When and how did this become a thing? And what does it say about gender norms that dictate how young Koreans look and dress.
The daily spectacle of street style orbiting Seoul Fashion Week is worth the journey alone. There are the toddlers popping and locking in Balenciaga, forcing you into a moral dilemma of “so cute!” versus, “if I start taking pictures of them, will I get handcuffed?” There’s the arrival of a K-pop star, accompanied by a chorus of breathless screams and a lighting storm of camera flashes worthy of an Oscars red carpet. But the most inescapable craze is the phenomenon of ‘twinning’, which you’re just as likely to see outside a fashion show as you are on any given day in the buzzing streets of university neighbourhood Hongdae.
This twinning trend is referred to locally as the “couple look”, said in Koreanised English, or for those Seoulites not willing to go the full hog, the “similar look”. Quite where the trend was born, nobody is sure -- it’s been suggested that inspiration came from popular Korean dramas such as Heirs and Secret Garden -- but since it first took hold in 2012, it’s seen a meteoric rise in popularity largely thanks to Instagram, as a quick glance at the #couplelook tag reveals. Word is there’s even matching underwear for those looking to take things to the next level.
“Relationship milestones are typically celebrated every 100 days with gifts and promise rings, and there’s a Valentine’s Day-equivalent every month.”
No other culture is as fixated with dating and romance as South Korea. Relationship milestones are typically celebrated every 100 days with gifts and promise rings, and there’s a Valentine’s Day-equivalent every month. Even more telling is April’s Black Day, where singletons wear head-to-toe black and are obliged to eat jjajangmyun , a noodle dish with black bean paste -- all of this being a very subtle reference to their dark, loveless hearts, presumably.
You could view the “couple look” as just another symptom of the broader South Korean obsession with appearance: it goes without saying that Seoul is an international style capital, but the country also has the highest rate of plastic surgery procedures per capita globally. In a society with mandated school uniforms and two years compulsory military service for every young male, it further speaks of a cultural fixation with both uniform as garment and uniformity more generally.
Then there’s the story of a younger generation trying to find room for manoeuvre within the conservative family dynamics of traditional Korean society. Crystal Tai, a Chinese-Canadian journalist based in Seoul, notes the difficulty many young South Koreans face to experience proper intimacy, both emotionally and sexually. “If you look at the vending machines located next to the toilets inside the subway stations, they often sell condoms and other sex-related supplies.” Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, where do they go to make the magic happen? “Love hotels! I’m convinced that aside from the high rate of marital affairs due to taboos surrounding divorce, younger couples infuse new life into the love hotel economy, as they’re still living at home with their families.”
“The only place they can be is out in public, and I think that does contribute to why relationships become so appearance-based. There's no Netflix and chill in Korea.”
Joie Reinstein, a trend forecaster and Korean cultural anthropologist, sees the trend as linked to this need for couples to carve out their own space. “I remember a Korean friend noting that foreigners will often say, why are all these couples out here in their matching outfits, doing all of these dating things in public? It's because they don't have anywhere else to go. The only place they can be is out in public, and I think that does contribute to why relationships become so appearance-based. There's no Netflix and chill in Korea.”
What it also shines a light on is the staid gender norms that dictate how young Koreans look and dress. To the western eye, the boys of K-pop seem effeminate with their glossy skin and cropped, dyed hair, but to their young female fans in Korea, they represent a paradigm of masculinity. In the modish shopping district of Myeong-dong, I was struck by the number of stores with huge swathes of floor space dedicated to unisex clothing. What this gender fluidity speaks of is not necessarily a progressive, LGBT+ positive political agenda, but perhaps another manifestation of the Korean tendency towards uniformity.
“To be openly gay in South Korea is to open yourself up to prejudice and discrimination,” says Korean-American Monica Kim, US Vogue’s fashion news editor and an expert in Seoul youth culture. “Not of a violent nature, as you might more often see in other countries, but discrimination nonetheless.” That’s not to say that things aren’t changing. “It’s beginning to move in a positive direction. Two years ago I went to a big pride parade, and I saw mothers and grandmothers coming out in support. That would have been impossible a decade ago.”
“When LGBT+ couples feel fully free to be out in public, be with each other, express themselves, hold hands -- and yes, dress in matching outfits, if they want to -- that will be progress.”
For LGBT+ couples, visibility is hindered not just by the generally accepted androgyny of a younger generation (Reinstein notes a lesbian friend whose butch style was seen innocently by Seoulites simply as a fashion statement), but by the sheer ubiquity of platonic same-sex physical contact. Around the city, you see plenty of men and women of all ages holding hands with friends or family members of the same gender.
“It's a double-edged sword,” says Reinstein. “You can use that to your advantage as an LGBT+ couple. You can go out with your partner and hold their hand and nobody's going to bat an eyelid, but they’re still very unlikely to come out to their parents or siblings. On the surface, because of that Korean innocence -- or denial -- nobody's going to suspect anything, but on the inside they have to keep it secret, which I think can be quite frustrating and sad. A lot of these people are living double lives.”
My final night in Seoul saw our group winding up in the endearingly-named gay district, Homo Hill, for a drag show. Queens danced on stage and mingled in the crowd with open-minded locals, and in the streets groups of friends were bar-hopping and dancing to cheesy western pop. Queer life has a presence in Seoul: could there be a day in the near future when the pride of appearing visibly as a couple in South Korea might extend to the LGBT+ community?
“One of the most beautiful things I've witnessed in Seoul is the gay club scene in Itaewon,” says Kim. “Seeing gay men and women feel free to be themselves, to find a space where they’re comfortable, and be with each other, shows to me how far the country has come. Yet at the same time, how much further it has to go. When LGBT+ couples feel fully free to be out in public, be with each other, express themselves, hold hands -- and yes, dress in matching outfits, if they want to -- that will be progress.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.