With the rapid transformation of Korea from a developing economy to an advanced country, the role of women in Korean society has tremendously changed and with it the norms and customs of beauty. Looking back at pictures from 1910’s to 1940’s we can see round, long faces, often with a center part in their hair (if you watch Korean historical drama you will know exactly what I’m referring to). For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Make-up was often home-made from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colorful cosmetics. Back then the Korean garb was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing. Since the Chosun period (1392-1919) a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behavior and humble manners, were considered the quintessence of beauty and elegance following Confucian standards.
Over time many influences came from abroad such as in the 1920’s when Japanese colonialism (1910-1945) brought along the Moga style (modern boys and girls) inspired by the French fashion of flappers. The Korean movie Modern Boy (2008) shows the contrast between the upper and middle class in the 1930s. These western fashions were for the wealthy and city folks while the average person still wore traditional clothes. This shifted slowly until the 1980s when western fashion became the norm and that Korean garments were reserved for special occasions.
With the influence of the United States after the Cold War, Korea opened up to western culture and its interest for it grew. Even though looking Caucasian might seem like the foundation of contemporary standards of beauty, I believe that Koreans have taken that to another level with a fantasy version of white-beauty and especially through its use in media and advertising. Beauty standards become tools to make women feel insecure while providing them with an array of tools and products to transform their looks and aspire to a conformed look. These norms are so ingrained in society that they are even taught to Korean children in ads promoting healthy foods.
Beauty Series: Korean Women Then and Now is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Montreal Korean Language & Culture Club in February 2010.