- Case Study
- Open Access
Symbolic meanings of women’s dress on Korean film <Madame Freedom> from the fifties
© Yoon and Yim; licensee Springer. 2015
- Received: 15 July 2014
- Accepted: 14 November 2014
- Published: 4 February 2015
The mid-20th century, covering the end of the colonial rule and the Korean War, represented for Korea a period of tumultuous changes in the people’s way of life as well as their value system. Women grew more active in professional and social capacities, and began to claim a status equal to that of men as their economic role within the family expanded. The just claim for a foray beyond the family boundaries, coming from women married to upper-middle-class husbands and consequently enjoying an opulent lifestyle, becomes a major theme of the film <Madame Freedom>.
In it, we find a variety of female roles, ranging from not just the then oft-discussed ‘liberated wives’, but also to college students, single professionals, housewives with husbands in positions of prestige, and businesswomen. These characters’ appearance, including their dress, makeup and body awareness, also function as symbols expressing the message and social role each character represents. The study examines the 1956 film <Madame Freedom> to explore how the conflict between the social environment surrounding the female characters, conventional values and self - image manifest themselves in their dress and the changes thereof in both family and broader social life, and to determine what symbolic significance such manifestations have.
- Social change
- Korean film <Madame Freedom>
Each society, there is in essence an ideology and a social value system about women which through the generations have been reproduced, even though this process in which each individual woman speaks, conducts, wears and dresses up has been both self-regulating and subject at the same time. The value system and the costume styles shared by individuals or groups of women at a specific time can strengthen normative aspects of society, or create just the opposite by anti-social meanings. In other words, the dress is a device that clarifies the relationship between the body and the living environment as a space outside the body, while the way of dressing the body is an active process and a skill that one physically forms and with which one expresses oneself (Mauss 1973 & Bourdieu 1986 as cited in Craik 2001).
Women-related traditional ideology consolidated by Confucian ideas of twenty centuries embraces ethical values concerning gender roles, chastity, views of marriage, motherhood and virtue embodied in clothes. Such social dogmas, without being changed easily, form women’s daily practice. Into it come women who are in conflict and struggle with fixed values. Their dress embodies it in a concrete way, when a society undergoes big changes in its political and economic aspects. According to Ussher, (Ussher 1997 as cited in Samantha 2004) the types of women in accordance with these cultural attitudes can be divided into those who follow a traditional femininity (‘doing girl’) and those who resist it (‘resisting girl’) in dress and physical attitudes. The important point is that there is, in spite of this contrast, no change in their visible dress including the appearance, and they actually have a common way of expressing themselves (as cited in Samantha 2004). Dress including attire, body ornaments and physical attitude is an instrument that can identify not only the inner side of one who wears it, but also the social and cultural background reflected in those dress, no matter whether it is worn by a woman who accepts the existing structure or by one who comes into conflict with it.
In the middle of the 1950s, Korean domestic situation underwent radical changes after the end of Korean War. Among the ruins of war, the responsibility of rebuilding and a drop in confidence were relatively stronger for men than for women. Women felt relatively free in a reality in which men, as representatives of the patriarchal system, had temporarily disappeared. In addition, Western ideas of democracy were introduced and spread the concept of freedom and equality. Next to American freedom and democracy, movies, magazines and the Western lifestyle of enjoying leisure and popular culture were soon imported. They became cultural ideals to women whose space and territory were limited to just the home.
With urbanization and the abundance of mass culture, the discourse of freedom involved not only more intensely single women, but also married women for whom social activities and going out were not feasible without being accompanied by their husbands. The group of married women who were leading a relatively luxurious family life thanks to the high social and economic status of their husbands started to assert gender equality at home and their right to go out. They were called literally ‘liberal married women’ or better ‘freedom madame’. A movie called “Madame Freedom” of 1956 gives expression to the lifestyles of the publicly discussed ‘liberal women’ as well as a newly emerged women’s group composed of female college students who have received an education equivalent to men, single working ladies and even married women with husbands of high social status. Women in the movie reflect social changes in the phenomenon of ‘liberal women’ spreading out at an unprecedented rate, and the increase of women’s economic activities and network instead of those of men. They also reflect cultural discourses like classification, self -identity and counterculture through changes in their appearance including dress behavior, sorts of clothing and make-up as well. According to Stone, (Stone 1992 as cited in Roach-Higgins, EM, & Eicher, BJ, 1995) appearance plays a vital role as a syntax of an interaction which establishes the identities of members of society, and there is always a close relationship between non-verbal symbols and verbal symbols, i.e. between clothes and ornaments including gestures and appearance, and discourse (as cited in Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1995). Furthermore, it can be viewed that the women's costumes reflecting phases in the film, the texts transferring them and the descriptive structure have a strong power and influence to convey discourses to the world outside the movie.
This study focusing on the movie <Madam Freedom> of 1956 tries to grasp how external cultural discourses about conflicts between the environment surrounding women in the movie and existing values appear through dress behavior. The film <Madam Freedom> (Jayu buin in Korean) is in fact a screen version of a novel in which the phenomenon of 'liberal married women' substantialized in real life is the theme. It drew more than 150,000 female movie-goers in their thirties and forties just in the Seoul metropolitan area (Kang, 2008).
