commoner women who worked outdoors often wore short chôgori [blouses], which left their breasts exposed for ease in nursing their babies.”

In light of the symbolic and unifying role the hanbok plays for most Koreans today, unfortunately there has been considerable opposition to acknowledging that “uncivilized” aspect of Korean fashion history. For more on the controversy, see “The Bare Facts” by Robert Neff and “Time to sex up Hanbok” by Andrew Salmon at the Korea Times, this AskHistorians thread at Reddit, the comments to this well-known photograph from 1945 (update: also, the comments to this 1920s breastfeeding postcard), “Joseon girls gone wild” at ZenKatsuo, and From Fukuoka for more photos.

For a bare-breasted photography series inspired by—and in some cases directly replicating—Sin Yun-bok’s painting, see The Hanbok Project by photographer Kim Jung-nam and hanbok designer Lee Young-hee.

• In the chapter “Female Images in 1930s Korea: Virtuous Women and Good Mothers” in Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia, ed. by Aida Yuen Wong (2012), Yisoon Kim notes that women were infrequently depicted in Korean art, even compared to other Confucian societies, but the new “Paintings of Colonial Women” genre exemplified by Sin Yun-bok briefly changed all that. What she writes about the anonymous picture on the left below however, contradicts the notion that breasts were not at all eroticized, a notion further corroborated by “firm breasts” being included in contemporary lists of beauty ideals (p. 93.):

(Sources: Naver, Daum, Vosub. On the right is a poster for the fanciful 2008 movie Portrait of a Beauty, which re-imagines Sin Yun-bok as a woman in disguise.)

“…[this left] picture recalls Sin Yun-bok’s style except for the absence of ornate hair accessories. Donning a short skirt, which tantalizingly reveals the breasts, the woman lifts one hand to adjust her hairdo. Although the hanbok is designed to fully cover the body, these paintings expose the flesh in strategic places. Sin’s picture [in the center] includes a silver knife, a traditional symbol of chastity, hanging from the shirt as a reminder of the sexual potential of the image. [Paintings of this genre] facilitated carnal fantasy. They could be made to hang on walls like Western pin-ups or portable scrolls for the convenience of private viewing, presumably at men’s leisure.”

Perhaps it was the elite status of the women depicted that made all the difference? Or, if the women depicted were actually low-status gisaeng, because of the novelty of seeing them bare-breasted, as opposed to commoners?

As Hyung Gu Lynn goes on to explain in her article, the adoption of Western clothing during the colonial period also had important class components, as well as becoming tied to anti-colonialism and nationalism. It’s difficult to understand the rise of—and misogyny against—the “New Woman” and “Modern Girl” ideals without those, so it’s worth quoting her at some length (p. 87, my emphases):

“[In addition to modernization bringing] increasing numbers of women out the house and into public spaces…the diffusion of technologies of visual reproduction and the development of the culture of tourism allowed for more men to consume more images of women, further multiplying the number of meanings embedded in a given piece of clothing.

Although increasing numbers of urban men wore Western-style suits, the changes in women’s clothing occurred at a far slower pace. The transition for women from Chosôn period ch’ima [skirt] to the “improved ch’ima” with the shorter skirt hem and the longer tops meant that the visual distinction between upper class women who had hidden under the chang-ot and the common women with exposed faces and breasts was eliminated. However, in the place of the exposed breast as a marker of commoner status, the degree of calf exposure became one of the indicators of female proximity to capitalism and modernity—more leg, more modern.

Students and workers were encouraged to wear shortened skirts and longer tops for their purported practicality in the more mobile world, but the exposed calf sparked heated debate over its sexual implications…The increased visual presence of women in public and the diffusion of romantic love imbued clothing with heightened sexual meaning.”

And (p.88):

“New styles of clothing which exposed more skin, legs in particular, influenced ideas of beauty that extended and encompassed to the shape of the female body. By the mid-1930s, articles on beautifying calisthenics for women that would not appear so out of place in twenty-first century magazines were appearing in the mass publications…Other articles introduced the proper way to put on makeup, what to wear for which occasions, and how to behave in the “modern life,” further supplementing the new definitions and ideals of beauty and grace. The changes in clothing clearly helped shape the sexual meanings imbued in various body parts, providing further evidence that the eroticized body parts and ‘proper’ areas of skin exposure changes with culture and time.

