As simple as it may sound, “street fashion” is a complex and contested term, with a more layered and complex genealogy than its seemingly simple, colloquial usage in vernacular discourse might tend to belie. Commonly used and understood today, “street fashion” refers to the items of clothing that everyday people on the street wear, have worn, or talk about. It is an everyday social practice centred around consumption, and in this sense, is inextricably linked to industrial, productive forces with interests in fostering its consumption. Thereby, it is no coincidence that it is a topic that finds heavy treatment in fashion magazines, garners the attention of fashion industry producers, and focuses market action through “street fashion” designers who hope to make a commercial killing with the next Supreme™, Stussy™ or A Bathing Ape™. Street fashion blogging is no longer a mere hobby nor pastime, but has become a nigh industry unto itself, and provides an opportunity for fame, recognition, and even making quite a bit of money (Duffy et al). It has become, through the actions of i-D (Rocamora, 2008), Schuman (de Perthuis), and certain other points in its history of mediation, an activity deeply imbricated with capitalistic desire and industry-related dreaming. (204 words)
WORTHY OF CRITICAL ATTENTION?
There is a tendency to dismiss fashion and its concerns as superficial, trivial, and in the end, inconsequential. There is also the sense that fashion – especially “street fashion” – is too squarely located in the market itself, too near the ground, and hence too unfocused through the more evolved critical faculties of society’s cultural elites or well-connected aesthetes. And in that sense, street fashion is too unruly, too uncontrolled, and too unfocused to really make any real sense of. All of these things seem to be true if a look at most of the existing work on Korean popular culture is any guide, which is exactly why a look at street fashion, especially in the historically layered, compressed development-turbocharged, culture industry-driven petri dish that defines South Korea is a crucial necessity at this point in the conversation about Korean “popular culture”.
If one is to speak meaningfully of popular culture in the theoretical, academic sense, it is important to note that the “K-pop” and “K-cinema” incarnations of Korean popular culture are difficult to to describe as such, given how little most of these fields’ manifestations are rooted in the work and workings of everyday people. Along the lines of how Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described the “culture industry,” the “K-pop” and other commercial, corporate formations in the economy are best described as mere simulations of natural, popular cultural formations, more than entities that are an organic part of society themselves. As windows into the workings of the lived reality of everyday people, as a peek into the content of their social norms and values, a close look at the specific cultural products in these fields are not especially revelatory in themselves; rather, the more useful way of looking at these formations of capital production is in terms of the responses and forms of engagement they engender from normal people. Which is why the study of various fandoms is important and has accelerated and intensified in the way that theorists such as Stuart Hall would find critically useful to the study of “popular culture.”
While it is scarcely useful and likely pedantic to restate the words of Adorno and Horkheimer here, a reminder of the critical utility of their concept of the "culture industry" and its relation the role of the state in influencing culture is surely in order in the Korean case. To this end, I would rather use the words of Kellner and Durham, who edited the volume Adventures in Media and Cutural Studies: Introducing the Keyworks, a tome I often assign in classes, which states:
Gramsci in turn presents the transition from liberal capitalism to fascism in Italy in the 1930s, while the work of Horkheimer and Adorno can be read as an articulation of a theory of the state and monopoly capitalism which became dominant throughout the world during the 1930s. This era constituted a form of “organized capitalism,” in which the state and mammoth corporations managed the economy and in which individuals submitted to state and corporate control. (Kellner et al, xix)
Their understanding of "organized capitalism" finds no better example than that of the South Korean state and its tightly planned economy and experience with authoritarianism and several brutal dictatorships that produced a checkered history of state control over cultural products specifically and popular culture in general. Given that very recent history of state suspicion of popular culture in civil society and its many heavy and ham-handed efforts to at times regulate it or ban aspects it altogether, combined with the rosy, hand-holding relationship between the government and the jaebeol born in an earlier state of Korean capitalism, attentive observers should look upon the discourse of hallyu and its obvious nationalist imperatives with a good deal of suspicion. And this is not merely tp state that aspects of hallyu are nationalistic, which would be as obvious and possibly aphoristic a statement for a Koreanist as "power corrupts" would be to any observer of history. Given the tremulous and at times terrifying relationship between the South Korean state and culture producers within it, it seems somewhere between negligent and nigh irresponsible to glibly speak of the Korean culture industry in the gleeful terms in which it tends to be described through the term hallyu and its ultimate signifier, the "special K" prefix that tends to be placed in front of any and every possible cultural field that receives attention from places outside Korea, especially the White West.
