Seoul Subway Fashion: Line by Line

Michael Hurt
Nov 16 · 7 min read
The de rigueur look for young women in Seoul are chunky sneakers and semi-athletic socks just above the ankle and below the calf.

In the midst of my paper deadline and conference-imposed hiatus from writing here at the illustrious pages of The Korea Times, I finally started my long-planned new street fashion project “Seoul Subway Fashion, Line by Line.” The first try with Line #1 was. Much more successful than I thought. It’s actually not that hard to shoot street fashion in Seoul subways if you know what you’re doing. The idea is to document the personality of the lines, which do have characters and peculiarities according to the people who populate them. And what helps us think against type is the act of simply stopping people and asking them about their story, which asking after a picture helps do quite well.

This effortlesssly cool and collected couple was up from Busan for a day date in Seoul city.

Asking after people’s stories by focusing all of our actions and words through a picture is the easiest way to form a strong enough, instantaneous bond to allow for franker questions and the lowering of defensive shields. But most of the time, we don’t walk around stopping people and assaying them about their lives, so we see these same people, make assumptions and move on without ever questioning or confirming them. We don’t think much about what we see, and most of it just confirms our existing picture of the social universe. But if we stop to ask and look closely (as with a camera) there’s more going on than what is readily apparent, if we look closely.

Line #1 is typically seen and described as poor, shabby, dirty, and full of the dregs of Seoul rather than its desirables. But once we went into Line #1 with a camera and a more critical eye, we saw a lot more. We started at Seoul Station on a Sunday and made our way to Juan station. Along the way, the rule was to shoot in the line #1 subway itself or on the train platform, inside a Line 1 subway station, or its immediate environs, where we could see people entering or exiting that line’s subway station. This is a study of the cultural geography of subway lines and the people who define their putative personalities. This project will go line by line, starting with Line #1 and moving up in numerical order. Again, the rule that defines the main parameter of the project is that all pictures will be taken either in a subway car or on the platform, and at the very least in the immediate environs of the subway, where access to the subway defines the character of the location, i.e. where the subway extends its influence to arguably be the place to/from where the majority of people there are coming or going. Basically, everyone in a picture has to be on a subway, or about to be/just have been within the last/next five minutes.

The popular Seoul-based street/high fashion brand VIBRATE is the main fashion point for this well-accessorized young lady.
What’s a middle schooler to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Have perfect makeup and skincare be the centerpiece of a great look!

The “Line by Line” project specifically addresses the “artifice guilt” I’ve been having since the “street fashion” scene exploded at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during Seoul Fashion Week, which has caused me to become quite lazy in my explorations of Seoul street fashion culture. To me, real street fashion is ethnographic photography that looks at not just clothing but the cultural and physical geography that grounds, bounds, and surrounds the subject.

The reason SFW at DDP bores me photographically is because it’s the same environment all the time, no matter how variegated and a dream to shoot it is. Another matter is that of the fake spontaneity being presented in many “street fashion” pics, which are, more often than not especially in Seoul), pre-planned people staging a shoot at a specific place, where “street” is relegated to a backdrop aesthetic and IS NOT the organic, honest, slice-of-life, documentary presentation of “real” fashion it purports to be. A real street fashion portrait is hard. Therein, the subject hasn’t planned from the week or month before what they’re going to wear. And the photographer has met the subject on the spot, non-deliberately. This is a much-obfuscated point that has always been at odds with the implied “realness “ of the “street fashion” moniker. The divide between amateur/professional is as blurred as that between pre-planned/ spontaneous, with the former being a possible problem back in the days of the first “Straight-up” in i-D Magazine in1980, but “street” wasn’t a threat back in the days of legacy fashion media. Nowadays, however, as “street” yields social media fashionistas cum media professionals, the stakes of what is real vs. staged have become higher. The field has chosen to kick this issue down the street, but it WILL come up in a vicious way if ignored.

Although the “street fashion” scene is quite cultivated and possessed of a great deal of stagedness, it is still a good source of data as to what’s popularly hot, as “couture” examples of the everyday fashion beats that really do punctuate the flow of everyday style. This young lady is just doing a more extreme take on what the woman in the top picture in this article did: chunky sneakers and branded athletic socks as a nod to 1980s mode.

The goal of the “Line by Line” project is to re-engage with the spontaneous, unstaged style of real street fashion photography that sticks to the letter of what is often disingenuously implied — that those pictured represent some semblance of real and unadulterated street culture. I make my street fashion portraits have some degree of ethnographic meaning, as data points that draw a bigger picture.

The Bucheon Station plaza was a marketplace of ideas, people trying to sell something, or convince you of the truth. It is such because it is a social crossroads where one can access the full range of the humanity of the area. As a photographer/ethnographer, I wanted to do the some, with some of its most representative members.

Simply put, a fly-ass ajeossi.
Defining the new look of the distinguished seonbi gentleman.
Two cute high schoolers doing their school’s history homework on a Sunday. I read and signed their thingie. They posed for my camera. Even-Steven.
A “Hidden Hero” (or ‘hidden figure,” more loosely translated) in the Korean Independence Movement, Yu Ja-myeong.
Met this dapper Don who I think had just tossed back a few with his friend (off-camera) and who seemed to be feeling jovial and ready to pose.
A truly avuncular and attractive ajeossi, the best-in-class example from the #1 line, where old friends meet.

The amount of the best-in-class fashionable folks found in and around the #1 line subway was actually quite surprising.

The interesting question is that of how likely it is to find a food court deep within a subway station (here, Bucheon Station) with a de facto white, mirror-reflective runway with nearly fashion show lighting? In Korea, not too unlikely.
Also of note is the professional model-perfect habitus one can see with Korean women in the environs of a Seoul subway line.
Parsed through the proper toolkit with the right methodology of engagement (wandering around the bowels of a subway station looking for model-level street fashion subjects), it continues to be shocking to be able to found such well put-together, darn near model subjects just standing around eating snacks.

And stepping even a bit outside the confines of the station proper, in the street not even 20 meters away from station ground itself, one still finds quite a bit of expressive variety.

Probably 10 meters from the Bucheon Station plaza, we found a fashion plate-perfect example of trendy looks and accoutrements within the colorful environment she was moving into from the subway.
Just hanging out looking boisterously Bohemian outside a subway exit, this friendly fashionista boldly and bodily united the colors of this fleeting street scene.
Yes, really — on the subway.

This social investigation is ongoing, with the next stop being the Green Line #2. While the first test run has its flaws, especially in that it’s a test run that only took place on a Sunday, when the real tough action would be during rush hour on a Monday morning, it's just a test run and what we can do for right now. By the time we run through all the lines, we’ll be ace subway adventurers and much better at it, regardless of time of day or day of the week.

Garam Shin (Interlocution Assistant)
Jessica Miller (Crew Assistant)

About the Author
Dr. Michael W. Hurt (@kuraeji on Instagram) is a photographer and professor living in Seoul. He received his doctorate from UC Berkeley’s Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies and started Korea’s first street fashion blog in 2006. He researches youth and digital subcultures along with street fashion culture as a research professor in the SSK Center for Glocal Culture and Social Empathy at the University of Seoul and also teaches Cultural Theory and Art History at the Seoul National University of the Arts. His PR/image curation company Iconology Korea also engages in an effort to positively shape images of social others in Korea, construct a positive face for Korea-based or Korea-interested clients, and positive images of Korea in the world.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

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