Developments in visual technology and tourism added to the intensified sexuality of clothing. Magazines, movie posters, and postcards distributed consumable images of women in various styles of dress…The complete covering of the female breast in the colonial period gradually eroticized what had previously been merely regarded a body part. The tourist and travel literature usually contained images of kisaeng in P’yôngyang, but in the late colonial period, the women sea divers in Cheju Island became increasingly popular subjects for postcards and photographs, usually pictured with their breasts exposed.

The ‘traditional’ ch’ima chôgori, which may have been the only clothes a Korean woman owned, or consciously wore as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule or as a reflection of class and status, could be perceived merely as an exotic costume by the unknowing male gaze. The multivalency of each piece of clothing allowed the ‘traditional’ female dress to symbolize Korean identity, and at the same time distend the exotic allure of travel in Korea by promising different vistas and enticing females to the male (predominantly Japanese) tourist.”

(Sources: Sturmgeschutz, OhmyNews. Left image is actually of Busan divers.)

Many years ago, I read that older Korean men (and women?) fondly remember those photos of semi-nude Haenyeo (Jeju divers) from when they were children, taken before the divers began wearing wetsuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve long since lost the source, so it was good to find indirect confirmation in Hyung Gu Lynn’s article. Actual examples of those photographs however, remain surprisingly difficult to find online, the vast majority actually being of Ama divers in Japan. But they’re out there. The one on the left below for instance, is part of a romanticized series from the 1950s according to the source, although the costumes are authentic; that later one on the right, very likely taken for a Jeju postcard, is much more modest, but remains a good example of glamorization and sexualization.

(Sources: 유자향내를 따라서, hansoo7007)

Yisoon Kim provides a good summary of why a new trend of portraying “virtuous” women then arose, with depictions of breastfeeding in particular becoming the main subjects of paintings for the first time (p. 91):

“…[the 1930s were] the height of colonialism, when conservatism and progressiveness coexisted…Fine artists tended to depict the opposites [of the much-criticized Modern Girls], that is, virtuous women who demonstrated chastity and sexual restraint. Modernization was underway…but unfavorable economic conditions inside and outside the country made Koreans wary of change. [Under the conditions of the Great Depression and coming war], the colonized and impoverished Korean nation took comfort in the idea of women carrying out their motherly duties and grooming the next generation for a more prosperous future.”

In a previous chapter, “The Modern Girl as a Contested Symbol in Colonial Korea”, Yeon Shim Chung notes that other reasons for the adoption of the virtuous mother as a nationalist symbol include the facts that most of the new beauty products for the Modern Girls and New Women—as well as the original ideals themselves—came from Japan. Indeed (p. 82):

“Commerce and feminism intersected with colonialism in controversial ways. Korea’s access to Western goods was one vehicle for Japan to prove its utility as a civilizer and modernizer. As voracious consumers of these goods, Modern Girls inadvertently participated in Korea’s colonial subordination to Japan, which entailed [heavily] promoting [to both Koreans and to the West] progressive images of Japan while denigrating Korea as a remote, pre-industrial land…”

Which may have included bare-breasted women in hanbok, as the comment threads linked to earlier suggest, and why many Koreans’ understandable first reaction to seeing them is to dismiss them as Japanese propaganda.

• Most ordinary women entering the newly-created jobs open to them, of course, had no time for men’s criticisms of their newfound professional and sexual freedoms, or the shoehorning of their consumer purchases into narratives of nationalist betrayal. Indeed, as Young Na Kim describes in “Being Modern: Representing the ‘New Woman’ and ‘Modern Girl’ in Korean Art“, Western clothes became the norm by the 1930s (p. 222) “…not because they signified modernity, but because they were practical and comfortable.” Also, and in particular, further examples she gives caution against tendencies in previously mentioned sources that neatly categorize trends and depictions into the decadent 1920s vs. the virtuous 1930s (p. 238):

“One of the characteristics of the Modern Girl was her consciousness of her body. There were now attempts to freely express the physical strength or beauty of woman’s body. Nude paintings, which once were banned from being shown in public, now could be displayed at an exhibition with no restrictions, but they were still depicted in the setting of the artist’s studio. However, there is a photograph of famous dancer Choi Seong-hee [left, below] in 1931 which reveals that she exposed her body half naked in a public performance, as if to declare the freedom of the body. Kang Dae-sok’s photograph of a female nude [the first nude photograph in Korea; right, below] should be also noted in this context, in her stretched posture facing toward the sky as if to embrace the whole world, breaking away from the passive reclining or standing nude form.”