Kim (2003) published a study on customary aspects that appeared in <Madame Freedom>, as a serial novel in a newspaper, whereas Rho (2009) and Shim (2010) studied gender according to the sense of the times and classes among women in those days through the movie <Madame Freedom>. Eom (2010) carried out a study on the political meanings and the symbolism of costumes shown in the novel <Madame Freedom>. They discussed the cultural acceptance of gender around the new femininity from cultural and historical aspects through <Madame Freedom>, the original novel underlying the movie <Madame Freedom>.
The dress as a social form has a meaning only within elements which composes the social context. For this reason this study aimed to analyze the symbolic meanings of women’s dress categorized according to specific social, political, economic, and cultural changes.
A gradual differentiation of status and duties among women, namely between those who have a husband with economic possibilities and therefore enjoy the pleasure of an elegant home life without the burden of production, and those who have to work for their livelihood. In other words, the division of labor in the past was polarized by the sexual attributes of men and women, is meanwhile setting on the basis of social and economic status of women. It generates by degree the types of social classification, namely stratification among women (Illich 1996). The stratification among married women in the movie increased in relations among economic capital such as money and materials, clothes, and cultural capital called taste. Bourdieu, (Bourdieu 1985 as cited in Robbins, D, 2000) identified economic and cultural capital that occupied the interactive relationship in social space. The valuation of consumption including dress is regarded in signs that symbolize meanings. Habitus is the phenomenon of the inclination of actors who are gathered in this social space and can be classified by dividing people by groups according to the propensity to consume clothes, furniture, and music. (as cited in Robbins 2000) The valuation of costume commodities, clothes and clothing behaviors is based on this aspect, and aesthetic attitudes and the propensity towards various things such as furniture and music as well as dress and appearance enable the stratification of married women in the movie.
The one and only free external activity of married women in the movie who have a husband in a high social position and with economic power is made through a network of social gatherings connected to the husband. They show clothing behavior expressing their own class culture. Their differentiated appearance was a means of showing off the husband’s economic power in a situation in which high-quality hanbok fabrics such as silk satin were all Japanese products and Korean fabrics were just rough cotton cloth and artificial silk. (The institute for Korean Historical Studies 1999) The manner of going out, dressing up in hanbok made of high quality imported fabrics such as brocade and velvet, expensive jewelry, Western dresses made of American fabrics, silk scarfs and handbags show the position of married women of leisure represented by a comfortable and luxurious family life.
This ostentation and longing are connected to the symbolic consumption in women’s dress choices as luxury items, not daily necessities, and to the characteristics of the concept of oneself. According to Cooley, (Cooley 1902 as cited in Solomon MR, & Rabolt NJ, 2006) the self-concept is composed of three elements, imagination about one’s own appearance toward others, imagination about other’s judgment toward one’s own appearance, and a kind of self-feeling such as self-esteem or indignity. In addition, even though it is formed at the stage of social customs because this self-concept is not static, but changeable, the symbolic meaning of the clothing product can be consumed at the individual’s experiential stage. In other words, clothing behavior and consumption of the women in the movie are made to pursue a social meaning such as ostentation of wealth and status along with a personal meaning differentiated for self-esteem.
As Korean culture experienced specific circumstances such as the rule of a foreign power, liberation, and a war different from the Western cultures, the totalitarian social identification appeared more predominant than the personal identification in Korea. (Han 2002) From the aspect of the personal identification process, married women who started economic and social activities outside the house can be considered to be the most important among all the types of women who appeared in <Madame Freedom>. It is important to explain social conditions that enabled a personal identity to become more predominant than the existing social identity in changes in their values and behavior. These women undergo the process of self-identification, which gives shape to self-identity by showing others the fact that they are a particular type of human being, leaving behind not only external dress standards, but also abstract norms for married women set up by society such as a range of activities, to wit roles at home and social gatherings. According to Schlenker & Weigold, (Schlenker & Weigold 1989 as cited in Han, 2002) there are personal factors such as personality and values, situational factors such as rules and standards for social roles concerning individuals, and audience factors such as a role model in that process (as cited in Han 2002).
Women represented by the heroine, ‘Soyoung’ in the movie, belong to a group in which an internal change called ‘self-identity’ occurs most rapidly along with visual changes such as appearance, and this group embodies the modernity that Korean society just enters into. The heroine is a married woman who plays the role as a virtuous and wise mother and good wife who proficiently handles assistance for her husband with a socially stable status and child care. She starts to find attractions and abilities as an individual, not an identity given by society as she takes social dance lessons as her hobby and looks for a job. The absence of identity felt as a housewife while moving around in society and having social activities outside the home, and the desire for self-identity can be considered as the process in which her social identity is changed into a personal identity by means of self-regulating choices and life. It is also one of the important attributes of contemporaneousness beyond modernity (Giddens 1997).
