STYLE

Fashion in N. Korean capital emerging from monochrome haze, but Kim Jong Il's jumper lives on

09/26/2014 04:21 EDT | Updated 11/25/2014 05:59 EST
PYONGYANG, North Korea - High heels, with sequins. Brightly colored, tight-fitting dresses. Hairstyles and makeup that are almost like what you would expect on streets of Beijing or Seoul.

Something is definitely afoot in the style scene of North Korea's capital.

Most North Koreans remain too poor to think much about fashion, and the country in general maintains a deep-rooted resistance to outside influences. But in Pyongyang, where the standard of living is relatively high, clothes and styles have been changing in recent years — slowly and in a limited way, but more than many outsiders might think.

Here's a peek at what's hot and what's not:

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WATCH THE SHOES

Not surprisingly, young women are leading the way. And they care a lot about shoes.

While rubber boots and utilitarian flats remain the norm elsewhere in North Korea, high heels in a wide array of colours and styles are commonplace in Pyongyang. They range from basic black to glittery sequined styles that are almost over-the-top exuberant.

Handbags and other accessories are everywhere. Women's clothes have become tighter. Shirts, trousers and dresses are often form-fitting. Women's hairstyles have become more similar to styles seen overseas. Makeup has changed, too.

Overall, the look is less 1980s Soviet Union and more contemporary East Asian.

"Nowadays, it's clear that clothes have become very bright," said Kim Su Jong, a Pyongyang resident. "In the past, the colours were a little dark," she said. "Now everyone likes bright colours."

North Korea's top trendsetter is Ri Sol Ju, leader Kim Jong Un's wife, who is higher-profile and more fashionable than the spouses of the previous two leaders — Kim's father and grandfather. Her short hair and Chanel-style black dresses have undoubtedly influenced many Pyongyang women.

A bigger reason for the change may be that modern styles have become easier to attain in Pyongyang, thanks to more imports from China and an increase in the amount of money in circulation in the capital. The clothes and shoes Pyongyang women are wearing cost the equivalent of tens of U.S. dollars apiece, which is a lot by North Korean standards.

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LOOKING PREPPY

Men lag behind, but the young, at least, are catching up.

There is a clear trend for young men to wear more flattering, tighter shirts, with back darts and sharper, harder collars. Overall, the look for both young men and women is basically old-school preppy, with an emphasis on clean and simple lines.

One exception: trousers. Pyongyang still prefers the stove-pipe style, wide from the waist to the ankle. Skinny is out.

For older men — and leader Kim — the home-grown style is still the rule. They favour a kind of boxy, big-shouldered and open-necked suit. Usually in sober colours of navy blue, grey or silver, the style is so common it's called "pyongsanbok" — normal clothes.

The fashion sense of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, also lives on. The "jumper," a khaki, zip-fronted top and trouser suit famously favoured by the late leader, is still widely worn by men in the capital and across the country.

Not all the Kim family's trademark looks are widely emulated. Despite one well-publicized rumour to the contrary, North Korean men have not been ordered to adopt Kim Jong Un's distinctive hairstyle. Men get conservative haircuts, but few get it buzzed on the sides and floppy on top.

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JEANS: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Jeans are closely associated with American tastes, so wearing them is almost tantamount to treason. North Korea never officially banned them, but you don't see people wearing the same blue denim that is common almost everywhere else in the world.

In the past few years, however, some North Koreans have dared to wear trousers that are something like jeans. They are not made of denim but have jeans styling, such as riveted pockets.

White was a popular colour this summer. It's almost always women who are wearing them.

But jeans are a touchy topic. So touchy, in fact, that just bringing it up is likely to raise nationalistic hackles.

"We don't have to like jeans," said Kim Su Jong, the Pyongyang woman who so favoured brighter colours. "Why should I wear that kind of jeans? It looks ugly. We have our own style."

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