(Sources: knnews, 술취한★북극성)

• Moving rapidly to the postwar era, two easy guides I recommend on the transition to the full adoption of Western-style clothing are: Sunae Park et. al., “The Process of Westernization: Adoption of Western-Style Dress by Korean Women, 1945-1962” in Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 1993, which has more on the practical considerations behind the shift, and Karlyne A. Anspach and Yoon Hee Kwon, “Western Dress Styles Adopted by Korean Women” in Home Economics Research Journal, Vol. 4, No.4, June 1976.

Next, there is the oft-mentioned mini-skirt fever prompted by singer Yoon Bok-hee, hemlines reaching a peak of 30cm above the knee in 1968. But in my opinion, the liberalization of Korean clothing and attitudes then is exaggerated. While more revealing imagery from the period tends to stick out, it may not be representative, not unlike the aforementioned wide gap between the busty ideals promoted by the Korean media and ordinary Korean women’s attitudes today. Also, not only was Yoon branded a “public enemy” for her bravado, and had eggs thrown at her the very same day she revealed her mini-skirt, but this was hardly the swinging ’60s in Korea. In fact, the country was desperately poor at the time (less than 1 in 10 Koreans had washing machines, refrigerators, phones, or televisions), with most of the public unable to spend much on fashion, and possibly deeply resentful of those that could.

Fears of the ensuing social conflict are one big reason for the implementation of the highly authoritarian “Yushin System” of 1972-1981, which included forced haircuts for men, minimum skirt-lengths for women, and strict censorship of sexual media content.

(Sources: Joongang Ilbo, 나르샤)

This censorship would not just end in the early-1980s however, but in fact sexual content would ultimately be encouraged by the government, as part of its “3S” policy of “sex, screen, and sport” to distract people from politics. Accordingly, Madame Aema, “the most explicit of Korean movies ever made,” would hit the theaters in early-1982.

• In the late-1980s, the government began to lift restrictions on the use of foreign models in advertisements. First, they were allowed to appear in advertisements for foreign products, then in 1994, for domestic products also. Their use exploded after that, particularly after the liberalization of the magazine market in 1999.

This is relevant for understanding exposure taboos, because both Korean and overseas-sourced advertisements with foreign, overwhelmingly Caucasian, models tended to—and still tend to—portray them in more revealing clothing and/or sexually-themed advertisements than their Korean counterparts, perpetuating long-held stereotypes of Western lasciviousness and Korean modesty. In particular, various developments in the fashion industry meant that for roughly 10 years from 2000-2010, it was extremely rare to see a Korean lingerie model, until the entertainment industry began to see the attention-seeking possibilities and financial gains from having its girl-group members and female actors become endorsers.

That said, I remain unaware of any Korean female nipples that have ever graced any advertisements here.

(Sources: Metro, July 8 2010, p. 7., ckmania)

In the summer of 2002, record numbers of Korean women would take advantage of the soccer World Cup to go out and have a good time, and weren’t modest about what they would like to do with the soccer players; in the process, they directly challenged conservative standards of dress, as well as taboos against assertive representations of female sexuality in the media. Although both developments had in fact already begun in the mid to late-1990s, and were accelerated by the sexual politics of the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, unfortunately the “movement” was then largely co-opted and channeled into narratives of support for the national soccer team by the media and government.

This set a modern precedent for the very literal use of women’s—and also men’s—bodies for Korean military, nationalist, economic, and soft power purposes, roles which would come to fit the K-pop industry like a glove.

Finally, in addition to the K-pop industry and government censorship regimes perpetuating the notion that breasts are bad, but women’s legs and men’s abs are good clean harmless fun, there is the dramatic rise of the cosmetic surgery industry over the last few decades to consider. Fueled, I’d go so far as to say primarily by, Korea being one of only two countries in the OECD where photographs are required on resumes, despite multiple attempts to stop the practice. And this is the same industry that, as previously noted, is heavily encouraging bustier body ideals.

