One of the first things that I bought in Korea was a suit (and a trench coat, I arrived in Winter). Whether you’re an office worker or a teacher, everyone needs at least one suit for all the various occasions that pop up. While I had brought a suit with me, suits in Korea are different from suits in the US or other western countries. Whereas a suit is a reflection of professional standing in other countries, a suit is a reflection of social standing in Korea.
Your suit can reflect your age, your maturity, your taste (if you have any), and upbringing so it’s wise to put forth a bit of effort when choosing one.
While I normally hate shopping, trying on suits was pretty cool. I went to a mall and tried on at least 8 suits at 4 different stores with ties and shirts to match (I tried one on that was similar to the one Daniel Craig wore in Casino Royale, alas I did not look like 007). Some of them took a while to put on while others were quicker but when I finally chose one (about an hour and a half later), the clerks were able to help me out with advice on ties and shirts along with other accessories.
But I did start off without any real help or without any idea of how to go about shopping for a suit in Korea. So for those who follow after me, here are a few tips:
- A typical suit can run you about 300,000 to 400,000 won, plain dress shirts should run about 30,000 to 50,000 won.
- Malls are a great place to start, there’s always an abundance of clerks to help you out and help you try on suits. Just be sure to check different stores, usually they will do hemming and light tailoring for free. If they try to charge you, head to a different store.
- Most clerks at these stores have a decent amount of experience in dressing nice. Just find a gentleman who looks good and is dressed well and ask him about suits.
- If anything, give him a price range and he’ll just point things out to you. Give him a color and you’ll get more.
- If you have the shape, a slim fit jacket and slim fit shirt are a must. Anything that looks loose of baggy makes you look poor to Koreans (i.e. hand-me-downs). Of course, don’t get anything too small or you’ll have the similar effect.
- Shoes are typically dress shoes or loafers but Korea has a decent selection of half-dress shoes that are slightly more comfortable even if they cost the same. Check around in the shoe sections of malls (casual or dress sections, not the athletic sections) to see what there is.
- I’m 25 so I tend to wear skinny ties. Malls charge anywhere from 60,000 won and up. Head to other stores like Forever 21 to get decent (not flashy) ties for about 20,000 to 30,000 won.
Of course not all occasions call for the same dress. For the most part you can wear the same suit (dark colors usually work best) to any occasion but there are always a few tweaks here and there in order to match the occasion.
All formal occasions can be filtered down into three different categories:
- Social (weddings, parties, etc.)
- Business (trips, meetings, work dinners)
I put in bold the basic dress for each occasion below, feel free to tweak and change most of them as you please.
Funerals are a sad occasion, it might be hard to tell what with all the drunk Koreans laughing and singing songs but they are sad occasions and you should dress to match. Traditionally, Koreans wear black. It’s simple, wear a black suit. Ties are optional unless you wear a white dress shirt. And the tie? Black.
Shoes are always dress shoes, black.
So we’re clear right? Black.
The real difference is style. Attend a few funerals and you’ll see people dress in three ways. One group of people dress like they’re going somewhere else after the funeral (which they very well might be), one group dresses appropriately, and one group (usually a younger crowd) will dress too nice and draw too much attention to themselves. Be careful not to draw too much attention to yourself, you don’t want to show off at a funeral.
Black pants, black shoes, black tie, white shirt.
Up until recently, business attire was closer to funeral attire but lately business attire is all about showing how well you’re doing financially. It’s an outward reflection of your social status. Suits should be fitted (not necessarily tailored) if possible. Cuffs shouldn’t be longer than the space between your wrists and your first thumb knuckle. Darker colors are great for the younger crowd (30’s and younger), but not black. Dark blues and greyed out hues are pretty popular nowadays but it is necessary that your suit reflect your age.
30’s and younger – Dark colors, greyed out tones work well
40’s – Greys, darker hues
50’s and up – Colors should be much more muted. Browns, greys, black
Basically as you get older, your suits should become more muted and include less bright colors on the spectrum.
Ties and shirts are a completely different matter. Regardless of what color suit you get, a white dress shirt will almost always match. Besides that, you will definitely have to match your shirt to your jacket and you tie too. Since your shirt is a reflection of your social position (and in Korea, regardless of who you ask, they are of a high social standing), lots of people wear studded shirts. It’s not overdone, usually just a few rhinestones or shiny beads on the edge of the collar.
Basic suit, white dress shirt, tie to match suit.
For the most part, few social occasions call for a suit. I’ve been to weddings where suit and tie were optional and a few people even showed up in jeans. Regardless, depending on the occasion a plain suit might do or you might want to dress up a bit more. Ties are usually optional and usually people will choose not to wear one.
Social occasions are the only one out of the three where you can mix a little bit more of a younger flair. Some more colorful suits, an open shirt, so on and so forth. Social occasions are much more open to interpretation, of course if you want to play it safe you can also go the business route.
Suit, dress shirt.
I’ve only been in Korea for about a year and a half now and most of what I know comes from just watching people on the street and watching TV (although I don’t dress like a celebrity, or a clown).
If anyone else has any advice or comments regarding suits and dressing for formal occasions in Korea I’d be glad to hear it.