Korea Will Change You – Clothing and Appearance

Before I left home, I recall my mother telling me that I should be less concerned about clothing. She assured me that I was probably freaking out over not being able to buy clothes in Korea (she was right, incidentally), and also that by the time I returned to South Africa, I’d be dressing completely differently.

I scoffed. I liked the way I dressed, and I saw no reason to change it.

But I have changed the way I dress. It’s this weird thing Korea has done to me. I like it.

It’s true that the clothing I have obtained in Korea is clothing I’d have been unlikely to buy when I was still living in South Africa. Part of that is due to the style restriction (i.e. no shoulders, no cleavage), and the fairly limited number of stores that I can buy stuff at. The odd thing is, I don’t feel like my options are limited. I don’t actually feel restricted in my clothing choices at all.

(I’m sure part of this is that in Korea, I make triple the salary I was making before I left. Suddenly I can actually… you know… afford clothing. I don’t have to repeatedly patch my jeans once they’re falling apart.)

To give you an idea of how much of a change there’s been in my wardrobe, here are a choice number of items of which I am now fond:

  • Several t-shirts with interesting designs (thanks to Uniqlo)
A current favourite
A current favourite
  • Several pairs of coloured jeans – in colours like purple and bright turquoise blue
  • Several pairs of ordinary skinny jeans – blue and black
  • Jeggings. If they’re well made, they’re the most amazing things in the world (again, thanks to Uniqlo).
  • An assortment of dresses. I am, in fact, wearing one now. And it isn’t black.
  • Many, many, many pairs of socks with bright and silly designs.
These are fairly easy to find.
These are fairly easy to find.


On the other end of the scale, there are items I bought because I thought they’d be better to wear at school:

  • Cardigans. So. Many. Cardigans.
  • Several small shrugs/boleros.
  • Collared shirts. Seriously.
  • Several skirts of appropriate length.

One thing a lot of expat blogs will tell you is that Korea is obsessed with image. It’s true. You’ll be called out on aspects of your appearance – your weight, your skin, those days when you’re looking ‘tired’ – and that’s true too. But they often fail to mention the converse of this situation – you’re likely to receive a lot more compliments too. Every time someone steps up and says “You have such a small face!” they’re complimenting you, even if you’re not entirely sure whether your face really is small or not. On the days you look good, you’ll be told you look good. And I love that about Korea. This is the kind of thing I’ve gotten used to hearing, both about myself and others:

A: You look very nice today. You should wear that colour more often.

B: Do you think so? I bought it on a whim.

A: Well, I love it, and you look good wearing it.

I’m used to people being stingy with their compliments. It’s somehow cooler not to notice that someone looks good, because it implies the converse – you notice when they look bad too. People – myself included – are so likely to read insults into compliments. Take this imaginary conversation I’ve had a couple of times:

A: You look very nice today. You should wear that colour more often.

B: What are you saying? That I don’t look good in the colours I normally wear?

A: No… I just… I didn’t mean…

So people will then rather compliment when they’re not listening:

A (to C, when B cannot hear): B looks really good in that colour.

C: It’s so different from what s/he usually wears.

But neither will breathe a word to A, because of unintended complications.

I’ve also found Korea to be more accepting of more unusual fashion choices. Take this shirt for example:

As pointed out by a friend: with these on the front, I can't say "My eyes are up here."
As pointed out by a friend: with these on the front, I can’t say “My eyes are up here.”

I would not have bought this back home. When I’ve worn it here, people have told me how much they love it. When I wore it back home, it attracted… comments. Normally from people who tell me that Heather from four years ago would never have worn such a thing. That’s true. Heather of little over a year ago would not have worn such a thing. And yet… I own this shirt. And I love it.

I am as much myself when I wear it as I am when I wear a collared shirt and a cardigan, or when I wear jeans and a plain black t-shirt.

Korea has, if anything, made me realise the following:

  1. It’s good to compliment people on what they wear. People like to hear it, and it costs you nothing say it.
  2. The more someone hears that they look good in something, the more likely they are to find more clothing in a similar style/colour.
  3. The clothes you wear don’t define you. Saying “this isn’t me” is silly. If you look good, it is you. It is you in every way that matters.

In addition, I’ve learnt these two important lessons.

  1. If you like something, try it out. If you look good in it, you can rock it.
  2. If you know that you’re going to have a tough day, dress up. A day of hearing how good look is only going to help.



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