Exhausted after reading that? You’re not the only one(!). Yet that potted history of the taboo is still just the bare-bones, and needs considerable fleshing-out. Not least, from all the Korean-language sources I’ve also discovered and barely scratched the surface of, as well as the voices of Korean women and men themselves. I also acknowledge the almost complete lack of mention of men, and eagerly await your suggestions for further scholarly sources on Korean men’s nipples in particular ;)

Despite all the generalizations and gaps however, a clear theme of fluidity and rapid change in Korea’s exposure taboos emerges from all the above, and there’s no reason to suppose those won’t continue. Indeed, to those that feel that women walking around with exposed breasts is too much of an extreme to ever return to, it was once considered just as outlandish for men to expose their chests too, as pointed out by activists in the Free the Nipple campaign:

(Via: Astronomy in Reverse)

Moreover, to those that feel that such a campaign has chances for success in Western countries, but that a Korean equivalent will inevitably lag far behind, I’d point out how recent the call for change is in Western countries too.* And nobody who was in a crowd of Red Devils in Korea in 2002—or, indeed, in a candlelight democracy vigil in 2017—can fail to appreciate what ordinary Koreans are capable of when decide they can no longer tolerate other people’s bullshit.

Kudos then, to the activists from Womenlink earlier this month. You can read more about their event (and see many more comments) in two posts on Womenlink’s Facebook Page, or on their homepage, and here’s my translations of their posters and placards to round off this post:

*As friends have rightly pointed out, the puritan standards of the US referenced in those links do not represent those of all Western countries. In particular, nude beaches have been popular in much of continental Europe for decades, and standards for the workplace and presenters on television are much more relaxed. Also, nudity is common on French daytime and primetime TV. 

(Source: @womenlink)

(Speech Bubbles): Your nipples are showing! / Arrgh! (Women’s) Nipples! / Your nipples are too dark!

(Source, this image and following 3: @womenlink)

Those aren’t eyes there.

(lit.) Nipples have a wide language.

(Source, this image and following two: @womenlink)

We wear padding (which isn’t ventilated) to hide our nipples, we wear bras to hide our breasts, to hide our bras we wear vests, and to hide our vests we wear t-shirts…this prickly heat is so frustrating! We can’t live like this! Free the Nipple!

Q) If you have a lot of sexual experience, do your nipples get darker? A) No way!

Free the nipple / Why is looking at only women’s nipples restricted to over-18s?!?! Let’s stop the sexual objectification of women now!!

Update: Korea Observer reported on a very similar event in 2014, although I’m unsure if it was connected with Womenlink in any way. Here’s a video from that:

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic series:

Korean Sociological Image #45: Modernizing Traditional Korean Clothes

(Source)

For all my love of Korean culture, I’ve never really understood the appeal of modern hanbok (한복).

Primarily, because of their impracticality: after performing the ancestor worship rites known as cha-ryae (차례) in mine at my parents-in-laws’ house on various Korean holidays for instance, I find it very difficult to eat the traditional breakfasts that follow with such baggy sleeves getting in the way, especially at the low tables that most Koreans use. It also has no pockets, no zipper, and can get uncomfortably hot very easily, especially during Chuseok (추석) when the weather can still be quite warm. And my wife has similar problems with hers too, adding that women also seem to find their slightly more elaborate version more uncomfortable than men do theirs.

For those reasons, I fully expected the Wikipedia article on hanbok to mention that despite popular perceptions, only the small elite known as the yangban (양반) ever really wore them historically, who were notorious for being resolutely opposed to performing anything that smacked of physical labor. Was Koreans’ pride in their “national dress” a little misplaced then, and just another invented tradition like the kilt in Scotland?

Alas, it doesn’t say, although it does seem reasonable to suppose that practical considerations were undoubtedly more important for the bulk of the population. But what the article does demonstrate though, is that the hanbok has as rich and varied a history as, say, the Western suit (it was naive of me to be surprised at that), and the frequent changes in the various forms and usages of the garment over time indicate that its role as a signifier of class, status, and occupation was much more complicated than I first thought.

Still, I can’t think of a more unflattering garment for women.

