41

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.

RELATED POSTS

Tags: , , ,

41

Required fields are marked *

Thanks for the lovely write up @missvictrix! Clothes do go a long way in making us form opinions on different characters! So many dramas are coming to mind right now where I judged a character a certain way because they were dressed in a particular manner. It's interesting what all goes behind scenes and how many people are involved in delivering the basic idea of the script across!

3
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

In find the use of English words on character t-shirts to foreshadow moods or emotions its own trope.

6
2
reply

Required fields are marked *

Such a great point!

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

And my all-time favourite of those is "Jesus save me" on a night-gown/shirt she wears at home :D

0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Even when they're poor, they never wear the same thing more than twice.

14
4
reply

Required fields are marked *

Sometimes I miss Pokemon, they wore the same clothes forever. :P ;)

6
reply

Required fields are marked *

I think there are some dramas now that recycle outfits. Not that many but I have noticed a few in the last five years or so compared to the past decade where it was unthinkable for a heroine to wear an outfit twice.

3
reply

Required fields are marked *

It is my understanding that, with the exception of historical dramas, actors and their stylists have to provide their own wardrobe and make-up. Lead stylists receive brand clothes and accessories for their star to use (for publicity purposes).

0
reply

Required fields are marked *

I remember how, in Secret Garden, the heroine was too poor to buy a new handbag and she even had a conflict with Hyun Bin's character because of that. Yet she would wear a different parka every day and one day she even went to work in the morning with one parka and came back home at night with another one.

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

When I read this, the first drama that came to mind was Misty (whose name does not deserve to be mentioned, but I will give it a pass for a second). We talked a lot back in the day about Go Hye-ran's pantsuits, but there was a definite shift at one point where she started wearing dresses, too. IIRC it was a little too obviously done, it was a little too forced, and it felt like the director was definitely trying to make a statement...the only thing is, I never quite grasped what statement they were going after. The tension between dressing women in pants vs skirts/dresses is a fascinating one to me, and nothing tapped into that quite like this show. But it never resolved it and that bugs me still. (especially since ALL of GHR's clothing was SO gorgeous. the costuming in that show was exquisite.)

7
3
reply

Required fields are marked *

YES to Misty - loved all her office clothes!

2
reply

Required fields are marked *

There was also a thing about shoes iirc namely that Go Hye-ran's shoes were always pristine, always different in comparison to Han Ji-won's more worn-out heels. Also I remember KNJ saying something about how a lot of GHR's clothes were from her own closet which...<3

1
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

waat i did not know that. all the hearts for that though!!!!!!!!!

0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Thank you, @missvictrix! While reading this, I remembered Rooftop Prince where the antagonist plays the corporation secretary - and she wore a long-sleeved blouse paired with shorts to work! I thought OMG this would never happen do in a corporate setting! But now I understand that it was to show her character. On the upside, the cast of Top Star Yoo Baek did a good job in representing the fashion of people in the islands - where people dress more for comfort.

3
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

I love fashion as a element of the character's story but I often find k-drama costuming to be absurd and fantastical. A big part of the costuming is really to sell clothes—these characters are walking product placements. We've all observed "poor" characters with their endless stream of wool coats.

When I started watching K-dramas, I was stunned by the tiny skirts worn by female characters. I work in public broadcasting at a large university; we're fairly casual but I've never seen that much leg in an office setting.

In I'm Not A Robot, for example, Ye Ri El wore skirts so short it didn't seem possible to sit down without showing her underpants. They'd film her from the waist up when she was sitting down.

It also drives me crazy to see most female characters wear stilettos. Even cops and secret agents.

I just finished watching Fates and Furies and saw a clear distinction between the costuming for Hae Ra, the designer from a poor background and Soo Hyun, the chaebol daughter. Soo Hyun—a woman desperate to control every aspect of her life—dressed flawlessly in crisp, smooth lines in a mostly neutral base punctuated by strong color or texture. Her clothes were gorgeous.

And Hae Ra? Ugh. With the exception of a couple events where she borrowed gowns for formal events, nothing about her daily wear suggested her design training or that she'd lived in Italy. Her coats looked like expensive bathmats, she wore white stilettos with pants or ugly sweater dresses. Her clothes often had too many damn buttons. It didn't make sense. Worst of all, she had few repeats.

The lack of repeats was totally off. I can't speak for all designers because we're a varied lot but, amongst the visual designers I work with, we tend to lean towards a uniform or a capsule wardrobe. I think real designers would have favorite pieces they wear again and again. We mix high and low, and we thrift shop for those high-end treasures like nobody's business.

Last thought: One of my favorite Beanie screen grabs during the Hwayugi run was a shot of Jo Pal Gye (the pig) wearing what looked like ... an upside down/backwards down coat. I think the only text was something like "WTF?"

6
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

@egads—What was that show you saw with that woman who always wore ill-fitting clothes? One of your posts had me in stitches because described her wearing just about every trend in a single item—including cold shoulders.

3
3
reply

Required fields are marked *

About Time. It's the second female lead and her wardrobe was so bad I felt terrible for the actor.