And indeed, much ado has been made in South Korea about the global attention paid to Korean culture industry concerns. From "K-drama" and "K-pop" to the Chinese coining of the term "hallyu" (Korean Wave), the idea of non-Koreans paying close and ample attention to Korean cultural products was the culmination of the wildest part of the segyehwa daydream set forth by Kim Youngsam from a time when South Koreans could scarcely imagine any reason at all that anyone outside of Korea's borders or diaspora would ever direct an interested glance even in the direction of Korean concerns. But as time passed, YouTube normalized a new ease of media consumption, while "social media" changed the very relationship between cultural text producers and their audiences. And these changes, along with too many others to enumerate here, lowered the quality bar and capital costs for consuming truly new media, from a given consumer's perspective. But the imprint of the past was still there; and the already-laid roads and pathways of old media industries, forms, and relationships were still there. And in a society with as many institutionalized relationships and rigid modes of govvernmentality as existed in South Korea, it should be of little surprise to see the the support, boosting, and eventual success of cultural products from traditional culture industry spheres such as pop music, television, and cinema. It was nearly inevitable for a "perfect storm" to eventually form around something, whether it was a Wonder Girls, Girls' Generation, or PSY. Similarly, movies get made, they get better, and more talented ditrectors take their places within the field. So, whether it was a D-War positively pregnant with the promise of its own, unearned delusions of globality or The Host, which earned its international accolades, something was bound to eventually succeed. What should cease to be surprising is the fact that Korean cultural products can and will succeed in the international marketplace of ideas and cultural texts. What should actually be surprising is the fact that cultural products made in a system still chock full of a communal memory of mass cultural murder could even rise at all to the level of being competitive in the world market in the first place. Yet, what should also be somewhat surprising is how quickly a culture industry nurtured in the cradle of Frankfurt school-style social control systems were able to liberalize and repudiate older firmware sets of social and cultural control, from neo-Confucian ideology and yangban-centric social thinking. What is not surprising is the fact that there are still, to this point, disturbingly few examples of actually popular, organically-evolved culture that rise to the top of cultural fields to command attention in the market. And this is where the case of street fashion becomes especially interesting.
To begin with, fashion, considered as either a marker or realm of social action, is worthy of deeper consideration than it is usually afforded, especially when engaging in the study of hallyu or other social concerns sited in the realm of the popular.
Fashion and the ways people dress are not only decided by the weather: because there are clothes you must wear and others that you just cannot appear in public anymore with, these seemingly individual decisions are in fact some truly social facts, as Émile Durkheim would probably have said. Moreover, the studying of fashion as a social phenomenon that influences the clothes we decide to buy, wear, and even be proud of (at least for some time) is possibly one of the easiest examples of what sociology is all about; with, in the case of fashion, numerous references to culture, norms, representations, consumption, social roles and models. Whenever a social scientist has to explain to any newcomer or non-sociologist the basics and purpose of the sociological science as a discipline, the understanding of fashion movements should be among the first examples that come to mind. (Laberge, 408)
Indeed, Roland Barthes, who wrote The Fashion System, treats fashion as a sociological cipher for deeper insights into social relations when he says, "Fashion has been a privileged object for sociologists since Spencer. Fashion is a phenomenon both of innovation and conformity. So there is a paradox here which cannot but hold the attention of sociologists." Henri Lefebre, in response, adds, "The study of fashion can be particularized by looking at clothing but it is the whole of society which is implicated." (Barthes, 80-81)
WHAT IS "STREET FASHION"?
THE STREET AND THE "STRAIGHT-UP" REPRESENTATION OF REALITY
Given that haute couture fashion has always been a white, European space in its origination and articulation as a field, albeit one marked by brief and occasional interruptions by fleeting "guest appearances" of raced alterity brought with, on, and through colorful bodies, the inherent whiteness of the (high) fashion field has never been significantly interrupted.
But in the lower realm of "street fashion," raced bodies have held a different valence in a field with a far shorter history, marked by most scholars of the subject from the first appearances of the "straight-up" fashion portrait in i–D Magazine in 1980 (Rocamora, 185). It may be obvious that it is likely no coincidence that "street fashion", as an ongoing procession of the weird, found its origination and eventual articulation in the popular imaginary, as both a field and popular practice Japanese iteration as articulated in another fashion magazine, FRUiTS, founded in 1997 by famed street fashion photographer Shoichi Aoki. (i-D Japan)
But even the appearance of the vaunted Fruits in 1997, Japanese street fashion in the 1990s eventually found comfortable, permanent reception in the West as a part of the Orientalist view of "Wacky Japan" (Wagenaar) or even "Cool Japan" trope (Leavitt) One reason this is true has to do with the reception of the particular styles in question being essentially in-the-street manifestations of mostly Harajuku or Shibuya fashion as haute couture fashion objects with very little connection to real life sartorial uses or concerns. They were always objects of nearly pure spectacle, and there was a particularly Japanese warp and woof to "street fashion," especially as that was often embodied in the "Harajuku girl" look, as well as a very particular trajectory to the structural forces, demographic shifts, and cultural manifestations as exemplified and incorporated by the kogaru in Japanese society that explain how the street fashion kids in Tokyo started appearing in the first place. (Suzuki et al) The origins and articulations of Japanese street fashion placed Japanese street fashion into a haute couture space of spectacle defined by extremely raced bodies through the work of photographer Shoichi Aoki (Black, 239) before settling, as a category, into a default, not-as-heavily-raced category that eventually became a normalized, photo-sartorial practice through the work of American photographer Scott Schumann.