No, I’m not so uncouth as to think that women can only be attractive in clothes that are form-fitting and/or show some skin. But then from the neck down, the hanbok is almost like a burqa in that it’s impossible to tell if there’s a man or woman under it, so I certainly can’t imagine anyone ever describing as a woman as sexy in it. Beautiful, yes. Pretty, cute, charming, handsome—sure, you name it. But sexy? Judge for yourselves at Flickr, or from the hanbok sections of recent Miss Korea pageants:

Of course, possibly I’m being too harsh, and by all means feel free to disagree with me: these two bloggers here and here certainly do for instance. (Update: in turn, I disagree with this blogger’s response that being “traditional” means that the clothes shouldn’t be sexy, and that only “a non-Korean male writer” would think they could be both. I’d also point out that they were once considered everyday clothes, with many different purposes. So why should how they now “honor [one’s] tradition and culture” be the only criteria we evaluate them on?). But regardless, hopefully now at least you can understand why I did a double-take when I saw the following new designs last week:

(Source)

Unfortunately, the only information about them are in clumsily-written advertorials from the company that makes them (see here, here, here, and here), but at least they do explain a little about the logic to the new designs. Here’s my rough translation of the first of them, which incidentally also has the best quality version of the image on the left(!):

아찔한 초미니 한복 / Giddy Ultra-miniskirt Hanbok 2010-07-07 12:09

한국의 아름다움을 오롯이 담고 있는 우리의 옷, 한복. 복을 부르고 화를 쫒는다는 뜻을 담고 있는 한복은, 인생의 중요한 순간마다 반드시 갖춰 입어야 하는 우리 생활의 일부이자 소중한 문화유산이다.

The hanbok is the item of clothing that completely and harmoniously shows Korea’s beauty. It has the meaning of bringing good luck and dispelling anger, and at every important event in your life you should wear this vital part of our cultural inheritance.

한복을 아름답게 입기 위해서는 속적삼과 속치마는 물론이고 긴 치마와 저고리까지 제대로 갖춰야 하지만, 시대가 변하고 젊은 층의 안목도 새로워지면서 한복은 어느새 고리타분하고 촌스러운 옷으로 전락하는 듯 했다. 그러나 명품 한복 브랜드들을 위시해 전통한복을 계승하고 퓨전한복과 한복 드레스를 내놓으며 젊은 층은 물론이고 나아가 세계인의 시선까지 사로잡는 상품을 개발함으로서, 한복은 다시금 아름다운 우리의 옷으로 발돋움하고 있다.

In order to beautifully wear the hanbok, of course you need to the undershirt, petticoat, long skirt, and top and to properly wear them, but as times change the hanbok is become old-fashioned and rustic in young people’s eyes.  However, the hanbok is currently taking a big step in becoming all Koreans’ beautiful clothing again by the entrance on the market of a new brand which has developed a fusion style of traditional hanbok and long skirts that will appeal to everyone from the young generation to globalized people.

(Source)

한복 알리기와 보급에 주력해 온 명품 브랜드 <안근배 한복 대여> 역시 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복 등, 차별화된 디자인과 소재 개발로 고객들의 다양한 요구를 충족시키고 있다. 최근 2010/2011 신상품 70여개를 출시한 <안근배 한복 대여>는 높은 퀄리티의 전통 한복뿐만 아니라 파격적인 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복등을 선보이며 화제를 모으는 한편, 우리 고유의 멋을 계승하며 신세대 고객들의 입맛까지 사로잡았다는 평가를 받고 있다. 특히 <안근배 한복 대여>는 전통 한복의 아름다움은 그대로 살리면서도, 더운 여름철에 쾌적하게 한복을 입고 싶어 하는 고객의 구미에 맞는 상품을 전략적으로 출시해 눈길을 끌었다.

Angunbae Hanbok Rentals (AHR) is a company that has concentrated on supplying and letting people know about this new style of hanbok, and in addition to having one fusion type with and ultra-short miniskirt, is differentiating its designs and materials in order to satisfy the varied demands and requirements of customers. Recently, AHR has launched 70 new designs for the 2010/2011 season, and these have been attracting lots of attention not just for their high quality traditional forms but also their fusion with unconventional ultra-short miniskirts, and have been gaining a lot of praise for their coolness that satisfies customers’ modern tastes. In particular, AHR has been noticed for strategically providing customers with hanbok that, while showing off the garments’ traditional beauty, are also a comfortable choice for their summer tastes.

