Thoughts inspired by the Salam Seoul Festival

It was with some bemused puzzlement this week past that I read an article in The Korea Times about the Salam Seoul Festival. It was the headline that immediately attracted my heritage studies interest: ‘Hijab, hanbok mixed to create modest fashion’.

The hanbok, as we know at least since the Beijing Winter Olympics, is considered by (South) Koreans to be one of their key cultural heritage items. When a Chinese woman representing the ethnic Korean minority wore hanbok at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, it was immediately decried by both of the then-presidential candidates as cultural appropriation. Korean celebrities promptly responded by posting on social media pictures of themselves in hanbok to declare that ‘What is ours is just ours.’

So one part of me was intrigued by the apparent willingness during the festival to take this preeminent cultural icon and mix it with a signifier from another culture, the hijab [1]. As I am rather interested in the idea of new heritages, I wondered if this may be an expression of such new heritage in the process of creation.

It was also interesting to see that the cloak worn over the head by Korean noblewomen of the Joseon period, the Sseugaechima, was also featured as a de-facto hijab (which I suppose it was), thus really connecting the hijab to some of the strongest roots of Korean contemporary culture. To top it all off, the new fashion that the four Korean designers created from this, to my non-Muslim gaze, seemed excitingly contemporary and fresh.

However, I am rather co-creatively minded and trained to be extra-conscious of any action that might be viewed by a source community as cultural appropriation. So I was somewhat alarmed when I realised that apparently, there had been no actual Muslim input into neither the fashion style nor the festival. In fact, an official from the organisation responsible for the festival (I’ll get to that in a moment), is quoted as saying, ‘We even sought Seoul Central Masjid – the country’s first Islamic mosque – in Itaewon to promote the festival during Ramadan, which ended recently’ (my emphasis), suggesting that they thought this involvement sufficient. Far from being ‘new heritage’, then, emerging out of the exchange between two cultural groups on equal footing, this fusion fashion had rather one-sided origins.   

This is not an entirely new approach in South Korea. In fact, there has been quite a bit of criticism of how the K-pop industry borrows from other cultures and/or their lack of awareness of global cultural iconography given that they cater to a global market [2]. However, when we look at the impact and outcomes of K-pop at least on the transnational fan community, it appears that something new and shared has indeed emerged, even if this perhaps was neither the intention of the K-pop decision-makers nor may it be equally embraced by South Korean K-pop fans themselves [3].

As it turns out, the ‘Salam Seoul Festival’ was primarily a marketing campaign. It was organised by the Seoul Tourism Association, who is revealingly quoted in the article as saying,

‘Muslims in Middle Eastern countries and other parts of the world represent another huge global market.’ Fusing hijab with hanbok as a marketing tool.

In terms of soft power, I have no doubt that this is masterly. It opens a door for identification and suggests access to the inner-most spheres of Koreanness. Whether this is actually indicative of true openness to cultural exchange that equally goes both ways, or indeed to a hybridisation of Korean culture, is an entirely different matter. The outrage over the Beijing Winter Olympics may have been primarily due to Korea’s particular history with China, but a view held by (some) Korean K-pop fans of themselves being the ‘real’ fans (as opposed to the international K-pop fans, see footnote 3) suggests that there is a sense of national identity at work here as well. In other words, while South Korea may have no qualms about adapting icons from other cultures for clearly defined purposes, there may be less enthusiasm when others reach for Korean culture to do the same.

And yet. I wonder if such initiatives, just like K-pop, may develop a life of their own outside of the original purpose and their country of origin. Perhaps new heritages, hybrid heritages, can and do emerge without the (intentional) participation of the source community (ironically enough, in this case the South Korean community). Perhaps the source community in these cases is altogether different, a truly imagined community held together by a shared fantasy, if not to say vision, of a this new heritage future. This new heritage future is shaped by the experiences and contributions of each individual in this community, beyond and at the same time rooted in their respective geo-cultural contexts.  

Koreans in turn may decry this as appropriation in the negative sense, as other source communities sometimes do, but in this case, these South Korean practices at the same time positively challenge that very notion.

Which makes ‘hijab, hanbok mixed to create modest fashion offerings’ intriguing all over again.


[1] Last year, the number of Muslims in South Korea was under 1%, most of them foreign nationals.

[2] Take for example this infamous outfit of the K-pop girl band Pritz. As a German, it is really beyond me how they didn’t spot beforehand the connection that millions in the Western world indeed ended up seeing (seriously?!).

[3] See for example Yoon, K, 2022. ‘K-pop Trans/Nationalism’. In: Routledge Handbook of Asian Transnationalism. London: Routledge, 394-405. I’ve recently started to read some studies into K-pop as a transcultural or hybrid cultural phenomenon, and while I’m personally still ambivalent about the cultural borrowing aspects of K-pop, the cultural outcome of K-pop really cannot be reduced to accusations of appropriation. I’m sure I’ll blog about that at some point.

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