There’s ideology in those blue jeans

Image by Joanna Malinowska |

Everyone has at least one pair of jeans. They have the distinction of being ordinary and fashionable at the same time. The designer Yves Saint Laurent said he wished he had invented them. “They have self-expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes,” he said. 

It’s a different story in North Korea. There, wearing jeans is illegal. That’s because the regime sees them as the embodiment of impure ideology.

Here’s the question, then: If jeans are ideological, what kind of ideology drives a regime to ban them?

Jeans were designed in 1873 as riveted denim pants for miners in California. In time, they gradually shed their workwear image and became everyday clothes for the general public. In the 1950s, they became really popular because of movies. Women also began wearing them. 

Jeans remain a beloved fashion item for men and women of all ages to this day.

North Korea’s objection seems to date back to the movie “Rebel Without a Cause,” where the main character, played by James Dean, epitomizes the rebellious teenager resisting the existing order. The movie came out in 1955 but probably became popular among the children of the elite some years later. That would have been when the regime took action against jeans.

The regime is so concerned about the impact of the outside that it has even executed people for watching foreign music videos and movies. The fact it imposes such extreme penalties heightens its fear of resistance, which makes it even more harsh.

The regime’s dress code goes beyond simple control. It is actually regressive. According to a South Korean government report on economic and social conditions in the North, based on defector interviews and issued last month, the regime has been stressing that women should wear “Joseon-style clothes” in their everyday lives. This refers to the traditional dresses of the dynasty which ended in 1910 and which are called “hanbok” in South Korea where they are worn only on special occasions.

Human nature being what it is, the spirit of resistance among North Koreans is alive and well. In contrast to the regime’s fashion sense, it doesn’t regress.

A recently released educational video from North Korea shows a woman walking down a street being criticized for wearing slippers and capri pants. Despite being just an ordinary middle-aged lady in summer clothes, she was assumed to have been expelled from Pyongyang because her calves and toes were showing. 

One notable feature of the video was that the woman did not appear to be intimidated by the surveillance. Nor did she act as if she herself thought there was anything wrong with her outfit. This suggests that the standards of the North Korean government do not align with the ideas of ordinary citizens.

When jeans were banned, people switched to skinny jeans. When they were banned, people took to wearing shorts. Now, hot pants have become trendy.

Women in North Korea typically dress up and put on makeup when they go out or when they have guests. However, young women put on hot pants or otherwise dress up at home and walk around the house. Some invite their friends over to stroll in the neighborhood in hot pants. It doesn’t mean they’re not afraid, but it does suggest that the threat of punishment is failing to suppress their desire for self-expression.

Ideology is not contained in jeans or hot pants themselves. They are neutral. It’s that ideology, or a way of thinking, can be expressed through them. Even if the regime takes hot pants away, the way of thinking that makes the young woman want to wear them will find expression through other means.

New, second and third versions of jeans will continue to emerge, and with them, North Korea’s reign of terror will eventually come to an end.

Kim Eun-ju

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