<안근배 한복 대여>는 초미니 한복뿐만 아니라 전통 한복과 한복 드레스 등 다양한 상품으로 인기몰이중이며, 업계 1위의 브랜드답게 전문화된 콜센터 운영과 홈페이지 운영으로 고객들을 만족시키고 있다. 특히 공식홈페이지 http://www.hanbokrent.kr에서는 7월 한 달 간 진행되는 신랑 신부 커플 한복 20% 할인 행사 안내와 다양한 신상품들을 확인할 수 있다.

AHR doesn’t just provide hanbok with ultra-short mini-skirts, but is also popular for its traditional hanbok and hanbok dresses and so on, and provides a wide variety of products to rent; as the top brand in the business, it operates a call center staffed by experts and a homepage to make sure to fully satisfy customers’ needs. And please note: any couples about to get married, visit www.hanbokrent.kr to get a 20% discount on couple hanbok and/or a variety of new products.

(Sources: left, right)

Is 300,000 won reasonable to rent the first ones? Regardless, see many more examples at the “Fusion” section of AHR’s website, and I’m all for changes to any popular item of clothing that make it more comfortable, cooler to wear in the summer, and a little sexier and more elegant too.

But this post wasn’t intended to be only about hanbok. In fact, the humble podaegi (포대기), or traditional Korean baby sling, may ultimately be much more interesting:

(Source)

Quite simple to put on once you get the knack, it’s very easy to see why Korean mothers would use these while working in fields, or even just the kitchen (scroll down here a little for a picture). Hell, if I had to carry a baby for hours while doing manual labor, then I’d probably choose something that comfortable and tight too, and so I wasn’t surprised to hear from my father’s Nigerian colleagues that my wife’s was just like Nigerian ones, where, naturally enough, they’re called “wrappers,” and the act of wearing one “backing.” (Thanks to reader eccentricyoruba for the terms.)

Still, note that the shoulder straps are a recent adaptation carried over from Western baby harnesses, and there weren’t many versions with them available in 2006 when my first daughter was born; wearing a version like this without them then, my wife’s back got tired quickly, and she speculates that perhaps that would have been less of a problem had she been bending over in a field in it like her mother and grandmother did (she eventually got a Western-style baby harness). Also, as you can imagine they can get extremely hot in the summer, which is why these modern mesh types are now available (and I’m sure ones with shoulder-straps are available too):

(Source)
(Source)

Clearly then, podaegi manufacturers are also quite capable of adapting their products to modern tastes. But still, one big, possibly insurmountable problem with them remains.

Men usually refuse to wear them.

(Source: unknown)

At this point, I should probably mention that I don’t wear anything to carry either of my 2 daughters myself: when Alice was born in June 2006, I was working long hours and my wife became a housewife, so it was only natural that she carry her while I carried groceries and so on; when Elizabeth was born in August 2008, my wife carried her whereas I had Alice to either walk with me, chase after, and/or only briefly carry when crossing roads. Sometimes I wish I had used a Western style baby carrier though: both daughters refuse to sleep or be carried in my left arm, often crying until I put them in my right one, and I’m sure that I now have a slightly crooked spine as a result.

Still, of course I did wear my wife’s poedagi at home sometimes, especially when she was out and I had to put them to sleep in the way that they were used to. But in public? Never, for I think I’m safe in assuming that the vast majority of Koreans consider the podaegi as inappropriate on a men as a bra, and which is why you’ll only ever see pictures of them in podaegi if they’re posed in comical situations like the above.

Western-style harnesses however, you’ll see plenty of Korean men wearing them, which leads me to a question I’d like to throw open to readers: are podaegi then, in a sense an impediment to changing people’s beliefs that childcare is only a women’s job?

Yes, of course popular perceptions of clothes and senses of appropriate fashions are constantly changing, and of course there are also a myriad of reasons completely unrelated to clothing that explain why Korea has the highest number of housewives in the OECD. But recall that throughout our daily lives,  we are in fact constantly bombarded with subtle messages that reinforce the notion that parenting is women’s job, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that this may also have an impact.

Alternatively, look at it this way: if you were a woman expecting a baby soon, which style would you buy if you wanted your male partner to take equal responsibility for carrying the baby after it arrived?^^

Update: See FeetManSeoul (or The Marmot’s Hole) for a post about upcoming fashion shows featuring Jung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom:

…is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.

ung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.

Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 1: Their Neo-Confucian Heritage

Dasepo Naughty Girls 2006(Screen capture from the movie Dasepo Naughty Girls/다세포소녀. Source: martin francisco)

“Koreans are conformist because of their Confucian heritage…yada yada yada”

Even though I’ve chosen to live in Korea a long time, like most expats I often find it to be a frustrating and exasperating place sometimes. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and indeed this love-hate relationship may even be part of its charm—certainly my adopted hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, never aroused such strong emotions in me. On the other hand, it does lead to so many one-liners about the place, endlessly repeated by fresh rotations of expats.

But are they always wrong? Don’t some have a grain of truth? To answer, let me examine one that I and probably most readers have made at some point in our stay here, but which I personally wouldn’t have been able to justify before I did my research for this post. And certainly won’t ever be making again.

What I have in mind is your gut reaction to watching the following commercial, about three years old:

(Update, July 2012: Unfortunately, the video has been taken down, and I didn’t save a spare copy back in 2008. Hopefully, the screenshots will still give you the gist of it!)

According to Marmot’s Hole commentator mins0306, to whom I’m very grateful for finding the video, the message the commercial wanted to convey was “What she selects will become a trend. And since she selected a Prugio apartment, Prugio apartments will also become a trend.” Instead, it has inadvertently become of a symbol of Korean people’s conformism, particularly of women’s attitudes to fashion.

But before writing this post, had I been pressed for why so many Korean women seem to so blindly follow the latest trends, be they mini-skirts in winter or getting double-eyelid surgery, I would have mumbled something about Confucianism and the education system discouraging individuality. That is still technically correct, but—let’s face it—most of us blame so much here on Confucianism, but actually know little more about it than what we read in Lonely Planet Korea in the week before we came. But how,exactly, is it to blame? Why?

On the surface, it may not even have anything to do with Confucianism at all. Consider this statement from the 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” by Taeyon Kim (details and abstract here):

“For 500 years, Korea adopted Neo-Confucianism as its official ideology and strove to create a Neo-Confucian state by following its precepts as closely as possible. Neo-Confucians believed the body was sacred. Since it was bequeathed by one’s parents, in accordance with filial piety, the body had to be respected and remain unaltered…The Korean aversion to manipulation of the body seems to have been a long-standing cultural principle – only whole-heartedly abandoned in the last few years of proliferating plastic surgeries and various other manipulations of the body. Why has what appears to have been such a strong cultural value been so suddenly and completely abandoned?” (p. 98)

Like I said, I didn’t know that Joseon Dynasty Korea adopted “Neo-Confucianism” rather than merely “Confucianism” its state ideology either; from now on, I’ll make sure to blame all Korean ills on that instead. But now that she mentions it, yes, I do recall that Confucianism…oops, Neo-Confucianism I mean…did not condone alteration and adornment of the body, which is why it was so dishonourable for men to have their ponytails cut off.

How then, can Korea still be described as “more Confucian than China” when: Korean women adorn fashion and accessories to the point of what Michael Hurt describes as “fetishization;” female friends of mine wear excessive make-up to work upon fear of being fired if they don’t; others think nothing of wearing it to the gym; and Korea leads the world in the number of plastic surgeries made per capita? The notion now sounds absurd.

But Kim goes on to argue that the prescribed Neo-Confucian role of women’s bodies is essentially the same today as it was in the Joseon Dynasty, albeit adapted to and/or warped by democratization and capitalism. I don’t entirely agree with everything she says, but more in degree than in substance, and she certainly does make a decent stab at solving that paradox above.

korean-woman-as-a-mere-vessel.jpg

Because her two-part argument is very long, and I actually have a lot of my own thoughts and ideas to add to her arguments about postwar Korea, I’ve taken the wise (but unusual for me!) decision to split my original 3500 word post on her journal article into two. In the remainder of this first one then, I’ll outline what Kim says about how Neo-Confucianism viewed women’s bodies and their roles, and in the next one I’ll discuss how these adapted and changed to, but ultimately survived, the 20th Century (source, right: natebeaty).

Neo-Confucian Women’s Bodies as Mere Vessels

Before reading the following, bear in mind that only Joseon Dynasty elites—possibly as little as 1% of the population—would have subscribed to the Neo-Confucianism edicts described (Kim does acknowledge this). But the vast majority of Korean women worked on their farms, and were integral economic parts of the household; indeed, I’ve won arguments with older male students of mine on this point, who thought that “Korean tradition” justified them in literally forbidding their daughters-in-law from working after marriage. I concede though, that they would have remained an ideal.

