Monday, January 29, 2007

Not your average fashion show

Back at the end of November I was fortunate to be invited to my first fashion show. It was perhaps one of the more unique experiences I've had in Korea, so I thought I would post about it here.

The show was put on by SPARK (Social Programme for Action and Research in Korea) and the fashion label Sudagongbang, which makes modern fashion with a neo-traditional flair. The clothes seem to be made using higher quality inputs, such as natural fabrics and dyes, than one normally finds in the suits and sporting goods made in the basement and attic textile mills in the area of Dongdaemun market. The style of these clothes seems to fit somewhere business attire and taking-it-easy kind of traditional dress: whatever one would call this in Korean -- it is less formal than traditional Hanbok, and with a gentler colour scheme, but could be worn out for social occasions if desired. I guess phrases like boutique-casual or indie-prep are good ways to describe these clothes, as they are neither your typical luxury goods dominated by logos and consumer fetishism but they are also certainly much more stylish than your typical everyday wear even though they look perfect for everyday use.

The most interesting thing about the show, however, was not simply the clothes but how it came to be organized. The clothes were made and modeled by the women who made them as well as by a number of prominent figures from Korean civil society. The participants from civil society included labour union activists from the largest and most militant trade union, the KCTU; ministers of labour, justice, and gender equality; members from each of the major political parties; popular entertainers from both the social movements and from the conventional pop music industry.

The women who made the clothes were all from Changshin-dong, and participants in the SPARK program founded and run by Chun Sunok. Changshin Dong is located near the Dongdaemun textile markets and is full of thousands of small attic and basement sweatshops. These women subcontract and run small independent workshops there. Most of them have worked in this industry since the original textile boom of the seventies. The work conditions and wages have not improved much since then either and safety and workplace hazards are still quite severe. The SPARK program is located in this area and provides after-school programs for the children in the neighbourhood as well as skills upgrading and counseling for many of the women workers in the neighbourhood.

Chun Sunok herself is the sister of the late Chun Tae-Il: a martyr of the modern South Korean labour movement who immolated himself in 1970 in protest of the harsh working conditions in the Dongdaemun peace market during the time of the military dictatorship. Chun Tae-Il's injunction to government and business 'observe the labour standards act' helped to trigger the democratic trade union movement as well as opposition to military rule. Both his sister and his mother would become seminal figures in these movements as well. More so, the legacy of Chun Tae-il is intimately bound up with the democracy movement, and his story is what unites many of those who appeared on stage during the fashion show. As sort of a deep historical co-ordinate of a point in time from which progress has been made through constant confrontation with different forms of power over the many years since then.

This brings us back to November's fashion show, in that it in some ways it speaks to the democratic struggle and to its expansion of social welfare, if not showcasing a new form of it in the Korean case. Obviously the story here connects both the Changshin-Dong women with the other participants at the show. The women themselves were the producers and the performers: they were empowered in the production process and also in the consumption of these clothes. There is something liberating about that. It was nice to see different body types on stage exhibiting an interesting kind of confidence: the kind of confidence of having struggled socially to overcome both personal and political (one could also add aesthetic) obstacles and having succeeded.

All the participants, in some way, draw part of their legitimacy on the legacy on Chun Tae-il and the quest to create a more just society. This legacy has a sort of legitimizing function for the struggles that currently animate Korean society and the fact that this legacy is recognized by a wide variety of actors both inside of the state, the parties, the movements, and even the private sector is something to be applauded, even though these groups have vastly different ways of approaching these issues. Honestly, seeing Lee Soo-Ho (pictured above), head of the KCTU, on the same stage as the labour minister and a member of the right wing party was shocking to many and speaks to the ability of the organizers to unite a very disparate crowd of participants.

The tension here is that, recently, forms of irregular work have expanded to the point that even the ministries estimate that some 52% of the workforce is irregularly employed. This has been because of the response to economic crisis and to liberalized private capital has been to restructure relations at work and to limit the benefits and rights that accrue to workers. Alongside this, there has been a gradual consolidation, albeit slowly, of social welfare policies. These new forms of welfare have certainly not slowed reform or even stopped the bleeding incurred from recent economic restructuring. In the worst cases, they have acted as a legitimization of neoliberal reform efforts. Nonetheless even slow moves toward expanded social welfare should be paid attention to, even if there is a risk of forgetting that there is a risk of neglecting the more significant cutbacks that are occurring.

In the end, this was the impression I was left with after the event: that there was something shared in this legacy of social struggle, even though it always seemed to be in a moment of danger of being forgotten (and one could say that current neo-liberal economic restructuring certainly is the product of historical form of amnesia) there was also a strong potential for this legacy to support something else, something not so dominated by the work process or by exclusion from the benefits of economic development. I'm not sure if programs like this will continue to expand, and if so I'm fearful of them becoming co-opted as an excuse for further neoliberal restructuring or becoming coldly instrumentalist like they have become in North America and Europe to a degree, but for the moment this program does point to a potential for new forms of welfare that look quite interesting and participatory, and which we should consider as significant venues of social action alongside other fronts in which the social movements are currently engaged.

Some video the show can be found here, link.

1 comment:

  1. To add another bit of tension to all of this, Changshin-dong will become the site of another new town; see here.