In fact, one might argue that it was the very success of the fast fashion industry that Tokyo and the Japanese kogaru both exemplified and made possible that killed the fast-fashion-based subcultures of Japan, which is why 2017, according to popular news stories such as XXX and YYY declared "Japan’s wild, creative Harajuku street style is dead. Long live Uniqlo" and SHoichi Aoki himself to declare the fall of Harajuku" and decide to shutter FRUiTS magazine once and for all in 2017. (Aoki)
Yet, despite the great attention given to Japanese street faashion over the last few decads, little attention has been paid to the hat the QR (quick response) technologies of the uniquely Korean PBHs (private-branded hives) housed in Dongdaemun that actually enabled the production of the diverse and unusual styles, accessories, and accoutrements worn and used by the street fashion-leading kogal of Tokyo in the 1990s. In short, the research shows that there would have been no Japanese street fashion movement -- no Shibuya and Harajuku in the way we know them today -- without Dongdaemun, its silent economic partner. And even today, the growth of the "private-branded hives (PBH's) such as Migliore, Doota, and APM) predominance in Korea's fashion economy would not have happened without Tokyo street fashion and the Japanese market as its major client. It's a two-way street, so Korea's DDM and the PBH evolved in an environment that required (and shaped) its evolution; here would be no growth in Korean street fashion in the way we see it today on the streets of Seoul without the QR-cycle-battle-hardened, fast fashion market sharpened, fickle fashion cylcle honed PBH style of production in Dongdaemun. You don't get the ludicrously cheap prices and buffet-like extreme variety of fashion choices (often illegal knockoffs of looks taken directly from picture on the Internet) that enables young Korean women to look exactly like and wear the clothing a Hollywood star was wearing in a picture of her within 48 of its being uploaded and disseminated across the world without the accelerated QR/pronto moda/fast fashion technology of the DDM PBH complex and places like it. And you don't get the latter without the 1990s Japanese street fashion market driving and sharpening it. (Kim and Kincade, 2009)
THE PROOF IS IN THE PAEPI
In recent years, the Korean "paepi" (Korean portmanteau for the Korean pronunciation of the English words "fashion people") have taken center stage within the fashion field. By the main standard with which any and every other field in Korea judges evaluates itself -- international attention and coverage in major international media outlets -- the paepi are a resounding success.
When "Gangnam Style" caused a firestorm of excitement over K-pop's sudden rise to world prominence, the main marker of success in Korean media discourse had to do with international, seemingly objective markers of notoriety. It was not positive write-ups in Korean newspapers or magazines, nor glowing reviews for PSY's artidstic genius that marked him as the poster boy for Korean pop culture success but the record-setting number of hits on YouTube and not Naver. It was not music video views at home, but abroad, that brought him the pride of the nation. SImilarly, it was appearances on Ellen (a show with which Korean domestic audiences were scarecely familar) and not domestic television that proved his pre-eminence as the King of K-pop. Especially given PSY's mixed level of critical success in the field of pop music at home (until then, his only viable market) and experience with scandal over accusations of shirking proper service in his compulsive military service, it came as somewhat of a surprise to many Koreans to see PSY, of all people and groups, become the top act in K-pop. Indeed, it was his success in the international (and especially North American) market that cemented the eventuality of Koreans holding PSY in the highest possible esteem. By any reasonable (and similar) reckoning, the paepi have managed to take center stage in the Korean fashion field. If it isn't Vogue or GQ they are being featured in, it is in the far more field-influential publications of High Snobiety or Women's Wear Daily (WWD) where they have risen to absolute ascendancy.
A TRULY POPULAR ENDEAVOR?
Much ado has been made about the putative genre of "K-pop" music, the allegedly rising star of "K-cinema," and even "K-Beauty", the quiet giant whose $13 billion market size and power (Mintel Research) has not been as patently obvious within an agenda of concerns that tends to privilege "serious" (male) areas of cultural concern. Indeed, "the gender of the real" and the weighty is male, is measured in traditionally powerful industries, in the areas one might expect, i.e. cinema, music, and television. (Morley, 103) As a case in point, much attention has been paid in Korean media to PSY (and by extension, Kpop's) YouTube hit records. But the raw data as measured in YouTube subscribers suggests a level of cultural and commercial influence in makeup tutorial vloggers alone that is staggering. whether it is the 3 million subscribers to Pony Effect's YouTube channel or the millions of subscribers to others (Korea Herald), the raw, commercial power of content producers making YouTube videos about makeup who then found their own brands that help define the market and steer the direction of the $13 billion field itself should be glaringly obvious. Despite much bragadocio about PSY having 'broken" Youtube's hit meter, the fact remains that PSY has scarcely been able to recreate his initial lightning strike, or keep his influence consistent. Despite the fact that PSY's official Youtube channel stands at 11 million subscribers as of this writing, in terms of field influence, PSY is but an anomaly, not an army of influencers all moving in the same direction within a field.
