PiU (samedi) wrote,

School Uniforms (교복) Ruling from 23 January, 2009

Browsing through links last weekend I came across news that the Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology was enacting legislation banning companies from using celebrities to advertise their uniforms. However, between sitting on the relevant links while looking for decent images to include with a post and being lazy busy over the past week I missed posting about the news until now. However, you can check out an excellent write-up of the issue at the Weekly Korean Feminist Reader posted by James at The Grand Narrative.

There are a couple of things I find interesting about this issue, the first of which is how the ruling was presented in English-language Korean pop culture blogs. ShenYuePop endorses the Ministry's decision, Coolsmurf and K-Bites are both pretty neutral on the subject - with comments at Coolsmurf supporting the government, and Pop Seoul throws a fit over government interference. Pop Seoul also seems to have brought out all the third graders on the internet fans of the idol groups promoting school uniforms, who are none to pleased with the decision. I wonder how many of those commenters spend $400-500 a year on school uniforms. I'm also rather curious if they realize that the South Korean government is under no obligation to let the free market determine prices -- especially considering how it's the government pushing students to wear school uniforms (교복) in the first place.

Another thing I noticed from the English-language sites reporting on the ruling is that they all feature an advertisement of celebrities promoting a particular line of school uniforms, and this ad always features a girl group. Looking through the first few pages of image results on Naver, it looks like there might actually be more advertisements featuring boy bands -- but I guess a group like the Wonder Girls or SNSD (소녀시대; Girls Generation) is more recognizable to the average reader. In his write-up, James mentions that it was only by accident that he learned how students buy their uniforms through these retailers instead of through their school. Never having worn a school uniform, that was also my assumption before arriving in Korea, but upon exploring my neighborhood I turned up three school uniform vendors - Ivy Club, Smart and Skoolooks - located within four blocks of my apartment. Between those vendors, one featured posters of only boy bands and the other two advertise with both male and female celebrity models. Interesting, then, to see what images have been used online.

SHINee advertising for Smart (above) and Big Bang advertising for Skoolooks (top)

Gomushin Girl brings up a good point about uniforms with her comment:

I’ve always been really intrigued by the uniforms . . .the advertisements and sample uniforms in windows are often nothing at all like the average high school uniform. I’m still waiting to see what school has adopted teal and vermilion as their school colors :)

Using celebrities to advertise school uniforms creates an interesting dichotomy -- while it's important to have an accurate portrayal of the uniform, companies also need to make sure they don't detract from the celebrities' image. Added to that is how the whole purpose of uniforms is to generate a, well, uniform appearance among students while the members of 'idol groups' need to promote themselves as individuals rather than as simply another face in the crowd. It doesn't help that SNSD - a group comprised of nine girls - is already having problems with fans making jokes about how the group is made up of a "Pretty 3, Nonexistent 5, and a Dot". One way to get around this problem is to use extravagant color schemes. Not only does this help distinguish each member of the group through the use of different colors, but it can also make the uniform seem a lot more stylish than it would in drab browns and grays.

SNSD / Girls Generation advertising for Elite. I have no idea who is who in that photo

This is hardly the first time parents have raised concern over the price of school uniforms. Plunge Pontificates has a post from February 2006 on the subject, in which he quotes a Hankooki article concerning the price for school uniforms at the time. Summer uniforms were running $200 and winter uniforms cost as much as $300. Imagine having two kids in school who will need replacement uniforms as they progress through puberty -- the costs quickly add up. A year later, in March 2007, Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling wrote about the government delaying when uniforms needed to be worn to give parents more time to save up enough money to afford them. (He also includes an interesting link concerning how students will be able to select which high school they want to attend starting in 2010. I wonder if that's still the plan.) Meanwhile, Prison Notebooks has a piece up from July 2008 discussing the reintroduction of school uniforms during the mid-1990s and the resulting conflict between students, teachers, and alumni over which design should be chosen. Also of note is this January 2007 article from china.org.cn on Korean-style uniforms being banned in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province after parents complained they were 'too provocative'.

With so many students trying to gain status in any way they can - not just in Korea but the world over - my favorite quote from all of this is one from the Hankooki article:

A 15 year-old middle school student, who wanted to be known only by his family name, Choi, goes to school in a uniform he was given by a senior student for free a year ago. He lives with just his grandmother in northern Seoul, and the family lives on a small monthly allowance from the government.

"I cannot ask my grandma to buy me a new school uniform that costs as much as 400,000 won. I have received used uniforms from senior students over the past two years, but I am okay with it,'' Choi said with a grin.

Korean Uniforms: 바뀐 하복 (left), pink uniform (center), 전동복 (right)

My vote for most creative advertisement goes out to Ivy Club for their Captain Hook-themed poster. (Image found through fhwmakfl9's blog. Credit for the other images will be made as soon as I find the original sources again!)
Tags: anthropology & society, music, teaching
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