Feature: The Kdrama Fashion Reveals
Men in greatcoats and women in ruffles: Kdrama reveals
So, let me plunge those of you who aren’t really too conversant with Korean dramas straight into the deep end. Be warned, this deep dive into the hallyu (wave, referring to the tsunami-strength popularity enjoyed by Kdramas) will involve some startling adjustments of your hitherto held standard of visual appeal.
What you get in the Kdrama world are men who are tall but of compact structure, skinny (sometimes too skinny, as with Lee Min Ki) with high cheekbones, monolids (most though not all), a regulation pudding bowl haircut… and a liberal application of make-up. Just about all the male leads (MLs) and second male leads (yes, that’s a thing in Kdramas) wear eyeshadow, manliner, lipstick (and not always subtle nude shades, either) as well as several lashings of pancake foundation, the last, given the splendiferous choices of K-beauty makeup) always but always a perfect match for their equally perfect skin tone.
However, the makeup is sometimes so in your face, it detracts from your appreciation of otherwise winsome actors like Lee Dong Wook and Ji Chang Wook, for instance.
That leap of faith
The good guys invariably are shaven clean of all facial and body hair and the initial effect could be one of effeteness, till you get used to it. For us Indians with our tendresse for moustache, beard and man buns, as well as mildly hirsute bodies, this is yet another leap of faith. But well worth it, if you become an avid consumer of Kdramas.
That’s as regards the men. The women are almost always wand-slender (their onscreen mothers are allowed to have gained weight, though!), their very subtle eye makeup is expertly applied and the younger they are, the higher their skirt hems are hiked, showing off near perfect legs. Deep décolletages, though not verboten, are usually not seen.
Most FLs, in contrast, come across looking like they hardly have any makeup on and that of course, is a hat tip to the fabled 25-step skincare regimens as well as the dermatological miracles that K-beauty is all about.
One thing both sexes have in common is that they need to look fair and beautiful, or fair at any rate. Hence the makeup that sometimes overwhelms, as seen on the sexy dusky Eric Mun in Another Oh Hae Young or Won Jin Ah, the lissom lass who actually sported a makeup border at her chin-line all through that turkey Melting Me Softly.
A fresh surge
India entered the Kdrama universe sometime in the mid-2000s, with the northeast leading in dedicated viewership. Since then, that universe has been expanding steadily and now we are the sixth largest consumer of K-content worldwide. Netflix reports that the viewership figures for 2020 was four times that of 2019. Halfway into 2021, with lockdowns now very much a part of our lives, one can be sure that the hallyu will only grow to epic proportions. This is indeed, cultural soft power at its best.
It doesn`t take much pondering to understand why Kdramas ((with an overwhelmingly female viewership, spanning the ages from 16 to 60+) hit that sweet spot with Indian viewers, especially in virus-ridden times. For those tiring of rasoda soaps, the dramas, a hark-back to the family sitcoms of earlier decades but sharpened with just enough touches of modernity, are the ideal escape activity. The unhurried pace, the old-fashioned sweetness at the core of the story, the emphasis on strong female characters, the playing for breezy laughs, are all most appealing. Yes, there are zombies, aliens, goblins, superheroes, totally evil politicians, but they are devoid of that ugly edge found in most modern-day serials and movies.
Other bonus points are learning about another culture, listening to the lilt of another language, trying out K-cuisine and yes, introducing some Kdrama fashion into one`s wardrobe.
Striking sartorial gold
So much for what they look like. Fashion spotters invariably strike gold when they study the sartorial choices seen on the small screen in Seoul. Here is where the dramatic and the mundane co-exist. Several serials have both female and male characters, whether they are tall or short, of waiflike structure or pleasantly plump, sporting long overcoats that look like they’ve been pulled out of a costumier`s wardrobe.
Bright is clearly the way to go. Some MLs wear epaulettes and shoulder detailing on their trench coats; some FLs wear a reckless mix of print on print, and tees that put a new spin on utilitarian clothing. Both sexes are big on turtlenecks, thick cable-knit sweaters, leather, and the men often wear colours like citrine, electric blue and russet, unusual choices, Govinda notwithstanding, for the male of the species elsewhere.
