Fashion Inches Forward in North Korea

Most North Koreans remain too poor to think much about fashion, and resist outside influences. But in Pyongyang, styles have slowly changed.

. High heels, with sequins. Brightly colored, tight-fitting dresses. Hairstyles and makeup that are almost like what you would expect on streets of Beijing or Seoul.

Something is definitely afoot in the style scene of North Korea's capital.
Most North Koreans remain too poor to think much about fashion, and the country in general maintains a deep-rooted resistance to outside influences. But in Pyongyang, where the standard of living is relatively high, clothes and styles have been changing in recent years — slowly and in a limited way, but more than many outsiders might think.

ABOVE: Long shadows are cast by the evening sun as North Koreans make their way home after a day's work on Aug. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. Not surprisingly, young women are leading the way. And they care a lot about shoes.

While rubber boots and utilitarian flats remain the norm elsewhere in North Korea, high heels in a wide array of colors and styles are commonplace in Pyongyang. They range from basic black to glittery sequined styles that are almost over-the-top exuberant.

ABOVE: A North Korean woman walks along the Taedong River on Aug. 30 in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. Handbags and other accessories are everywhere. Women's clothes have become tighter. Shirts, trousers and dresses are often form-fitting. Women's hairstyles have become more similar to styles seen overseas. Makeup has changed, too.

ABOVE: North Koreans leave an underground subway station in Pyongyang on Sept. 1.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. Overall, the look is less 1980s Soviet Union and more contemporary East Asian.

ABOVE: A North Korean woman reacts while watching a pro wrestling exhibition, on Aug. 31 in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. "Nowadays, it's clear that clothes have become very bright," said Kim Su Jong, a Pyongyang resident. "In the past, the colors were a little dark," she said. "Now everyone likes bright colors."

North Korea's top trendsetter is Ri Sol Ju, leader Kim Jong Un's wife, who is higher-profile and more fashionable than previous leaders' spouses were. Her short hair and Chanel-style black dresses have undoubtedly influenced many Pyongyang women.

ABOVE: North Korean women laugh while watching others on rides at the Kaeson Youth Amusement Park on Sept. 3 in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. A bigger reason for the change may be that modern styles have become easier to attain in Pyongyang, thanks to more imports from China and an increase in the amount of money in circulation in the capital. The clothes and shoes Pyongyang women are wearing cost the equivalent of tens of U.S. dollars apiece, which is a lot by North Korean standards.

ABOVE: A North Korean woman works at the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang textile factory, on July 31, in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-E / AP

. Men lag behind, but the young, at least, are catching up.

There is a clear trend for young men to wear more flattering, tighter shirts, with back darts and sharper, harder collars. Overall, the look for both young men and women is basically old-school preppy, with an emphasis on clean and simple lines.

One exception: trousers. Pyongyang still prefers the stove-pipe style, wide from the waist to the ankle. Skinny is out.

ABOVE: A couple walks along the pier which leads to Jangdok Island, on July 28, in Wonsan, North Korea.

Wong Maye-e / AP

. For older men — and leader Kim — the home-grown style is still the rule. They favor a kind of boxy, big-shouldered and open-necked suit. Usually in sober colors of navy blue, gray or silver, the style is so common it's called "pyongsanbok" — normal clothes.

ABOVE: North Koreans read newspapers displayed at the train platform of an underground subway station, on Sept. 1, in Pyongyang.

Wong Maye-e / AP

. Jeans are closely associated with American tastes, so wearing them is almost tantamount to treason. North Korea never officially banned them, but you don't see people wearing the same blue denim that is common almost everywhere else in the world.

In the past few years, however, some North Koreans have dared to wear trousers that are something like jeans. They are not made of denim but have jeans styling, such as riveted pockets.

ABOVE: North Koreans gather to dance in downtown Pyongyang, on July 27 in North Korea.

Wong Maye-e / AP

. White was a popular color this summer. It's almost always women who are wearing them.

But jeans are a touchy topic. So touchy, in fact, that just bringing it up is likely to raise nationalistic hackles.

"We don't have to like jeans," said Kim Su Jong, the Pyongyang woman who so favored brighter colors. "Why should I wear that kind of jeans? It looks ugly. We have our own style."

— Eric Talmadge, The Associated Press

ABOVE: A North Korean woman waits for a train in an underground subway station in Pyongyang, on Sept. 1.

Wong Maye-e / AP