In many countries, the latest fashion isn’t centred on a particular region or city. Instead, young people may follow the styles of celebrities they like; trends are sub-culture specific more than geographically specific to a Fashion-Central. But in North Korea, there appears to be a specific region that determines what is fashionable in the rest of the country.
Bae Jin-ah is a refugee from Pyongyang. She told us, “The capital city isn’t very trendy. People in Pyongyang dress with care, but they don’t follow any particular trends.” She continued, “One day after school, I changed into a bright orange dress to go outside, but my mother told me to take it off immediately.”
It wasn’t the colour orange that was the problem per se. Jin-ah explained that the dress was one that had come in to the country through trade. In North Korea, second-hand clothes are imported from Japan in bulk. Traders in the marketplace sell tightly packed boxes weighing about 100kg each, and customers buy these packages without knowing exactly what they contain. They then distribute the clothes from these packages among their friends and neighbours.
But the North Korean state tries to prevent circulation of these foreign packages, considering them a threat to national security. The citizens, in turn, keep a low profile. This is especially true in Pyongyang, and they only wear these clothes at home.
As Jin-ah was getting ready to go outside wearing an item of “forbidden” clothing, her mother had stopped her. She said, “In Pyongyang, people don’t wear colorful clothes outside for this reason. Besides, if you do, you’re treated as having some kind of mental problem.”
This is something we’ve heard very frequently from North Korean refugees – that everything in South Korea is “too colourful.”
“In North Korea, Chongjin is the city that is most sensitive to fashion,” said Jin-ah. She testified that she escaped from North Korea through Chongjin. As she passed through, she was surprised to see that the citizens there openly wore brightly coloured foreign clothes.
Oh Mi-sook, a native of Chongjin, told us, “In Chongjin, security officers aren’t very strict about the way people dress. The trend of wearing skinny jeans also started in Chongjin.”
Chongjin is a trade hub, and the port apparently plays a big role in the city’s sensitivity to fashion. Mi-sook explained, “Among the merchandise that comes in from Japan through the port of Chongjin, you can find lots of items that show the latest styles from Japan and South Korea.”
Kim Ha-na, also a native of Chongjin, told us how comparatively many people near the border traveled in and out of China. “Many of the goods that come in through those people get distributed to other places in the country,” she added. “In addition to Chongjin’s role as a port, its proximity to China makes it a leader in North Korean fashion trends. There is even a joke that all North Korean fashion starts in Chongjin.”
On being asked why fashion trends don’t start in Pyongyang, Jin-ah told us, “Pyongyang is a city where people are supposed to be very loyal to the state, so control is that much more strict.” She continued, “Even the wives of Party officials are sensitive to what others think, and the richer people try hard to hide their wealth.”
The people in Pyongyang may be privileged in the hierarchy of the state, but they cannot readily follow fashion trends because they must hide their personal adherance to the “yellow winds of capitalism.” The fashion trends that start in less-restricted regional cities lead the market outside the wealthier but more conservative Pyongyang.