But comparatively little attention has been given to a critical interrogation of the discursive formation denoted by the Chinese-originated term hallyu, known in English as the "Korean Wave." Besides the problematic use of the wave metaphor apropos to a description of cultural flows, the obvious, inherent limitation of the moniker lies in that fact that waves ebb as much as they swell. Moreover, the notion of the a wave's relentless power is an inherent part of the Chinese journalist-coined word that signifies an unstoppable cultural force crashing over Chinese borders like a tidal surge that cannot be held back. As the Korean broadcast media instantly took to utilizing the term and its utility in denoting Korean popular culture's putative relentlessness out of feelings of nationalist pride, the birth of a new, mediated discourse of "Korean pop culture ascendant" was nigh. And for K-pop and all its siblings, the K-signifier would mark the inclusion of all types of pop culture product within the discursive formation of hallyu, which is actually an circularly-defined category of semantic vagueness that actually is the very basis of the category's surprisingly versatile and extremely facile utility in focusing Korean government concern, money, and other means of support.
Some interrogation of the of the inevitably ethno-nationalist signification of things "K" has been questioned by those who have taken up a study of Korean pop culture products, e.g. "What is the K in K-pop", with some attention being given to (cheekily) define what is actually Korean as signified by the K. However, little attention has been given to other implications of the signifying act of placing a "K" prefix before a word describing a Korean popular culture field, such as found in "K-Drama" or "K-Cinema." If the original markets in which these popular cultures first began to flourish did not understand them as especially or specially "K", it is indicative of the fact that the "K" only has meaning outside of its original productive context. It is also indicative of the fact that the prefix actually has no real descriptive meaning, other than to indicate either that a) the cultural product was produced in Korea, or b) the persons involved in either the text or its production are "Korean"(in the ethno-nationalist sense of the term). Interestingly, the K-prefix rarely signifies any actual Koreanness, Traditionally defined in the very self-same ethno-nationalist discourse within which the product is generally uses) within the product itself. This leads to the crucial consideration of what the K-prefix actually signifies, and is a point that is rarely sussed out and debated: The "Special K" is a signifier that most accurately indicates the institutionally led, top-down discursive formation of hallyu and all its commercially interested agents. In short, the Special K indicates putative popular culture that is indeed not very popular in its origins. If anything, the industrial cultural text production machines indicated by the Special K , as found in K-pop, K-Cinema, K-Sports, K-Beauty, and even K-Fashion are textbook exmples of the "culture industry" formations and their role as devices of "mass deception" theorized about by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
David Morley offers a middle way between the somewhat "patrician complaint" that culture industry as defined by the Frankfurt school of thinking is simply a tool to control the lemming masses and the somewhat rosy picture painted by the Stuart Hal, "romanticized" school of thinking that would imagine audiences in popular culture through a belief in "the supposed power and freedoms of media consumers" who "constantly produce oppositional readings" and are possessed of a great deal of self-conscious agency. (Morley, 102-103)
The real world isn't so black-and-white, and real popular culture not so simple. However, the paepi that are the subject of this paper are the perfect, matching case example to Morley's charting of a middle ground between a mechanistic, overdetermined model of pop culture as a culture industry lever of control and the rosy notion of pop culture being filled with self-actualized, purposeful agency that will lead to the liberation of the masses from control from above. I would like to propose a reimagination of the Stuart Hall model of ENCODING-DECODING and extend the computational metaphor by proposing that the paepi engage in a process of RE-CODING their would-be programming into something altogether new that still speaks the language of programmed ideological control while using its parameters to write new programming. The paepi decode and recode the dominant readings, messages, and modes of their reception/consumption while using the same messages that dominant media uses. The decoding occurs as the culture industry would like, but so does a significant amount of recoding that results in something new. Recoding is creative. It is possessed of agency. And it may be a main feature of hypermodern media/consumption cultures that scholars of popular culture may be missing.
METHODOLOGY -- THE PARTICIPANT-PRACTITIONER AND STREET FASHION AS HEURISTIC TOOL - AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC INTRODUCTION TO A NEW FANDOM
The paradigm of the "participant-observer" who studies a group as a "fly on the wall" while observing but not interfering has shifted for certain ethnographers into one of the "participant-practitioner," or an actor in a field on the terms defined by the other actors in it, and who, by being as specifically interested (whether commercially, personally, or otherwise) as other members of the field, is able to learn the "rules of the game" more effectively and accurately, along the lines defined by an effort to describe the social reality of the field according to the rules of its ethnomethodology.
I have been doing just this -- and developing the theoretical rationale along the way (see "grounded theory," Berthelsen et al)-- using street fashion photography as a figurative lens, along with the actual one attached to my Canon EOS 6D camera. My take is one of a new kind of photo-sartorial elicitation in which I position different field actors into a new relationship centered around the production of picture that can not be of specific use to the actors in the field, but also elicit new angles and insights on what is happening on the literal field of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during the bi-annual Seoul Fashion Week event. Unlike traditional forms of photo elicitation, this is something far beyond simply giving cameras to subjects and hoping they will produce photographs that will shed light on an aspect of their identity or better outline the nature of their social status within a group or field or even showing images to interview subjects.
