If you were refreshing Twitter endlessly over the past few days, you probably saw a few headlines about mandated haircuts for men in North Korea. The reports indicated that Kim Jong Un’s haircut would become the de jure style for all men in the country.
Turns out, those reports weren’t completely correct. It’s not all men who are getting the hair. Instead, it’s male university students who Pyongyang is targeting with this new mandate. When I first read that the first reports were false, I admittedly closed the tabs and returned to my barren Twitter feed. But then I had a thought: that mandating hairstyles for male university students is actually more totalitarian and ideologically-charged.
Universities are learning spaces that extend beyond the academic; going to university is a step in a broader life cycle. It’s a transitional stage intended to teach you about life and about yourself. To use a more heady term, college is considered life’s grandest liminal moment. When better, then, to regulate the way people express themselves? Students are most ideologically vulnerable in these transitional moments. Identities are malleable, so college presents an ideal time to make radical ideas seem natural.
If we agree that fashion is an ideological tool, its power can often be exaggerated by the college setting. The North Korean mandate couples the power of appearances with a learning environment to signal the cultural ideal, which is based on the country’s dictator. History has provided a lot of examples of fashion’s political use, especially in the history of past and present totalitarian states. North Korea is one of the greatest examples of how fashion signifies political allegiance (and coercion).
Pyongyang has long held that the power of the state should be encoded on the body. So it comes as no surprise that haircuts aren’t the only way the state exercises aesthetic control. This has been observable at every level of society. All three of Korea’s post-war leaders have sported distinctive bouffants and bowl cuts. Forcing these hairstyles on the citizenry has been a practice for decades. As late as 2005, the government has campaigned to suggest that everyone keep their hair short; brain function, they claim, was helped by shorter locks.
Hair has been one signifier of power, but dress has, too. The uniforms of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-un have been minimalist and utilitarian in style. Gray and black are the colors that they have worn most. Their suits are austere and militaristic. Interestingly, uniformed dress has been extended into daily life as well. As defector-turned-artist Song Byeok explained in a CNN profile from a few years ago, there is a cultural tradition in which children don military uniforms on special birthdays. If college helps to mold our eventual place in the world, childhood is even more powerful and charged. It wasn’t for naught that Freud and other psychoanalyst focused so heavily on children.
The development of this haircut story is yet another example of fashion’s use as an ideological tool. Arguably, one could go on ad infinitum about parallels in other countries. Even our own.