When Erin and I found out we were moving to South Korea for a job, we each went through our wardrobe to pick out the clothes we wanted to take. I had several dress shirts, a good stock of ties, a nice sport coat and matching pants, and a good pair of comfortable, formal shoes. Erin had several blouses, a couple pairs of pants and a few skirts, and some nice dresses. She even heroically (tearfully) narrowed her footwear down to three pairs. We were pretty confident that we would have enough professional clothes. We were, unfortunately, only half right.
The dress code at any school or place of business will vary city by city, boss to boss. However, we have noticed a few basic, common themes in South Korea.
Men in a Professional Setting: For the first few weeks, wear a suit. Yes, your coworkers will comment and be impressed that you are dressing so formally. That’s fine. Westerners in South Korea are constantly working to overcome stereotypes: we’re lazy, we don’t take things seriously, we’re sloppy, and we’re far too casual. If you want to impress your employer and make them take you seriously, wear a suit. If you don’t have a suit, at least throw on a good sport coat over your shirt and tie. After the first few weeks, you’ll probably be able to leave the sport coat at home and just go with the shirt and tie. Some of you may be able to go even more casual, taking the tie off, or switching to jeans. That, however, is dependent on the cues you get from your boss and your coworkers. Always start off overdressing. Ease up later as you find out what’s appropriate.
Ladies in a Professional Setting: Go shopping. Do it now. Get new shirts. I am not kidding. South Korea has a different fashion sensibility than the West, especially in rural, conservative areas like anywhere not Seoul. Women wear shirts buttoned all the way up to their necks. No portion of their collarbones (or anything below that) is visible. Any hint of cleavage is just right the hell out. Their shoulders will be completely covered. Armpits are covered as well, so if you happen to reach for something on a high shelf, all you see is fabric. This is true in the office, or just wandering about town. In offices, women wear nice, modest skirts to around the knee. If they are feeling a little less formal, they can get away with dressy pants. In casual settings (and just to mess with your mind) Korean women wear shirts laced all the way up to their collars but then throw on a miniskirt or a pair of super crazy short shorts.
Erin and I are, admittedly, living in one of the most conservative districts in South Korea. This contributes to how strictly she has to adhere to the “no collarbones” part of the dress code. However, on our recent trip to Seoul, we noticed that almost every woman in that metropolitan, liberal, western city adhered to the Korean standard: very high necklines, shoulders and armpits covered, ridiculously short skirts.
Erin didn’t find out about these rules until after we arrived in country. Our school district representative met with the new batch of EPIK teachers and bluntly declared that the ladies were all dressed (to Korean eyes, anyway) like loose women. Then she explained why. The women in the EPIK group were dressed in fashionable, stylish, western clothes – none of which had necklines that were anywhere near appropriate. And they all, collectively, freaked the hell out as they realized that they didn’t have anything to wear the next day for the all important first impression when meeting their principals. It was the equivalent (with some comedic exaggeration) of arriving in the States for a job and discovering that your daisy dukes were not appropriate office attire, and oh yeah, that was all you brought.
Erin got lucky. She had a nice, maroon turtleneck sweater. Mind you, lucky in this context means that she wore a knit sweater in 100% humidity and 90 degree heat, but at least she had something. Then we found out she was doubly lucky because she could actually fit into Korean shirt sizes. She’s a petite woman for the west, but she’s at the high end of shirt sizes over here. She has, after those first frantic days, upgraded her wardrobe a bit.
Still, that’s just good fortune. If you haven’t moved here yet, you have the option of swapping good fortune for good planning. So break out the credit card, it’s time to get some new clothes.