North Korea Fashion Watch Part 2: North South Korea 80s Fashion Face-Off

When we last visited Pyongyang, we were given a catalog belonging to North Korea's Daesong Group that contained fashion photos from the 80s and 90s. We have decided to share more of those photos here as part of a New Year gift to readers. We welcome viewers to see more photos at our Facebook page and while you are at it, feel free to subscribe to our Twitter feeds. For our previous post on North Korean fashion catalogs, please see here. Also, we seek to raise funds to expand our economic policy workshops in North Korea this year. Please consider supporting our cause. We accept donations via Paypal and credit card. For larger sums, please contact us at We have invited Tad Farrell from NK News, a news aggregation site focusing on North Korea, to share his views on a 80s/90s North-South friendly fashion face-off. All views are those of the author and do not represent Choson Exchange’s institutional position on fashion in Korea, especially since we know nothing about this field.

Guest Piece by Tad Farrell with edits by Geoffrey See


Fashion in North Korea is an interesting topic, with large variations in style dependent on age, geography, and income. Today, younger North Koreans can buy cheap and fashionable clothing imported from China that often mimics the styles of South Korea. Older people might not have clothes that are as colorful, but can be spotted wearing brands such as Paul Smith or Burberry in the wealthier districts of Pyongyang. These pictures remind us that North Korean fashion in the 80s/90s lagged international trends.

It is not clear if the fashions included in this brochure were designed for the internal North Korean market. And with language in English throughout, it seems more likely that the brochure was designed for the export market. Nevertheless, many of these fashions could have been found in North Korea at the time (although probably only among the wealthier segments of Pyongyang), so it is interesting to contrast them with South Korean clothes of the same period.


Despite still being under a dictatorship and with strict rules on dressing in the 1980s, Seoul fashion was significantly more Westernized than that of the North during this period. For affluent young South Korans of the time, pop music hairstyles, shoulder pads, bright colors, polka dots and stripes, high rise jeans, etc were all commonplace. Young women were starting to also focus on ‘westernizing’ their looks as far as possible through eye makeup, short-skirts, and tight-fitting tops. South Korean singer (Kim Wan Sun) helped cement Western trends at the time and was known to her contemporaries as “Korean Madonna” (see picture. In contrast, these brochure pictures show how different the styles of the privileged classes of North Korea were at the time from international fashion.


If we assume the catalogue to have been designed for the export market, it is hard to say what the appeal for North Korean clothes in English speaking countries may have been like in the 1980s. Nevertheless, during the 1980s there may well have been some demand for North Korean clothing exports from the communist bloc, and internally, from the wealthier segments of North Korean society. But this doesn't help explain this fashion houses decision to publish an English language brochure. Perhaps, it was just an ill-informed attempt at accessing a new market without really understanding the potential customers there.

Editor's Note: Talking about Korean Madonna, I recall a conversation in Pyongyang in 2010. A North Korean lady was telling me how much she likes Madonna (the Western one). Without any prompting from me, she suddenly became very flustered and kept repeating “I only like her [Madonna’s] music, I don’t know what kind of person she is.”

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---------------------------------------------- 우리의 임무

우리는 제정을 포함한 사업, 경제 그리고 법률 지식을 공유하기 위해 고품질의 혁신적인 프로그램을 이용한다. 이 프로그램은 북한/북조선의 젊은 사람들뿐만 아니라 각 기관들과 협력하여 북조선/북한의 장기적인 경제 발전을 지원한다.

우리의 역사

북조선/북한 엘리트 대학의 학생들은 비즈니스와 경제학을 그들 국가의 삶의 질을 향상시킬 열쇠로 보고 있다. 하지만 고품질의 교육을 접할 기회는 제한되어 있으며 이러한 분야에서 실제 경험을 할 수 있는 기회도 제한되어 있다. Wharton 스쿨의 학생으로서 Geoffrey는 북한/북조선을 방문했고 여자들도 좋은 비즈니스 리더가 될 수 있다는 것을 증명하기 위해 여성사업가가 되기를 원하는 김일성 대학은 한 학생을 만났다. 다른 북한과 관련된 경험들과 함께 이 일은 Geoffrey가 2007년에 조선 익스체인지를 만들게 된 계기가 되었다.

조선 익스체인지는 싱가포르에 등록되어 싱가포르, 대중화권, 대한민국, 유럽 그리고 미국에 소재한 단체와 함께 사회적기업으로써 운영되고 있다. 조선익스체인지의 조직은 여러 가지 방법으로 북한 사람들과 교류하여 왔고, 북한/북조선의 사회 이슈들, 국민들 그리고 국제사회에서 북조선/북한을 평화적으로 통합하려는 것에 흥미를 가진 북한 사람들을 보았다.