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.” (p.99, italics in original)

For learners of Korean, this “ki” appears to be “기,” which has a hanja character on p.38 of my Korean vocabularly ‘bible’ that, in addition to “spirit,” also means “air,” “atmosphere,” and “energy.” And for everyone, I admit, at the moment it sounds very similar to a mere family name or bloodline, but those are quite vague concepts at best, whereas ki does sound like a well-thought out—albeit sexist and fundamentally flawed—philosophical concept. Elaborating on it further:

“The force of ki constituted one’s sense of the body and self more than the corporeal body. It followed that the family body, within which flows the same ki,was considered the essential self more than one’s own physical body. The emphasis on non-distinction between self and others produced a sense of self that was non-individuated and fluid, with no boundaries to determine a distinction between one’s family and one’s self.” (p.99)

Hence the Hoju System/호주제, a family registry system, rather than one of individual birth certificates like in Western countries, that was not abolished until as late as this year. Under it, upon marriage, women would be transferred from one family’s certificate to her husband’s family, almost like property. In practice, female divorcees suffered greatly from it because:

  • Given that it was often required for job applications, it meant that applicants’ marital status was readily apparent to employers. I’ve read, but am not sure how applicable it is now given the high divorce rate, that female divorcees were often discriminated against by employers as a result, ironically at a time when most would have needed employment more than ever.
  • Custody of children was overwhelmingly awarded to fathers; after all, the women were no longer part of the ki/family.
  • For those women married to fathers that abandoned their families, divorcing them would mean years of adminstrative problems with children in schools and so forth, as it meant that they were no longer their legal guardians. In Japan, with a similar system, these issues came up with ex-prime minister Koizumi after he divorced in 1982.
erotic-hanbok.jpg

Promising to abolish this system was one reason I supported the election of Roh Mu-hyon back in 2002, and while he did prove to be quite a lame duck president, and least this promise was fulfilled. To continue (source, right: theturninggate):

“Neo-Confucian techniques of self-cultivation of the mind and body only applied to men. Women in the Neo-Confucian view were incapable of achieving sagehood and therefore had neither the need nor the ability to strive for transcendence of the self and body. While men produced their selves through the mind (study of the classics) and body (maintenance of the family body through ancestor worship), women were occupied with maintaining and reproducing the family body through the corporeal bodies of the family.” (p. 100)

Koreans are by no means alone in having philosophical or religious beliefs justifying an inferior status of women, but this particular one could lead to some very strange-sounding results. For instance, Kim explains that one study of a villagers in 1990 found that they thought women were inferior to men because they did not carry the ki that men did, meaning that “women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life.

It also meant that beauty and wealth were secondary to possession of the physical traits required to bear sons, and gave rise Korean Folk Villageto an elaborate system of prenatal education known as taegyo/태교 which, rather than the notion of women and child’s health that the word brings to mind today, back then was more the idea of women as bodies rather than subjects or individuals, because “their conduct and thoughts were for the sake of the other abiding in their bodies, and they were valued mostly for the children and labour that their bodies could produce.” Hence, women “were regarded as subjectless bodies.” (pp. 100-101), the consequences, in sum, being that (source, right: InSapphoWeTrust):

“While [men] aimed to transcend the body, women could never do so – their bodies were too valuable. A man’s mind and ki were considered more valuable than his corporeal limbs while a woman was most valued for her body and its reproductive labour. As a result, efforts were made to maintain sole control over women’s bodies, subjecting them to a protection and concealment that practically rendered their bodies invisible.” (p.101)

Indeed, while the hanbok is much more comfortable to wear and walk around in than a kimono (or so I’ve heard), it’s not exactly a celebration of the female form. Also, this protection and concealment literally meant that elite women’s homes became prisons, as they weren’t allowed to leave: those “traditional see-saws,” for instance, were actually so popular because they allowed elite women rare glimpses of life outside of the walls of their courtyards, and I remember reading somewhere of a woman escaping from her village to Busan during the Korean War, despite all the death and destruction around her actually having an exciting time, as it was the first time she’d left her house in decades!

Next week: Part 2, which will continue the discussion into the postwar period.