Decoding Dress in North Korea

Our junior minder, Hong Hye Gyong, a 20-something intern with the foreign ministry, walked miles in her heels — they looked to be about three inches — without complaint as our group traipsed the uneven city sidewalks en route to a gift store and amusement park.

Ms. Hong favored a tailored black dress as her work outfit topped by a short fitted jacket, including one in bright red. Indeed, though clothing tends to the black and gray, apparently pink, purple and white are becoming more popular. Even so, makeup tends to be minimal or nonexistent and people generally dress conservatively, even at amusement parks and dolphin shows; there was no sign of bluejeans, thought to be a sign of Western decadence. On the other hand, skirts often ride slightly above the knee.


Li Jin-Ju, 23, a waitress, poses for a portrait at the Arrirang bar and restaurant in Pyongyang in September.

Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The sartorial fresh air is often attributed to Mr. Kim, who isn’t much of a fashion plate himself but reportedly expanded the importing of luxury goods after coming to power in 2012, or at least he did before the United Nations tightened sanctions. His wife, Ri Sol-ju, who has a fondness for tailored form-fitting dresses, is seen as something of a style icon.

While a number of young women carried fashionable purses, we weren’t permitted to visit any department stores, so examining the provenance of items was impossible. Chinese counterfeits are reportedly plentiful. Most people wear clothes made of vynalon, a synthetic fiber produced in North Korea since the 1950s that is considered a symbol of the country’s ideology of self-reliance but has the disadvantage of being stiff and difficult to dye.

The senior Foreign Ministry officials who were our interlocutors — all men — would have easily blended into the crowd in New York. One wore a blue blazer and blue trousers with a white button-down shirt; another, a black and white checked jacket, black pants and a white shirt; the third, a black suit, white shirt and blue tie with white polka dots.

Despite such evidence of what, for a repressive country, constitutes fashion experimentation, uniforms were ubiquitous. And not just for those in the military, where hats with tops as big as small pizza pans and sharply pressed loosely fitted brown pants are worn by men and women officers.

Women directed traffic on main city streets and took tickets in the subway in prim blue suits (the color varied with the job), short white socks and sensible chunky pumps. Those waiting on tables in restaurants were more apt to wear matching dresses like black and orange sheaths, while silk factory workers toiled away in shapeless housedresses and aprons, with kerchiefs on their heads; day care workers wore white dresses and accordion hats à la Western nurses of yore.

Pins, required to be worn by all adults, feature either Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, his son Kim Jong-il, or both. People told us it didn’t matter which one you wore as long as it was on to the lapel over the heart in full view.

For students of all ages, the routine was white shirts, red kerchiefs and navy on the bottom: pants for the boys, skirts for the girls. But even here, individuality is creeping in. Some children wore white blouses with ruffles instead of plain long-sleeved white shirts, and others added diverse accessories — pink backpacks, red and black striped socks, black platform shoes, an orange/black and white athletic jacket. On the sports field, the boys looked liked athletes anywhere, in their jerseys and ersatz polo shirts.

It was the toddlers at day care, however, who really caught my eye. In unmatched T-shirts and pull-up pants, they were a riot of pattern and hue, wearing a yellow shirt with purple pants, say, or a multistriped shirt with print bottoms, or a yellow and pink top, pink bottoms and blue and white socks. As far as fashion goes, that youngest generation made the most radical statement of all.

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