5
2
reply

Required fields are marked *

Here is where I posted about the shirt of many bad trends. http://www.dramabeans.com/members/egads/activity/515832/

4
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

😂😂😂 still pretty frickin' funny.

2
reply

Required fields are marked *

I work in corporate and my clothes are basically always either pencil skirts and blouse combo or tailored ankle height pants and blouse combo. The other day just on a whim I decided to put on a dress. Everyone commented if I was on a better mood that day ('better' because I am apparently never in a good mood!!). So I understand how important it is for fashion to tell a story about the character. And no I was not on a 'better' mood that day. I just ran out of combinations that day thats all...

10
2
reply

Required fields are marked *

Ankle length* not ankle height!!!! *runs away*

2
reply

Required fields are marked *

Exactly! I work in IT and one of my coworkers decided to wear a dress just because instead of her usual jeans and business casual blouse. Everyone was like: what is the special occasion?? As for me, my wardrobe is so varied that no one asks me twice hahaha

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

Just here to high five @missvictrix for talking about Flower Boy Next Door ~ I hadn't thought about it before, but that's a great point about Go Dok Mi's transformation! Thank you, for another excellent article ^_^

3
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

*high fives back*

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

Dal Ja in Dal Ja's Spring had the best office clothes I have seen. To this day, I still admire her dresses and winter coats.

+++
I always like when production teams match the outfit colours of main leads. School 2017 - in one of the BTS, Kim Jung hyun was wearing a black shirt. When Se Jeong joked that they were not matching colours, he insisted in changing his to white (he didn't stop talking about changing until they allowed him to lol) so that they'd look more like a couple. Yknow little details like this, I appreciate.

2
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Please keep these kinds of posts coming @missvictrix ! I thoroughly enjoy them and am looking forward to more!

1
3
reply

Required fields are marked *

@missvictrix, I keep wanting to say that I hope you're at least getting a Masters degree for these!

0
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

@bbstl Haha! More like finally putting it to good use? <3

2
reply

Required fields are marked *

@autumnlights Thank you! :)

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

We do too discuss the fashion here!! Who else has coat envy? Which Beanie in a warm climate has a collection of coats?
Evil, insidious and absolutely irresistible.
Oh yeah, the clothes do tell a story as well. Just a little bit too well...
^^

0
2
reply

Required fields are marked *

I just watched the final episode of 'boyfriend'. When lower-class mom came into the CEO's office to apologize she was wearing a really really nice coat. She outshone the CEO!

0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Coats over shoes!

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

I find it fascinating that even their hair is used to tell a story . Sometimes it’s just to give the impression of time passing but other times it indicates changes the character is going through.

I just rewatched Kill Me, Heal Me and it was interesting to watch Do Hyun’s hair change. He and Shin Se-gi start by having very different hair styles but as things progress their hair styles evolve and approach a middle ground.

1
2
reply

Required fields are marked *

In the shows you mentioned, did the other characters react to the hair changes?

I've recently seen a couple dramas where, following an emotional trial, the FL had a significant haircut midway through the drama—and none of the characters said anything about it on screen. (For eg. nobody remarked on Ha Jae Yi cutting her hair from shoulder to chin length between Ep. 13 and 14 of Lawless Lawyer. In the real world, there's no way a woman with shoulder length hair can get a bob and bangs without her boyfriend/colleagues/friends saying something, right?

1
1
reply

Required fields are marked *

No, no one in the show remarks on it. I think it’s just a subtle clue for the audience.

1
reply

Required fields are marked *

The funniest twist on this topic was in 'Woo Hoo Waikiki' in the episode where Seo-jin gets a pile of hand-me-down designer clothes and combines them so she looks just like a homeless person - but she imagined herself looking like a million bucks.

1
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Oh, my favorite K-drama fashion choice was in the 2014 series 'Pinoccio' when In-ha walks into the family living room wearing her old hoodie sweatshirt *backwards* so she could use the hood as a feed-bag to hold her snacks under her nose. Even the recapper noticed it and called it 'genius'!

1
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Hanboks, you forgot hanboks. The good ones always wear light colors while the bad ones always wear dark colors.
And eye makeup too.......

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

No matter what, the variety of character outfits sure make the drama way better.

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

Back when I started dramas in 2008, over the next couple of years I noticed the "antagonist dress+hairstyle" of the scheming women who were against the OTP. They always had short hair, their outfits were sharp & striking, the eyeliners were pointy & they catwalked everywhere.

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *

I agree with this post, and I love when dramas get costuming right to say more about characters. I admit, I never really get drawn to outfits as much as I do with other aspects of dramas, but one of the dramas that really stood out to me in terms of costuming was Fight My Way. Ae-Ra always wore that same old, loud, orange shirt at home, which was something that I appreciated and connected with because my "home clothes" are also old, loud shirts I keep around for the sake of just wearing them at home. And I can't forget the scene when Dong-Man realizes that Ae-Ra doesn't wear bras at home LOL. It was so realistic and relatable, but also speaks volumes about their characters in a nice, understated way. :)

0
0
reply

Required fields are marked *