- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Elle magazine’s creative director, Joe Zee, has been getting a lot of flack for characterizing a military-inspired runway trend as "North Korea Chic" in their August issue. The spread, which featured an assortment of olive drab menswear, a single gold stiletto, and a photo of a man in an approximation of a North Korean military uniform, read: "Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons. This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring."
The Washington Post and ThinkProgress (among many others) were quick to attack Zee for invoking North Korea so casually and exploiting the country’s notoriety to sell luxury goods. North Korea does, after all, have a horrendous human rights record and a reputation for military brinkmanship. The criticisms are certainly valid, but they miss another important point: Elle, a fashion magazine, got North Korean fashion totally wrong — and no one even noticed! (Admittedly, that could be due to the fact that there is no internet in North Korea.)
In addition to tacitly glorifying North Korea’s military regime, Elle’s "North Korea Chic" reduces the country’s many, fashion-conscious citizens to a dull, monochromatic stereotype. As the Instagram feed of AP photographer and frequent visitor to North Korea David Guttenfelder will attest, Pyongyang style isn’t so predictable. It’s true that in years past women were forbidden from wearing trousers, and fashion police roved the streets arresting violators of the country’s dress codes on sight. But clothing restrictions have eased since Kim Jong Un took the reins in 2011. Seven months before Kim took power, media reports claimed that upper class women in Pyongyang were daringly walking the streets in skinny jeans and hoop earrings. This may be due in part to the influence of his wife, Ri Sol Ju, who seems to favor flashy brooches and brightly colored blouses over the patriotic pins and mid-calf hemlines of yesteryear. She’s become such a style icon in Pyongyang, that demand for similar looks is fueling a cottage industry of knock-off designer clothing.
That said, North Korean fashion was diversifying even before Ri Sol-Ju stepped, high-heeled, into the spotlight. In 2010, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) aired a program called "Spring Fashion for Women’s Formal Wear" featuring garments in "daring colors appropriate for the overall mood of spring." It’s a style reflected in this dressmaker’s window display in Pyongyang.
And let’s not forget North Korea’s love affair with shoes. Modest heels have been in vogue for quite some time, but only in the past couple of years has the demand for platforms and stilettos picked up. In 2011, platforms were one of the country’s top ten most popular products, according to analysis by the Samsung Economic Research Institute. Pumps in all shapes and sizes are popular too.
Despite being closed off from much of the rest of the world, young people in North Korea are following in the stylish wakes of their South Korean counterparts — apparently donning such fashion-forward items as hooded sweatshirts, one-piece dresses and even, on occasion, shorts.
So how does Elle get away with reducing the whole of North Korean culture to an olive drab trope? Doesn’t it care about the rich, rapidly evolving landscape of North Korean style? Probably not. As culture critic Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu argues in her 2010 book, The Beautiful Generation, the Western fashion world tends to regard the East as, firstly, a manufacturing site and, secondly, a free-for-all grabbag of exotic motifs and dated stereotypes that can be conveniently recycled season after season.
Elle‘s spread wasn’t just tone-deaf; it was cliché. Can there be a worse sin for a fashion editor?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. Prior to Fletcher, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drezner has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University. He has previously held positions with Civic Education Project, the RAND Corporation, and the Treasury Department.| Daniel W. Drezner |
The bullhorn for North Korea; Chuck Hagel’s paycut; Changing it up on Iran; What war would look like; The ANSF in Afghanistan: taking the fight; Gidget Fuentes, departing; and a little more.Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |