When I moved to Korea, one of the first things I noticed was that the women always looked so put together. Even if they were just going to the 7-Eleven to buy a pack of pads, their hair, clothes, and shoes would be completely on point. Or it could be snowing, and I’d peer out the bus window to see a woman in heels trudging—er, delicately stepping—through the snow to get to work. How was she going to last all day in a pair of wet pumps?
This was the opposite of my approach. I could clean up nice, but the rest of the time, who cares? I’d gladly walk in a Starbucks with tweaked-out bedhead and sweats that I’d slept in and stand in line behind a bunch of girls who looked pretty much the same. Even for Angelenos and New Yorkers, the concept of trying to look good at all times is foreign.
Growing up, I remember a blowout family fight before a trip to Hawaii. My mom insisted that my brother change out of his sweatpants and into jeans because we were “going to the airport.” I sided with my brother because I had my own plans to wear sweats and wanted be as comfortable as possible on that long 6 A.M flight.
It seemed bizarre to me that my mom would want us to be presentable when we were just going to curl up and go to sleep, but after living in Korea, I came to understand that caring about appearance was part of her heritage. Korean culture cares a lot about doing and being your best. Whether it’s career, academics, or personal achievements, people want to know that they gave it their all, and it’s natural that this would trickle into how you look: They want to put their best face forward. Literally.
Korea is also a fast-fashion and fashion-forward culture. You could be forgiven for spending hours online looking at Seoul street-style blogs, or getting caught gawking on the street at some girl whose outfit you’re trying to memorize so you can copy it later.
Trend spotting is relatively easy in Seoul, because when a trend hits, everyone is taking part. Compared with the population of the United States (which was 319 million as of 2014), Korea is tiny, with just 51 million people, but more than 10 million—roughly 20 percent of the country—reside in Seoul. That’s more people in one place than in New York City (8.5 million), and the metropolitan population of Seoul is the second largest in the world after Tokyo. The concentration of people in Seoul makes for a remarkably urban and sophisticated culture on the whole, and one that’s constantly hungry for the next big thing. When a trend is sparked by a celebrity’s new lip color or haircut, it’s very apparent that something’s happening, because you’ll see girls rocking it every which way you turn. When actress Ko Joon Hee came out with a short bob in a drama, so did many of my colleagues that season. I even wondered if I should take the plunge and get the cut myself.
Korean companies are also experts at fast-tracking trendy products to market, both in beauty and in fashion, so you can see something on a popular drama or on the runway and add a much cheaper version to your closet just a month or two later. I hate having the same things as other people, but when you see it that often, you start to experience a bit of fashion FOMO. I know, I know—that’s not the deepest thing I’ve ever said, but I’m being honest here.
When I’m in New York, the threads I wear that get the most compliments are all things I got from Korean boutiques. Italian men have complimented my flats and women in SoHo have asked me where I got my jacket. Some were shocked when I mentioned it was from a small boutique in Seoul, but those more familiar with Korean fashion always responded with “Of course it is, I should have guessed!”
So Korea does have fashion down, with the cutest clothes sans expensive prices, but such fast fashion does have its downsides. The biggest is that many stores are one-size-fits-all, (meaning small), which isn’t very inclusive and can make anyone who’s not that one size feel pretty darn inadequate. Seoul is currently experiencing an influx of foreign stores such as Forever 21, H&M, and Zara, and these stores are having a good influence in the size department; some local lines are increasing their size range.
I was never a brand whore before coming to Korea, but a few years after I arrived, I must have blacked out while shopping. When I came to, I was the semi-proud owner of a (totally over my budget) Chanel flap bag. My colleagues, who knew that I once despised the luxury-brand game, teased me relentlessly. “You’ve become fully Korean,” they said, and when I went home, my sister joked that Korea had changed me. But I quickly changed back, and the Chanel now sits in its dust bag, gathering dust. So as much as some parts of Korean culture rubbed off on me, there are others that just didn’t stick—and my bank account is pretty thankful for that.
The Elephant in the Room: Plastic Surgery in Korea
I want to address the topic of plastic surgery in Korea, because you’ve likely heard about it already, and Korea has the highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgeries in the world. One of my pet peeves is the belief, popular outside of Asia, that surgery is done to look more Western and less Asian. I don’t believe this is the whole story or the main factor. Instead, I think the popularity of plastic surgery comes from Korean culture’s pressure to strive for and achieve perfection.
All cultures value attractiveness, but with a rising economy, money to spend, and a highly competitive atmosphere, Korean men and women find it necessary to invest in plastic surgery to remain in the game. Beauty, like wealth or social status, is a privilege that grants its owner many advantages.
I personally have no problem with plastic surgery. But as with any beauty procedure or treatment, plastic surgery becomes a problem when it’s no longer done in moderation. For example, if someone is prioritizing cosmetic procedures over necessary health care, spending beyond their budget, or obsessing about completely changing the way they look, then any of these could be a sign that they’re at risk for taking it too far.
I think it’s a healthier and better option to invest in and partake in the Korean mindset of skin care. Skin care is noninvasive and less expensive, and clear, healthy skin makes people feel and look better. And they still get to look like themselves!
Gender Equality in Skin Care
Korean men are just as meticulous as women when it comes to their appearance. Many times I’ve been in a salon—from an expensive one in Cheongdam-dong for a cut and color to a local, more affordable chain for a blow out—and looked around to find myself outnumbered by men five to one. Heads deep in the shampoo bowls to my right and left, men.
If you’ve ever wondered how or why Korean men have the most awesome heads of hair, it’s because they really do invest a lot of time and money in it. For example, man perms are pretty popular. But before you think *NSYNC-era Justin Timberlake curls, it’s really more of a body wave, which adds a little volume to otherwise very straight hair. You probably wouldn’t even notice it unless you were deliberately looking for it. Instead, you’d just spot some guy with a fabulous head of hair and think, Swoon. What a hunk!
The Little Book of Skin Care
Korean men have a greater appetite for cosmetics and skin care than their American counterparts, and the general (non-dancing and -singing) male population in Seoul is well versed in skin care. Most Korean brands have lines of men’s products, which are often very similar to the standard line, but tweaked with guy-friendly packaging and fragrances. All young men in Korea do mandatory military service (they serve from twenty-one to twenty-four months), and some brands even have products specifically targeted to military men—think skin-friendly camo war paint with a built-in SPF and special wipes to remove it. Skin-care stores that deliberately set up shop near military bases are usually bustling and probably would not be a bad place to hang out if you’re a single lady looking for love.
Hellen Choo, the founder and CEO of Swagger (a Korean male cosmetics line) confirmed that a lot of Korean men are also not afraid to add a BB cream or tinted moisturizer to their routine to help even out their skin tone, especially before important events like job interviews or dates.