Indeed, this project onvolves the active recruitment of field participants in the process of creating a picture, a common project. I will be acting as not a mere participant-observer. The status of participant-practitioner is a function of my status as a practitioner within the field itself -- and while this involves technically "interfering" with or actively altering field conditions, the important point to remember is that as a participant-practitioner, my practices are bound by the rules of the field and the dictates of my interests as defined via the other field actors. Both approaches/positions are actually quite similar in that they involve more than mere "participation" but actually abandon the front of objectivity-as-putative-social-neutrality and the decision to inevitably change the nature of field conditions in order to elicit an observable effect in/via a photograph, which can yield considerably useful insights.
Some points to consider about different ways of looking at the street fashion (or any ethnographic) portrait:
- as a mere illustration of the photographic subject
- as an integrated summary of all the ethnographic interactions that happened behind the picture in order to produce it
- as a collection of visual data points and a map of their spatial, semiotic, or social relationships
Korean fashion fandom finds its origins in the unquely public nature of the Seoul Fashion Week ("Seoul Collection" until 200x) event's status as a government-funded culture event. Since most fashion weeks in the world are privately funded, pointedly unpublic affairs, the public nature of SFW comes from its operation having been dependent on taxpayer-colleted public funds, which necessitated granting some degree of public access, which thereby resulted in the culture of selling tickets, in rock concert fashion, to members of the public. Which resulted in behaviors and modes of interaction already fmiliar in other culture industry fandoms in Korea.
An Autoethnographic Take on Korean Street Fashion, 2006-2012: The Days of Fast Fast Fashion Fandom as Outsiders, Fandoms forming in a familiar, top-down culture industry field
- entry into street fashion photography and the days of hiphoper.com (sic)
- street fashion portraits as records of ethnographic interactions, early evidence of the spatial delineations of fashion field actors (field theory-based spatial analysis)
- the "global fetish" and the markers of field success, Seoul as entry into 7 fashion capitals, mayoral plans, government support, Concept Korea ==> KAGFaC
This is a case in which a traditional fandom that grew around the edges of a culture industry, once transformed and differently enabled by the unique spatial matrix of the Dongdaemun Design Complex after SFW's permanent move there, would become the main and most powerful actor in the KAGFaC field, as measured by the field's own "global fetish"-based markers.
HOW BODIES MOVE THROUGH FIELDS
In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin). I employ the theoretical framework of "field theory" to situate my "grounded theory" approach to gathering ethnographic data-through-experience as a participant-practitioner. Since I argue that I approach the paepi as a field member, it is important to explain the conditions that constitute a field.
While the metaphor of the field is strongly associated with Bourdieu, the spatial metaphor he was utilizing is far more facilely described by the scientifically-based field metaphor. What John Levi-Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.
Often, people seem to treat social phenomenae as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.
Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:
1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."
2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and
3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”
4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."
5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)
In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (CITATION)
So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success.
For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean aspirationally global fashion complex (KAGFaC) affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways. The field -- and its global charge -- affects the nature and behavior of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.
Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence.
THE “GLOBAL FETISH”
It is useful to remember the concept of sadaejuui when we look at the way in which the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it outside of Korea’s borders, which scholar Hyunjung Lee has crystallized into the notion of a “global fetish” in staged cultural productions. She points out how the notion of the “global” in South Korea has become so highly prioritized that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explaining just about anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, to the extent that the object promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or functions to “globalize” South Korea. Seoul Fashion Week has certainly been overcome with just such a "fetish" and it certainly informed my initial ability to enter the field as a non-Korean foreigner possessed of almost no fashion-related cultural capital worthy of granting my access to most fashion weeks in other parts of the world...
Herein lies the problem. This picture of a dapper and debonair gent peacocking around Gangnam is certainly fashionable and great to look at, but he is as much an outlier case in Korean society as he would be in any and many other countries. He's not a representative case of what anything approaching how any kind of majority of Korean dress, no matter how broadly dressing "well" is defined, which makes him have much more in common with kindred spirits in London, Berlin, New York, Rome, or LA. What many street fashion photographers across the planet are actually documenting is an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman's much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea -- the Korean fashion field, actually -- had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal since the days when former president Kim Youngsam's new segyehwa policy seemed like an overly hopeful pipe dream.
What Scott Schumann surely didn't know about Korean culture was that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking were responsible for the extremely warm welcome he was given in a country where most everyday folks and fashion civilians had barely even heard of him. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 andofficially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justifieda and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do themwas not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power.
THE KOREAN ASPIRATIONALLY GLOBAL FASHION COMPLEX
A FIELD MEMBER
It is useful to begin an explication of what I will call the "KAGFaC" field with Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), the industry event that brings all major players in the field together in a highly organized and controlled way, with the goal of gathering the global gaze as a given. Here, I'll use the insightful example and theoretical framing of Joanne Entwistle and Agnès Rocamora's 2006 field theory analysis of London Fashion Week "The Field of Fashion Materialized: A Study of London Fashion Week." Therein, the authors were able to enter the major event in the field, a "fashion week" as academicsconducting fashion research. In my own case, I entered the fieldas a photographer alreaady active in Seoul and the street photography/portraiture scene as what one might now call a "street fashion photographer" and blogger since late 2006, and began attending SFW in late 2006, and continued to attend every season (twice a year, in March and October) for more than a decade as a member of the field -- first as a blogger/photographer, then as a freelance photographer for organizations from CNN Travel, The Korea Herald, and The Huffington Post as a participant-practitioner who is able to make even more in-depth analyses from the "inside." Also, by around 2011, I had also begun working as the house and/or backstage photographer for at least three Korean fashion designers, namely Yang Hee Deuk (양희득), Doii Lee (이도이), and IM Seon Oc (임선옥). Lastly, I have been covering SFW as press under the auspices of a local fashion industry newspaper called TINNews (The Industry News) to provide highly stylized street fashion portraits, which has allowed me to enjoy great latitude in gaining access to other field members and events.
THE KOREAN FASHION FIELD
At SFW, Korean high fashion designers do what they know how to do, which is to stage fashion shows (often through the industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which is partially supported by the city and national governments) and hope to garner international attention via the global gaze of overseas press and, to a lesser extent, overseas buyers. However, the main function of buyers within the commercial fashion field is to possess as many commercially viable items as possible to offer for resale in the stores and showrooms of the venues they represent. Since the obvious goal of high fashion designers is to sell clothes, mainly to buyers, designing runway shows to appeal to them while making the clothing easy to photograph for members of the media and commercial catalogues, the entire structure of the fashion show has shifted from that of a small, intimate affair designed to show clothes to a small, powerful elite gathered in a small room to one designed to have clothes paraded before a large, professional photo corps positioned at the end of a long runway, with the intention of having each piece of clothing shared as widely as possible in magazines, TV programs, and other forms of media. To this end, both still photographers and videographers not only expect but demand to be placed as close to centre runway position at the far end of the long runway, with general “house,” then designer “house” official photographers getting first priority for shooting placement before the beginning of each show, followed by photographers with official press passes from other outlets on a first-come, first-serve basis. The photo press clustered together at the end of the runway are the main focus of the show, since their role in getting the designer’s end product — the clothing — out to the world in a concrete way — through their photographs and recordings — is crucial to making sure the event has any impact at all outside of the halls of the venue, which has now become permanent and official, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), housed in the fashion/textile district of Dongdaemun, the traditional garment district that has been officialised by the Seoul city government as the center of fashion in Seoul, and hence, the entire nation. Fashion writers and other members of the non-photographic press are seated, along with buyers and VIPs, along the side of the runway so as to facilitate being able to see all details of the garments on the runway, from types of stitches and materials to cuts and how the garment flows and falls upon the models’ bodies. Both photo and non-photo press are categorised into overseas and domestic categories, with the overseas press being given higher priority by being seated or allowed entry before the domestic press, since Seoul Fashion Week, supported as it is by funds from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has prioritised the elevation of SFW into greater global prominence and gives special care to facilitate the jobs of members of the overseas press, even to the detriment of the functioning of the local press that is actually more responsible for documenting and promoting the work of the designers in question. VIPs such as famous pop stars and actors are crucial to adding to the social capital of designers who can successfully invite them to their shows, even as glitterati attendees benefit from the glamorous boost to their respective images in being photographed in a front row fashion show seat. It is worth noting that only SFW
And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies academician that fall within the realm of even the widest definition of “popular culture,” street fashion is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren’t controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes no political/governmental motivations to subsume this truly popular endeavor into the nationalist frame through the use of the “K” signifier. Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual “popular” culture.
Simply put, the product of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the realm of social action. What is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the “Special K” signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate marker of top-down, oppressive, culturally exploitative power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up, truly popular "discursive formation" signified by the self-created term “paepi” – by the Signified themselves – would mark the proper regard – and theoretical approach – to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere “subculture” or “tribe,” but as a “scene” of sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen.
