In Partial Defense of Elle’s “North Korea Chic”

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Nov. 20 2013 11:11 AM

What’s So Funny About North Korea?

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Kim Jong Un looks at (and talks about) a Korean People's Army Fishery Station.

Photo by KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

Maybe my outrage meter is dialed too low these days, but I had a hard time getting too excited about the great Elle magazine “North Korea chic” controversy that seemed to consume the Internet yesterday.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

If you missed, it here’s the gist: In an “A to Zee” listicle of current fashion trends compiled by the Creative Director Joe Zee, Elle decided a good entry for "N" would be “North Korea chic.” “Some iteration of the military trend stomps the runways every few seasons. This time, it’s edgier, even dangerous, with sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring,” the text read. The item has been up since August, but people seem to have only discovered it this week. It’s since been replaced by “naval” and Elle has apologized, but you can see the original here.

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“Take-no-prisoners tailoring...Oh, I get it. Because of the country's history of executing citizens for minor offenses. So, tell me — where can I get a pair of those adorable monk strap heels?” writes Madeleine Davies of Jezebel. “Zee’s listing is evidence not just of geopolitical cluelessness, but of analytical laziness,” writes Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress. “What's really wrong with winking at North Korean militarism to sell $400 pants? For that matter, why not a line of footwear by Pol Pot? Or grooming tips by Stalin? Maybe affix Mao's name to next month's diet plan?” asks Max Fisher of the Washington Post.

I get the impulse to chalk this up as another example of the fashion-industry’s Zoolanderesque cluelessness about current events, best exemplified by Vogue’s now infamous profile of Syria’s “glamorous, young, and very chic” first lady Asma al-Assad from 2011. But I don't think this was anywhere near the same level. 

Was the headline too glib by half? Yes. But I think we should keep some perspective here.

First, “North Korea chic” is not actually a thing. Nothing in the item suggests designers are actually taking inspiration from North Korea. There’s nothing distinctively North Korean about camouflage pants. It seems to me like Zee, or one of the other Elle editors, was putting a catty headline on an article about a trend of severe, military-inspired clothing. No, I don’t think “take-no-prisoners tailoring” is meant to be an explicit reference to gulags.

Second, while this may be regrettable, “North Korea,” as opposed to the actual place of prison camps, mass starvation, and executions, has been something of a pop culture trope in America for a while. A mincing Kim Jong Il puppet was the centerpiece of the movie Team America. A character being kidnapped by the North Korean government was a running plotline on 30 Rock, something that actually happened in a very not funny way to real people.    

And “oh so funny” North Korea coverage is something of a media staple, including for some of the outlets that were jumping on the Elle story. This very website ran a Kim Jong Un-themed Photoshop contest just last month. My former employer once ran a very popular photo essay on dictator fashion featuring Kim, albeit with a more unambiguously mocking tone. In a recent blog post by Fisher on a creepy North Korean water park, he pointed out that the studio that made a life-size replica of Kim Jong Un “got the pants hem exactly right.” I’ve certainly dabbled in this kind of thing.

Is there a difference between these stories and Elle’s headline? Maybe, but it’s not a huge one. I’d go as far as to say that the reason why North Korea stories are so popular is not because of the security threat the country poses to the United States (minimal) or its human rights abuses (significant), but because people find it so weird.

Be outraged by a headline on an otherwise unrelated Elle fashion list if you want, but the next time you pass around an item about Kim Jong Un’s weird Mickey Mouse obsession or friendship with Dennis Rodman, ask yourself why you find a country whose people are living in misery so funny in the first place.

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