History of Korean men’s accessories & make-up

Picture of BTS V. Photo Credits

Silver grey hair, a seemingly statuesque face and of course, the long, eye-catching drop earring- of BTS V in the music video of “DNA” (2017) left the millions who watched (and re-watched) the clip in awe.

BTS V wasn’t the first and certainly not the last K-pop idol to sport quite an unconventional accessory for men- long drop earrings.

Picture of Kang Daniel, Photo Credits to “Herald Pop”
BTS Jimin, Photo Credits: Big Hit Twitter.

Lip balm, lip tints, foundation powder, smoky eyes and long earrings. Sported by male K-pop idols, there was as much celebration for this “new” way of self-expression as there was discomfort over the new “androynous fashion”.

Regardless of opinions on this trend in the K-pop industry, with one look at Korean history, it’s clear that this trend isn’t a recent one.

Picture of SHINEE Minho from character introduction pic of drama “Hwarang”: Photo Credits to owner.

The first word that comes to mind for Korean men’s accessories & make-up is “Silla”. Located on the southern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula, Silla Kingdom was founded in 57BC and had united the three kingdoms of Korea- Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo. (Gyeongju, a province in South Korea was once Seorabeol, the capital of Silla Kingdom)

Silla itself is known to most Koreans for its Hwarang-do. Literally meaning “Men like flowers”, Hwarangs were beautiful, intelligent and usually high-class men trained to contribute to the country. These men were trained based on 5 principles:

  1. 사군이충(事君以忠): To serve the king with loyalty
  2. 사친이효(事親以孝) : To serve parents with filial piety
  3. 교우이신(交友以信) : To make friends with faith
  4. 임전무퇴(臨戰無退) : To never retreat in a war/fight
  5. 살생유택(殺生有擇) : To discern carefully when having to engage in bloodshed
Photo Credits: A stone plague thought to have been set in the time of King Jinheung of Silla. Contains the list of names of famous Hwarangs like Sadaham, known for his beauty, intelligence and bravery. He led a large group of Hwarangs at the mere age of 16 and passed away at 17 after fighting against Gaya.

Not only were the Hwarang trained in things like military tactics, ethics, morality, language and many more scholarly things, they were instructed to uphold the image of Hwarang-do as consisting of young, beautiful men by maintaining their physical appearance.

The earrings Hwarang wore were often delicate gold pieces in the form of what are now known as “drop earrings”. This was especially because Silla Kingdom valued physical beauty and invested much in the work of accessory makers. The accessories were also believed to ward off evil spirits and used to indicate high class and power.

Picture of a crown made in the Silla era: Photo Credits

In Goryeo and Joseon era, both men and women wore earrings freely. Even very young children used to wear accessories too.

From the top left corner, in the clockwise direction, shows earrings from Silla, Baekje, Joseon, Goguryeo and Gaya. Photo Credits

Korean men wearing lipstick and putting on foundation make-up isn’t a recent fad, too. Men in the Joseon era styled their hair in the morning, washed their faces with powder and carried small pouches containing scented things.

They put on “face masks” made of rice grains to whiten their faces, and put on various types of jewellery on their clothes, too. Higher class men often attached various decorations made of materials like bamboo, gold, silver and jade to the fans they carried around.

Fans high-status men used to use in the Joseon era. A screenshot of Lee Jun Ki in “The Scholar Who Walks the Night”: Credits to MBC YouTube Channel.
Decorations in the string of “gat”, a hat men in the Joseon era used to wear: Credits to MBC YouTube channel
A video clip from the drama “Hwarang” set in Silla. From 0:38, you’ll be able to see the various accessories the actors are wearing that are similar to what used to be worn by men in the Silla era. Video Credits to official KBS Channel

From the 2009 wildly popular drama “The Great Queen Seondeok”. Video credits to “옛드 : 옛날 드라마 [드라맛집]YouTube Channel. The characters in this drama wear various kinds of accessories that show how developed accessory making was in the Silla era

Some point to the much loved Korean industry of beauty & fashion as symptomatic of a society obsessed with physical beauty. Some praise the unique adoption of make-up and accessories by both men and women as a step toward acceptance of all expressions of identity and self-love.

As a Korean who had grown in both South Korea and Singapore, I have the privilege of being able to look at my country and the rest of the world through a slightly different lens than a non-Korean or one born and bred purely in Korea would.

My perhaps cliche take is that perhaps like most things in the world, the vast and evolving world of “Korean beauty” has its share of the beautiful and the dark.

The Korean style of make-up emphasizes bringing the best out of existing facial features instead of hiding flaws. But the culture of make-up in South Korea has made no-make up something uncomfortably unconventional, even for elementary school girls. And this culture makes it hard for young girls to accept themselves as who they are when they’re so markedly different from their peers with make-up.

The Korean fashion culture serves as a way for Koreans to express themselves, to bond with others and channel creativity. But that very culture does unfortunately tend to make “fashion sense” synonymous unrelated values like diligence, sensibility and resourcefulness.

What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments section- I’d love to know what you think 🙂

Cheers, Han Seol

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