Now, aficianados know that Korea is not in the least backward when it comes to high-end fashion. RiRi wears Hyein Seo often; Leesle Hwang does a neat line in the modern hanbok (the traditional Korean dress); Kathleen Kye, Munsoo Kwon, Jin Teok, are all familiar names to those whose business it is to spot global trends. We11done retails with much success at Net-a-Porter and Saks. Kim Min-ju won Netflix‘s first reality fashion show, Next in Fashion and used that as a stepping stone for her Minjukim line. In 2016, the late great Karl Lagerfeld showed a Korea-inspired line for Chanel, with the house`s fabric director Kim Young-Seong helping him showcase Korean design.
The biannual Seoul Fashion Week (live-streamed this year) has been attracting much attention from stylistas, fashionistas, as well as celebrities for a while now. Ubermodels like Choi Sora, Jang Yoon Ju, Han Hye-Jin, Bae Yoon Young, Park Ji Hye, Park Soo Joo among others have walked for Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Fendi, Lanvin, Dior, Vuitton, Elie Saab, Alexander Wang, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Hermes, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, and more. Soo Joo Park was the first Asian-American woman to be a L`Oreal spokesmodel.
Celebs as brand ambassadors for haute houses is quite a thing, too. Ji Chang Wook is the global model for Calvin Klein, the first Korean actor to have scored that appointment. Song Hye Kyo for Chaumet and Fendi, Park Seo Joon for Montblanc, Jun Ji Hyun for Alexander McQueen, Bae Doona for Louis Vuitton, are just a few other examples.
Quite a bit of this stylistic splendour has moved onto the small screen but with a sharp social divide. Which is understandable; you can`t have the ordinary working girl wearing high-end labels to her workplace or to the office parties. However, chaebol heirs and heiresses — and there`s a fair amount of them in Kdramas — wear stuff straight off the runway and wear them to eye-popping effect. The business suits are slick, the frou-frou strategically placed, and the overall effect is one of subtle but strong impact.
Some examples of Kdramas with a vigorous fashion edge to them are 2019`s Hotel Del Luna, Touch Your Heart and Crash Landing On You, 2020`s The King: Eternal Monarch, It`s Okay To Not be Okay and Itaewon Class.
Under a haute microspcope
Let`s take six of the top rated Kdramas of all time and put them under the haute microscope. Two of them — Mr Queen, Mr Sunshine, — happen to be period dramas, so not really the place to go trend-spotting. Reply 1988 is set in the late Eighties and early Nineties, so period fashion there, too.
The delightful Descendants of the Sun (DOTS) takes a close look at officers and enlisted men in the Korean Special Forces, as well as doctors working at a hospital in Seoul. The female lead Song Hye Kyo being uncommonly pretty, wears skimpy shorts, skorts and dresses that show off her gorgeous gams, whenever she is not in scrubs. The men all wear duds that could have them blend into the Seoul street scene easily, except for their typically military bearing and confidence.
The recently dropped Vincenzo starring the same male lead as DOTS, Song Joon Ki as the eponymous hero, is interesting in that it is Vincenzo Cassano who is dressed to kill (very literally, given that he`s a mafia consigliore of Korean descent…go figure, again) while his female lead Jeon Yeo Been, wears some smart pantsuits but doesn`t really stand out except for her OTT histrionics. K-drama vets will have noticed that the men generally wear ankle-length pants. Vincenzo, now, wears sharply cut suits, purportedly of Italian provenance, with the pant length conforming to the Western standard, meaning just skimming the top of the shoe. Eventually though, as the story winds its way to the finale, Vincenzo`s pant- length shrinks to the appropriate Korean proportions!
It is the sixth blockbuster, Crash Landing on You (CLOY) which released in 2019, that is the most satisfying watch for style surfers. Hyun Bin, the male lead, plays a North Korean army officer without much scope for sartorial flair… except when he`s in Seoul undercover, his lady love takes him to a clothing store and gets him kitted out in gear that has the saleslady literally salivating. But Hyun Bin ain`t got nothing on Son Ye Jin, his heroine, who plays a chaebol heiress and plays it to the hilt. Her ensembles are a mouth-watering array of draped dresses, the use of colours like canary yellow and fuschia, mohair, great eyeshades and nifty It handbags. There`s one body-con cream and green floral number at the end that will have the female contingent of viewers salivating just like that aforementioned saleslady. Her outfits are so good, you`ll happily overlook shoulder pads on a dress or two (even if it`s Balmain!), one green lame skirt, some frills and furbelows.
Slice of life on display
Ultimately, Kdramas are a slice of Korean life: a smorgasbord of style, heart-warming stories… and some lustrous makeup.
A compacted version of this article appeared on 10 June 2021 in The Voice of Fashion.