And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies theorist that fall within the realm of the widest definition of "popular culture," the street fashion field/phenomenon/formation is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren't controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes the least number of political/governmental motivations to subsume this popular endeavor into the nationalist frame and signifier of the "K." Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual "popular" culture. Simply put, the productis of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the real of social action. As this paper will show, what is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the "Special K" signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate "discursive formation" of top-down, oppressive power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up discursive formation signified by the term "paepi" -- by the Signified themselves -- would mark the proper regard -- and theoretical approach -- to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere "subculture" or "tribe," but as a "scene" of the sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen. This analysis would be in line of Shane Blackman's excavation and explication of Steven Miles' far more theoretically useful notion of "lifestyle" as the best descriptor of what's is happening with the paepi:
The work of Steven Miles is comparable with that of Bennett to the extent that he proposes a theory of lifestyle based on a critique of the CCCS theory of subculture and identifies consumer culture as offering individuality for young people. Miles’s interpretation is more structural; he argues that ‘lifestyles are not individualized in nature but are constructed through affiliation and negotiation . . . Lifestyles are, in effect, lived cultures in which individuals actively express their identities, but in direct relation to their position as regards the dominant culture’ (Miles 2000: 16). This argument is a reconfiguration of the CCCS theory of subculture with its implicit use of Gramsci’s ideas where he asserts the desire to speak about the dominant culture in terms of institutions such as school, the labour market and ‘power structures’ (2000: 9). For him youth identities are constructed through stable commonalties: ‘through consumer goods, which allows them to feel unique’ (Miles 1995: 42). It is clear that Miles wishes to promote an understanding of youth subcultural identity as stable, which offers agency, but he sees adherence to particular forms of collective solidarity as more ephemeral due to conditions of postmodernity. (Blackman, 122)
As those on the inside of it know, "paepi" is an aspirational lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as the locus and point of the social activity itself, rather than as mere markers of other social norms or values outside of the consumptive acts themselves.
The paepi are successful at navigating KAGFaC as mediated people in the world of hyper-extended selves, as masters of what Brooke Duffy and Emily Hund have aptly described as an "entrepreneurial femininity" in which many fashion bloggers and others do productive work in which the self is the product, as they themselves as fashion/photographic subject have become the product itself, the brand. (Duffy et al)
Duffy and Hund employed their term as they described Western fashion bloggers-as-entrepreneurs, mostly in the realm of Instagram and blogging platforms, but the concept is of great use in the Korean case. For the paepiare fluent in the way that (Western) social media creates not only the means, but the need to curate and even brand one's extended self. This is what some other actors (professional fashion designers and their brands) in the KAGFaC field pay other actors within the field (PR firms that represent brands and even the SFW brand of the city) to do but continually fail to gain traction in terms of the global charge of the field. These traditional actors fail on the level of globality, the very level where the paepi unintentionally succeed. And since KAGFaC is as dominated by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as any other fields in an increasingly smaller and more globally interconnected world, the paepi rise to the top of the field and accomplish what professional fashion designers and their industry organizations cannot, even with the nearly inexhaustible resources and money of an actor such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism behind them.
With the global charge of the KAGFaC field lost upon most of the actors within it, most actors are not able to garner the coveted global recognition of which coverage in international press outlets is both a symbol and concrete enabler. And this is true, despite the fact that the putative paepi social actor is not even actually a single actor in motion as a unified body with a conscious will or action plan; despite being relatively bereft of other forms of fiscal, objectified or institutional social capital, or a relative modicum of the embodied cultural capital (habitus) that other actors are possessed of either individually or in tandem, this being English language ability that come through desirable educational pedigrees and preparation, along with the concrete connections this brings. Indeed, despite actually being apparently fatally crippled in the game of gaining primacy via globility within KAGFaC, when international press come even to cover the high fashion event Seoul Fashion Week, the only coverage revolves around street fashion, a conversation in which the paepibecome the main cast and characters.
CONCLUSION -- FLIPPING THE FIELD
We have been talking about Korean street fashion, in the wake of the standardization and normalization of the genre by and through The Sartorialist, and how the Korean aesthetic, as one developed from the peculiar and particular cocktail of cultural hybridity, textual impurity , and postcoloniality enabled and amplified by the "social mediascape" (Jin) in the context of describing the success of hallyu, was able to quickly metastasize into the de facto street fashion aesthetic standard by which all others are now judged. To some extent, this must have to do with the fact that the original street fashion body was, in its initial iteration, Asian. In a similar way, the West has long been engaged in a relationship comfortable with a longing (and often Orientalizing) sartorial gaze towards the East. Talking about the Korean paepi necessitates a conversation about the body as a site of cultural production. It is, therefore, useful to reference Melissa Blanco -Borelli's theoretically facile notion of "hip-(g)nosis." (Blanco-Borelli) The body is a site/tool/act of, or a way to act out culture -- to produce it -- they are not mere passive conduits for culture to be produced through or on them. (Put some Stuart Hall on it here.) Most importantly, the paepi embody a hypermodern, corporealized agency created as the result of a self-actualized remix and rearticulation of imposed aesthetic, structural, and cultural signifiers, focused through a South Korean emphasis on body techniques (Tae-yeon Kim)
It should almost go without saying that one does not perform a dance, play, or put on another performative act, alone or without an audience. And more often than not, connecting with an audience or onlookers is facilitated by a stage. This section will talk theoretically about "staging" from performance studies and more specifically, about the role of the DDP in socially focusing or enabling certain kinds of action in terms of architectural theory.
