How fashion helps a drama tell its story
Here at Dramabeans, we spend a lot of time dissecting the intricacies of K-dramas. We look at everything from the tropes and themes to the actors and settings and sweeping moments of greatness that make them tick (and make us love them). But there’s an element we haven’t looked at as much that plays a major part in each and every K-drama production: fashion.
Fashion, or styling, is an integral part of the storytelling that happens in a visual media like film or TV. The costumes, clothes, and accessories chosen for a character not only help build the very essence of that character, but they also help signal important changes in the story.
Often, fashion operates as a subtext — in other words, it happens in the background. We can sense it, but we don’t usually put our finger on it as being another mechanism that’s helping to tell the story. We might pick up on it visually if something strikes us (if it’s our taste, if we love it, if it’s a style out of the norm and so on) but often we take it for granted.
Song Hye-gyo’s character in Boyfriend is a perfect example. In her daily life as the CEO of a hotel, she’s always on her guard and wary of public attention — and the chaebol corporation that tries to use her like a pawn. Her character’s fashion is sophisticated and professional, but also extremely buttoned and covered up.
Granted, the story takes place in winter, but Song Hye-gyo’s heroine is constantly covered with multiple layers and things around her neck to the point where it signifies her stifled emotional state. Compare this to the vibrant and free-flowing red dress she wore in Cuba, and it all starts to come together.
Another drama that did this well (and I’m selfishly choosing it since it’s a favorite), was Flower Boy Next Door. In this drama, Park Shin-hye plays the heroine, Go Dok-mi. She’s been damaged by tragedy in her past, and lives a life of seclusion, afraid to interact with the outside world.
She’s also on a tight budget — in order to save money on heating, she wears layer upon layer of sweaters, vests, and down parkas, and uses hot water bottles to stay warm at night. It might be a little far-fetched, since she sports a new array of parkas in each scene, but the costuming was very successful in creating a quirky, cute character whose appearance said it all.
Flower Boy Next Door is about Go Dok-mi slowly healing and easing her way back into the world (thanks to her flower boy neighbors), and her costumes help show that transition. Slowly, her look becomes less bag lady a little more young professional, which suits her character growth and her renewed outlook on life. In the final scenes of the drama, she’s lovely and confident and put together with a neat wool coat.
This is not to say that you can’t be a stable working professional and still look like Go Dok-mi on the weekends (*ahem*), or any time, really. But in the context of the drama, her fashion and the transition around how she cared for and carried herself played a big part in telling her story.
In addition to building characters and visually supporting character development, fashion in K-dramas can be used to signal important dramatic moments. From the famous makeover scene in Boys Over Flowers (or countless other dramas), to the way Park Min-young’s red dress in Healer intentionally draws all eyes and attention to her at an important press conference, fashion and costuming in dramas can also pack a lot of storytelling punch.
Drama fashion can also create meaningful contrasts between characters on the screen. Such contrast is often necessary when there are two characters that need to be juxtaposed. This dynamic is all over dramaland, especially where there is a more archetypal set up of “Candy” heroine versus femme fatale. Sometimes the comparison is so strong that just by looking at a character you can tell the type of role they are going to play in the story.
Think about Go Yu-ra (played by Han Bo-reum) versus Jung Hee-joo (played by Park Shin-hye) in Memories of the Alhambra. Go Yu-ra is not painted kindly from her very first mention in the drama. She’s known to our hero as a hell-raising ex-wife, and when she first appears on the screen, it’s all too obvious that she’s a diva with a vicious streak. But how do we know?
Outside of things like choosing the right actor for the part, and having a script that creates a vivid character, how else can the audience confirm that the character they’re meeting is everything that the hero warned? Styling and fashion play a huge part.
Go Yu-ra sashays onto the scene (and into the drama) like a woman on a mission. She’s dressed to the nines in a loud, trendy outfit with the shortest miniskirt (or are those shorts?) in history. She also has the heels, the statement earrings, and the big black sunglasses to complete the look.
Contrast this to Park Shin-hye’s character, who’s mostly in simple, light-colored shirts and dresses. Her character’s fashion is feminine and innocent, and it matches her role in the drama as the safe place for so many of the characters. This character comparison of Go Yu-ra and Jung Hee-joo is just one example of how a drama can use fashion to create important contrasts between characters.
The dramas I’ve mentioned here are just a few examples of how fashion and styling help K-dramas tell their story, but it’s present in every drama. Whether it’s building characters, signaling their growth, or contrasting them with other characters, clothing can act as an important storytelling tool.
- Memories of the Alhambra: Episode 1
- Boyfriend: Episode 1
- Fate turns to love in Cuba for Song Hye-gyo and Park Bo-gum
- Park Shin-hye up to join Hyun Bin in Memories of the Alhambra
- Healer: Episode 1
- Ji Chang-wook leaps across skyscraper rooftops for Healer
- Flower Boy Next Door: Episode 1
- Flower Boy Next Door’s first script read