The Visual and Sartorial Grammar of Korean Street Fashion

Much to my surprise, I have become known as a street fashion photographer. I express surprise at this only because I am actually not merely interested in clothing as fashion objects. I am more interested in clothing as wearable cultural texts that are important because clothing, taken as wearable cultural texts, is quite a special thing, a category worthy of special consideration. Clothing is special in that it is inherently personal in how the wearer makes an active choice to participate in a public, semiotic conversation in which fashion items not only have socio-cultural meaning, but the items themselves are chosen as part of a statement that says something about the wearer. Yet, on the flip side, fashion items are individual objects possessed of various meanings that have been societally assigned to them, much like words within a language, with the wearer choosing to construct these various objects into a greater whole, much like a speaker constructs words s/he learned elsewhere into a sentence. There are grammatical rules that govern the sentences we make, such that they are understandable to other speakers of the language, but we are free to make the statements we want. We can play with the rules, make puns, construct poems, or even choose to obfuscate meaning for rhetorical purposes. And there are myriad styles of speech, some formal, some filled with slang, and some that even purposely violate grammar and usage rules so as to make a certain kind of point. But inevitably, we tend to know what the speaker is trying to say, even if it is unconventional or even sometimes difficult to decipher. And it is sometimes in the violation of these rules, or their reworking or purposeful misapplication, that the fun in language lies.

The classic 1959 Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool" is a quick and easy, and greatly apropos, example to illustrate this idea, full as it is of then-transgressive ebonics and subject matter, about a group of young black men who decide to skip school to play in a pool hall:

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We   
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We   
Die soon.

In this way, this picture embodies this kind of transgressive, youthful daring as expressed in both the people's actions described in the poem, as well as the way the poem employs and repurposes language to make its point. 

Understood with this working metaphor -- the sartorial statement as a concrete, conscious expression, especially as one of identity -- it should become easy to see a good photographic portrait of such extraordinarily expressive individuals as visual records of these various sartorial statements and conversations. And in this way, clothing acts as both individual and social texts worthy of study and recording, and systematized re-presentation. 

I found this young woman, Gyu-eun, a 3rd-year high school student presently in the final stretch of preparing for the all-important Korean college entrance exam coming up this November 17th, of particular interest this past Seoul Fashion Week (SS 2016) mostly because of her inversion of a basic piece of fashion grammar by her wearing of her shirt backwards. It is a surprising choice, and technically "wrong" (bad fashion grammar), but it works quite well and naturally to the point that I did not consciously notice the choice until I had already decided to start shooting her. Subconsciously, I may have noticed something peculiar, as it may have caused my initial interest in her look, but it was not a conscious reason I chose to photograph her. Her goal of appearing fashionable and unique was accomplished, but with "bad" fashion grammar. Still, much like the Gwendolyn Brooks poem mentioned above, it succinctly and successfully conveys the point, and with a great deal of eloquence that cannot be conveyed with mainstream, "proper" grammar. To wit, "She real cool."

In short, the new Korean paepi (패션피플=패피=Korean for "fashion people" or its shortening pae +pi) are engaged in a creative remixing of sartorial grammar on both the individual and group levels.  In this sense, they are being quite creative as they express their individuality in a social space that has been long regulated by not just other members of society, but by even the state itself. The sartorial realm has become both a site of identity assertion and contestation for paepi youth, complicated yet even more by the consumptive and commercial nature of fashion as a social endeavour. 

Their power isn't in each one being the best dresser ever, or being completely original, but in the act of dressing up itself, in the choice to create a new identity related to the consumption and wearing of clothing. From this culture of consumption, they've created a new class of creative consumption, of asserting identity through clothing in a way new to Korean society.

In this sense, the creative act here Like a 1930's jazz musician in a club, or a early 1980's rapper performing at a local block party, it's not just what they're performing, but the social bravery in the performance that sets the paepi apart, that gives the creative act of riffing or remixing meaning.