As a stage, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which has served as the permanent home of Seoul Fashion Week since 2012, has allowed the former fashion fandom that formed around the edges of fashion events in various places in Seoul before 2012 to develop into the main event, a new, de facto "runway" that eclipses the shows on the formal runways of Seoul Fashion Week to the point that the international fashion outlets from -- Vogue, GQ, and The New York Times -- that do now regularly cover SFW rarely even mention high fashion designers in their rush to talk about the "next level" interestingness of Korean fashion. This amazing flipping of the stage of the fashion field has only become possible through the fascinating structure that now houses SFW -- the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which amplifies the extant "flexible sociality" of Seoul (Cho) through the "multi-modality" that Zaha Hadid designed into the structure (Shumacher), focusing it through the bodies and hypereality-enabled habitus of the paepi to allow a completely new kind of social interaction and urban fashion culture to form.
The huge “spaceship” that is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), conceived and constructed by Zaha Hadid, was criticised as an egregious eyesore and a waste of taxpayers’ money, being as it was, an obvious attempt to create a mere spectacle for tourism, at the cost of traditional structures, objects, and aesthetics. (Yoon) Yet, from the beginning, the design concept was one of constructing a “metonymic landscape” in which “each space is made unique and memorable in its articulation” in which “the various diverse, and often very specific, audiences start to use the building.” Thus, the DDP was “posited as a key test case for the claims of Parametricism.” (Shumacher)
As those on the inside of it know, “paepi” is an aspirational term, category, and even lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as a way of self-expression through consumptive acts, and is a truly bottom-up way of being more than just a passive consumer, a mindless vessel of capitalism, or just another lemming following the herd.
But what is awesome about Korean street fashion culture isn’t the amazing styling, although you can like it for that if you want to; it isn’t the subcultural aspects, cuz there ain’t any, really. The Korean paepi doesn’t really constitute a counterculture, or any subcultural values different from the mainstream. Instead, they are fascinating as a new class of Korean superconsumers, as a group of youth who have found a way to gain social validation quickly and efficiently, as superconsumers who turn what Marx called the “commodity fetish” (Warenfetischismus) into a creative endeavor. They flipped a failing of capitalism into a veritable artform. They turned consumption into creation. Fucking think about that shit.
As the cultural product of hypermodernity, the Korean paepi are a testament to the power of human creativity to make the best out of a soulless system, to remix various social tendencies of postcoloniality, Korea’s compressed development, and the cultural hybridity and textual impurity that helped make K-pop a culture industry juggernaut.
Korea is barely shaking off the reins of fasco-capitalism (not the actual democracy that came as a response to it) and still lives with the accumulated leftovers of its all-rationalizing ideologies. Now that it's a consumer society in which the new ideology that rationalizes social action is a function of the structural requirement to consume, consume, consume, and even understand one's own identity as constituted by things one consumes or the choices one makes (or even sees oneself as a commodity for consumption), and young people have become socialized into seeing themselves and everything they do as part of this system, it makes perfect sense that young people -- who have never known a society not possessed of this rationale -- have increasingly developed a fashion culture that reflects these values of identity expression through consumptive acts. So, understanding Korea street fashion culture as the ultimate expression of these consumer values as the culture of a young class of super-consumers, should be a pretty straightforward thing to do.
Fashion As Cipher
In this way, fashion is a cipher for understanding the biggest cultural-structural shift in Korean society right now. It's the ultimate expression of dominant (not counter- or subcultural) values, of (predominantly) youth culture making sense of the master imperative to eat, consume, and die and, above all, do not question authority unless it's a "Critical Thinking Question" in the the back of the textbook chapters. It's the end of a pretty weird and unbalanced equation in which the Confucian "iron cage" of ideology says one should respect authority, the hierarchy, and the Way Things Are Done™ yet participate in the new Creative Economy™, and be a good critical thinker, but not actual too critical.
It's the way theorist Stuart Hall says that yes, while there is a structural imperative that we should all just shut up and be lemmings and consume culture and All the Pretty Things it hawks to us without question or exception, people do talk back to hegemonic control in their own ways. They read the meanings of cultural texts different, strip and denude them, break them apart and construct them, remix them, repurpose them, and a whole myriad of other things. To the extent that the Party Propagandist, the movie director, the poet, or the fashion designer ENCODE the texts with specific meanings, individuals and communities of individuals DECODE them in different ways. And in the wild consumer society that is Korea, in the age of the "Han River Miracle" having given way to "Hell Joseon", the creative act of resistance that is created by the critical space cleared/made possible by the idea of Hell Joseon is what constitutes the creative impulses behind Korean street fashion, especially in youth. In this way, Korean street fashion culture could no more spring up in the older culture of say, Korea in the 1990s (towards the end of the old Han River Miracle paradigm, for which the Korean "IMF Crisis" of 1997 was the death knell) could no more provide the soil for such a culture than a bottle of vinegar could be expected to yield a flower from even the best possible seed.
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