Evolution of South Korean Fashion and Makeup Culture

Evolution of South Korean Fashion and Makeup Culture

02 July 2018

by Gabriella Samuels


Contemporary South Korean fashion and makeup (sometimes referred to as K-Fashion or K-Style), has become immensely popular both within and outside of the home country in recent years. With the growing popularity of Korean pop music (K-Pop) and Korean dramas (K-dramas), Korean fashion and beauty has been readily consumed by young people worldwide, partly thanks to the rise of beauty bloggers and vloggers, other social media platforms, and the successful all-encompassing K-Pop festivals.

The South Korean fashion of today began in the late 1800s with an intertwining of western influences. Before that point, during the Joseon period (1392-1897), the Korean hanbok was the typical fashion choice. Hanboks consisted of a blouse and loose-fitting pants or skirt. For women, they wore a jeongi (blouse or jacket) and a chima (skirt); and men wore jeongi and baji (pants). Hanboks were everyday wear with lavish versions worn by the elite. During this period, makeup was made from natural materials and traditionally simple. However, by the late 1800s with the arrival of westerners and Japanese influence, Korean fashion and makeup began to lose its traditional style and elements.

Members of a wealthy Korean family posing for a photo wearing traditional hanbok. c. 1910-1920.

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection.


In the early 20th century, Koreans started to adopt western fashion powered by the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) where the Japanese colonial government promoted modernisation. This style evolution consisted of the cutting of traditional top-knots, men wearing suits, and women sporting new hairstyles, such as the ’Gibson Girl’. The ‘flapper’ style of the West also came into fashion during the 1920s, which gave young women who adopted the style the label of ‘new woman.’ Changes to fashion came along with changes in social and work lifestyles, with the emergence of new jobs for women such as phone operators and factory workers, and new emphasis on high literacy rates for the population.


Vogue Korea magazine cover of woman modeling dress at fashion show. c. 1910-1945 Courtesy of Vogue Korea.


During the Second World War, fashion took on a more militaristic-style that continued through the end of the war, the Korean liberation from Japan, and into the Korean War. Poverty and shortages in fabrics required clothing to be made simple and often in dark colours. Hanboks continued being worn by this time, mainly by women. Makeup, if worn, was kept light, almost natural.

After the Korean War, the contemporary movement on fashion gained momentum in the 1950s with newer hairstyles like crimped hair, popularity of the swimsuit, and brighter makeup options influenced by the United States. The modern fashion industry was also born. In December 1954, the International Western Clothing Company opened in Seoul, providing the first fashion education in South Korea. Markets dedicated to fashion, such as Seoul’s Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market, thrived and produced their own clothing. November 1955, women’s magazine Yeowon offered a new column: ‘Fashion Mode’. In 1957, Korea’s first fashion show showcased a collection by Nora Noh, Korea’s first fashion designer, that also heralded fashion designing as a new career.


Poster of the movie Nora Noh. October 2013. Courtesy of Jihye Yu at International Foundation of Women Artists.


Continuing with an upward momentum, the 1960s marked a new wave of fashion—hello, miniskirts—and makeup. On one side, western musicians, like the Beatles, served as major influencers on Korean fashion. On the other side, the government promoted the use of practical natural materials, like wool, and focused on being economical, with its ban of the importation and sale of other countries’ products; thus, launching the Korean makeup industry. The industry also saw Korea’s first fashion magazine, Uisang, and the establishment of the first professional modeling school in 1964.

By the 1970s, a shift in the way fashion trends developed occurred when the average consumer became the new trendsetter and catalyst for fashion rather than designers. Urban modernisation pushed the development of off-the-rack clothing brands, brand-focused stores, and department stores offering new and accessible distribution channels.

Korea, at this time led by president Park Chung Hee, set a harsh and conservative environment. For the youth, fashion became a symbol of resistance and protest: hot pants, miniskirts, long hair, and the rise of punk clothing, with bold accessories such as big hoop earrings and sunglasses. Hemlines for women also became shorter.


Woman getting her skirt measured. c. 1970s. Courtesy of Korea Daily.


The 1980s witnessed another youth-led fashion movement with casual wear. T-shirts, jumpers, and blue jeans became the typical fashion, along with western brands like Reebok. Meanwhile, women work-wear fashion got a boost from their increased presence in the workforce. Makeup styles offered bright colours with emphasis on eyeshadows and blush.

Enter Korean Pop (K-Pop) in the 1990s to put its indelible stamp on K-Fashion and K-Beauty culture. The first K-Pop group, Seo Tae-ji and Boys led this era of Korean fashion with their rap and hip-hop style, a new music trend at the time. Other western music and fashion style mixes such as grunge were adopted by the youth named ‘resistance fashion’. Korean fashion designers were getting international recognition with Lee Cinu as the first to showcase in Paris.

Not far behind, the makeup industry grew with the emergence of new products such as BB creams, skin lightening lotions, and skin tightening creams. The simple applications and selection diverged from western makeup trends. K-Pop celebrities, the new icons of beauty, influenced the culture of body and skin/appearance consciousness. Full covering foundations, simple eye makeup, and pastel/natural-looking colours has become the makeup style of today. Korean men have also become involved with makeup trends often wearing foundation or BB cream.

Since 2000 to the present, K-Fashion and K-Beauty products and culture continue to have an impact on the global market. Armed with smartphones and internet accessibility, the domestic and global consumer has access to Korean fashion and beauty products that show no signs of retreat in the competitive market. According to statista.com, ‘revenue in the Skin Care segment amounts to £3,387m in 2018. The market is expected to grow annually by 0.7%.’ The United States is also one of the biggest international consumers of K-Beauty.


Young women at Seoul Fashion Week 2016. 2016 Courtesy of Joanna Garner at Glamour Lifestyles.


Online clothing stores and importation of name-brand items, along with the emergence of many indie designers, have pushed K-Fashion to the level that it is at today. Seoul is now competing with western fashion cities such as Paris and New York. It will be interesting to see where Korean fashion and makeup will go from here.


Korean Makeup Industry Statistics – https://www.statista.com/outlook/70020000/125/skin-care/south-korea#

“Members of a wealthy Korean family posing for a photo wearing traditional hanbok. c. 1910-1920” Library of Congress Prints and Photos, Frank and Francis Carpenter Collection

“Vogue Korea magazine cover of woman modeling dress at fashion show. c. 1910-1945” http://www.vogue.co.kr/2016/08/11/79850/

“Poster of the movie Nora Noh. October 2013” https://ifwartistsblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/nora-noh-the-first-korean-fashion-designer/

“Woman getting her skirt measured. c. 1970s” http://www.koreadailyus.com/100-years-of-womens-fashion-in-korea/

“Young women at Seoul Fashion Week 2016. 2016” http://glamourlifestyles.com/cool-seoul-fashion-week-2016-street-style/