All fashion, in some way, is about more than clothes: for one, we wear things to signal something about ourselves—and a lot of times, that thing ends up being how affluent the person wearing the clothes might be. According to a report from Business of Fashion, one recent trend in South Korea—puffer coats—offers a magnifying lens into who’s who and helps fuel the country’s income-based social divides.
The outerwear craze starts “with the middle school and high school uniform culture of Korea,” Mo Kim, the general director of a concept store called Rare Market, told the Business of Fashion. It’s not enough to just own any old coat, much is read into what brand you wear. “Each brand, style and colourway signifies a certain social subgroup,” he adds.
Maybe that’s not all that different from an uber-competitive Manhattan prep school or fancy liberal arts college, but it also masks a sense of wealth inequality that’s not often associated with South Korea. The report reads:
While the country has often been championed as an economic success story, thanks to the global popularity of South Korean culture known as hallyu, income equality in Korea is the worst in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a 2016 report by the International Monetary Fund, dispelling the myth that everyone here is affluent, when in fact, there is a system of hidden social strata and wider income disparity issues that are not noticed from a cursory trip to the capital city.
Young South Koreans are so dissatisfied with the country’s social and wealth disparities they have a word for it: hell joseon, which according to BoF translates to “Korea is close to hell and a hopeless society.” That’s... rough. Puffer coats are not to blame for that; like status shoes or sunglasses or other fashion trends, they’re just one way to delineate between social divides that already exist. But across the globe, young peoples’ obsession with expensive outerwear is distracting enough to have prompted one high school in the UK to ban Moncler and Canada Goose completely, calling it “poverty-proofing.” It just goes to the show that the pressure to fit in is universal and hardest on those who don’t fit the mold to begin with.