If you’re drumming your Apple Pencil against the edge of your desk while you think about some of the most fashionable cities in the world, first of all, stop that, because Apple Pencils are expensive as hell. Then, you can start weighing Milan and Paris and New York against each other, because they’re all OG style capitals, and they all made you feel completely disheveled every time you appeared in public.
Even if you spend hours considering the flex of several hundred cities, Pyongyang isn’t going to cross your mind. And why would it? When Kim Jong Un appears in public, he always looks like he’s stolen a suit from Chairman Mao and borrowed shoes from Herman Munster. But according to two catalogs published by North Korea’s not-at-all ominous sounding Clothing Research Center, both men and women in the ultra-isolated country have gotten governmental approval to start dressing slightly more fashionably. What the Center’s glossy pages don’t suggest—despite what you may have read online in the last few days—is that starving North Koreans need to start eating their own shirts.
“Kim Jong-un’s edible fashion range: tasty looks for 2019” writes The Guardian. The Stranger’s headline states “North Korea Launches Edible Clothing Line.” And New Zealand’s Newshub says, “North Korea releases edible clothing to 'avoid starvation.’” Sounds pretty dire, right?
Earlier this month, Pyongyong-based graduate student and tour company owner Alek Sigley wrote two pieces for NK News focusing on the fashion culture in North Korea. He had gotten his hands on two catalogs published by the Clothing Research Center, and sold only in the kind of bookstores and magazine stands that don’t attract many foreign customers. Sigley explained that the Center is part of the Ministry of Foodstuffs and Daily Necessities Manufacture, which supervises the manufacture of products from kitchen staples like soy sauce and gochujang to everyday consumer goods like toothpaste and soap.
The Center itself designs the standardized school uniforms for North Korean students, trains runway models, hosts fashion shows, and works with clothing factories and tailors. “As the only center of its kind in the country, it sees its mission as to ‘make Korean women more beautiful,’ and ‘take responsibility for the cultural advancement of the country’ through ‘creating and spreading designs that meet the needs of the times and the tastes of the people’,” Sigley wrote.
And yeah, it also produces these catalogs of “state-approved styles” for everyday wear, which include suits for both men and women, high heels, casual shirts, jackets for all four seasons, and conservatively cut bathing suits. (It also has a handy section with diagrams illustrating how to iron a skirt, or explaining what to do if your clothing gets blood-stained).
In his analysis of the men’s catalog, which has the catchy name of “Men’s Clothing: Shape and Design Materials,” Sigley highlighted the fact that men’s casual wear tends to be limited to either a short-sleeved button-down shirt or a long-sleeved button down shirt. (Jeans and shirts with “words or faces” printed on them are forbidden by the state). The catalog includes a photo of two stiffly posed male models, both gazing wistfully into a future that may involve crew neck shirts.
“Clothing made from artificial flannelette fabrics composed of trace elements such as high-grade protein, amino acids, fruit juice, magnesium, iron, and calcium, as clothing worn by people engaged in sailing, outdoor exploration, and mountain climbing, can be eaten to avoid starvation in the event that food has run out,” the text accompanying the photos reads.
OK, so… a little creepy.
But—BUT!!!111!!—Sigley says that this is neither clothing for everyday wear, nor does it mean that the state suggests that its citizenry should prepare to start chewing and swallowing their shirtsleeves. “It's more of an interesting factoid to just fill some space and add some flavor to the catalog,” he told MUNCHIES. “There is no suggestion that these edible shirts are available in North Korea, let alone refer to the actual items in the catalog. I have seen no reference to this edible clothing anywhere else in North Korea, so I am pretty sure it is assumed by North Korean readers that this is a scientific development that has happened overseas and isn't available yet. It also ties in with state ideology that emphasizes the promotion of science and technology.”
Sigley also pointed out that both the food and the economy in North Korea have seen improvement in recent years, and are not as dire as they have previously been. “This is not a trend or anything that is actually happening in North Korea,” he repeated. “It's just one little isolated ‘Did you know?’ bit of flavor text.”
No pun intended.
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Alek Sigley as Alek Kim. The author apologizes for the error.