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Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.
Much has been speculated about North Korea—the government, human rights, the standard of living, etc.—but you rarely see anything about some of the more mundane aspects of life. On our recent trip to Pyongyang I was intrigued by the day-to-day things seen through the fog of the government propaganda machine. In particular, what do women wear in North Korea? Something as simple as how they dress can indicate their role in society.
A totalitarian regime does not lend itself to chic. The whole government machine is focused on men—the “Great Leader Kim Il Sung,” his son Kim Jong Il (merely known as “The Dear Leader”) and now Kim Jong Un, the third member of the Leader Dynasty.
North Korean women break out their Sunday best and finest shoes for the Mass Dance.
Women don’t loom large in this whole scenario. There are few references to women—only Kim Il Sung’s grandmother (who raised him) and wife (who gave birth to the Dear Leader, then died in 1949) warrant any type of mention in the country’s history. This is not a matriarchal society.
Given this rather lackluster status, it is hardly surprising that women’s attire here is not exactly fashion-forward. Think a sort of “Asian-Communism-Meets-the-Stepford-Wives” and you get the general flavor.
The women tend to dress in one of three ways: The Choson-ot (the traditional Korean long dress, known in South Korea as the Hanbok), a military uniform, or “regular work clothes”—which kind of looks like typical office wear in the west in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. Remember the two-piece dresses with a jacket/blouse and a flared mid-calf skirt? Bam! You’re in North Korea circa 2012.
Teenagers seem to have a bit more latitude, wearing jeans and Hello Kitty-type t-shirts, but I never saw a woman over about 18 dressed that way. When I asked our guide about it, she just shrugged and said “that’s kids, when we grow up we dress properly.” Which is probably not a bad model to follow for grown women everywhere.
Most of what I’ve described above just sort of sounds like a somewhat militaristic society where Vogue, Glamour, Elle (or even Good Housekeeping for that matter) are not distributed or even known about. It’s the wearing of the Choson-ot where the whole “Stepford Wives” aspect comes into play.
Don’t get me wrong, these are beautiful garments, and remembering one’s heritage is important. But in North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-DPRK), the Choson-ot seems to be mandatory dress whenever declarations of national pride are required (and that is often in the DPRK).
Guides at the national monuments all wear this outfit. Even young university women have a sort of abbreviated version: navy and white with a mid-calf skirt. It is the featured costume for women in the Arirang Performance (or “Mass Games”) every year. It is de rigueur for mass impromptu national dancing done on National Day.
When our group visited the mausoleum of “The Great Leader” Kim Il Sung I noticed that the Korean woman all wore their “Sunday Best.” Imagine all of us dressing like Betsy Ross to visit Mount Vernon or the Jefferson Memorial and you get the picture. In all fairness there is something to be said for dressing your best for an event that is important to you.
Striding off to pay homage at the tomb of Kim Il Sung.
Here’s the kicker though; for the men, formal dress is considered a shirt and tie. This is how “The Great Leader” is depicted in official portraits that are plastered on billboards everywhere, and there is nary a dopo (the men’s equivalent to the Choson-ot) to be seen. It seems some genders are [allowed to be] more progressive than others.
If one were using fashion as an indicator of status—and let’s face it, that’s what fashion is all about—then the fashions in North Korea speak volumes. Women can be well-attired, but power-dressing is just not in the vernacular. Except. . . wait for it. . . shoes! These gals might be wearing Betsy Ross-era clothing, but underneath it all, they are wearing pretty heels (trust me, I checked!) It seems “The Great Leader” either neglected or underestimated “the shoe gene” that is attached to our second X-chromosome.
One of the guides taking us around a historic site was dressed in that ’80s garb I mentioned earlier—but she was wearing the most beautiful pair of bright turquoise suede pumps. She was formal and subdued throughout the whole tour. At the end, however, when she asked if there were any further questions or comments I asked our interpreter to compliment the guide on her beautiful shoes.
Her transformation was complete and instantaneous. She became chatty and friendly, and we started comparing shoes. (Unfortunately I was wearing my rather functional Keen sandals—see more on traveling shoes for women– but it was a great ice breaker).
Now this is the way to break down political barriers.
See more about our trip to North Korea.