Important opportunities that create a discourse on freedom for those who belong to the group of free women are social intercourse and activities through their jobs. Ordinary married women of the middle class who have previously focused on assistance to the husband and child care are represented by Korean traditional clothes, hanbok, that covers up the whole body, while modern and free women after starting social activities are appeared in Western-style dress. The modern life of city-dwellers was commercialized through men’s clothes rather than women’s clothes in the movie (Hollander 1995). In the movie, appearances of married men who have jobs such as businessman, civil servant, and professor are completed with props such as Western-style suits, hats, spectacles and pocket watches that symbolize the working man’s time management (Craik 2005).
The reason why autonomy is especially important in changes in women’s dressing behavior is that most women had never thought about the direction and the way of life that they really desire. Women who had been subordinated to masculine values were passive and dependent. They were encouraged to pursue a role as rearers who are dependent on men. (Kim 2005) ‘Soyoung’, the heroine of the movie, had the opportunity to temporarily leave her home and her private space behind and to play a typical gender role by getting a job at an apparel shop. The movie showed the process of women reorganizing their own desires in a self-regulating way, breaking away from her inner self affiliated to the dominant family in the traditional context rather than from changes in external elements such as Western-style dress, make-up, job activities and social activities represented by dancing (Joo 2001).
Women in <Madame Freedom> show anti-cultural attitudes that come into conflict with the culture conserved in existing society. Female college students, single working women and married women who enter society come to have many opportunities for encountering every single moment of their life as a new moment owing to the inflow of new Western ideas and lifestyles. The wondering at every moment of what they really wanted, made them conscious of their thoughts, emotions and physical senses, and caused them to change (Janette 1989). In their wide reception of Westernized culture, mainly women show anti-cultural and radical attitudes in sexual taste and preferences which society might criticize as being provocative. According to Williams (2007), culture has two aspects, a shared meaning that should be trained and learned as routine stuff, and a new meaning tested inside. Thereby culture has the two essential elements of traditionality and creativity.
Except for dancing or smoking in hanbok, she shows ambiguity when she is eventually engaged to marry another young man, even though she falls in love with a married man. In real life in the 1950s, young single women were dressed in Western style but wore a hanbok after marriage, the hanbok indicating that she was just an ordinary woman of the middle class. (The Institute for Korean Historical Studies 1999) Social standards for women’s dress, the coding and the message from dress, are not easily changed. Moral values and standards for women’s behavior, attitudes, and dress were still conservative. Accordingly, there is a discrepancy between the speed of changes in awareness and the speed of the spread of Western lifestyle. In other words, women in the movie attempt to follow social standards for women such as clothing standards and marriage culture. At the same time, they show counter-culture, in the sense that they want to behave according to their own subjective desires and wishes.
The Korean War provided women with opportunities to enter society because of the necessity to earn a living. In the beginning, women who deployed economic activities were not threatening to men. However, as husbands came back into society after the war, women were forced to return ‘home’. As the status and the life of women under men’s domination was eroded by radical changes of Korean War, a new image of women, i.e. that every individual woman had independent desires instead of what society desired of her, started to be formed.
The aspects seen in the movie <Madame Freedom> as follows. Married women as cultural and economic subject show a new image of women. The movie comes, however, to the final conclusion that these liberal married women are stigmatized as immoral wives and they have to come back home. The so-called 'freedom' modified to 'madame' might be a kind of ironic expression of the view that the greater social chaos is, the freer married women will be. Furthermore, corresponding with the liberal married women in the movie, the kinds of jobs that young women who graduate from university hold, are mainly those of simple office workers such as a typist or as a seller at an apparel shop for which no higher knowledge or skills are required. The confines of the economic activities and participation of women become visible, but the men’s domains of expert professions such that of professors, politicians and businessmen are not yet accessible to women. As far as costumes are concerned, the appearance of obedience when the traditional hanbok is worn in the movie serves as the image of a housewife from above the middle class, while the object culture has a strong influence on the costume behavior of women. That is to say, even when they take up countercultural activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing, the modest figure in the hanbok as a symbol of the wise wife and good mother confirms that the costume is a symbol in which female virtue is visualized. It is an embodiment of the object culture for women through discipline and learning.
Women actualize their self-identity by expressing their attitude by looking for work and handling it actively in refined, modern Western attire in an environment that regards collective value and identity of great importance. By means of dancing and free love, women also take the initiative in radiating their desires and physical freedom which disseminate the concept of self-ownership against the moral and cultural standard required in existing society. It manifests itself in a body which follows the existing pattern and functions as a social resource, and shows itself in a body which acts subjectively in what it wants. This attitude toward the body is made concrete in clothing behavior which is expressed in dress and makeup which emit a feminine attractiveness in the dance hall. In the domestic sphere which regards collective harmony and social identity to be of greater importance than individual autonomy when compared to the West, these kinds of changes pose a big challenge to contemporary Korean society. Women of all time lie between the two extremes, between the dominant femininity on the one hand and the new, creative femininity on the other when considered in the same period. It is expressed in a type which keeps carrying out the traditional view in their outward representation or in a type which resists it (Ussher 1997). The appreciation of which is good or bad does not matter anyway, but what really counts is the understanding of the diverse types of women’s images which emerge in each period, by which we can better experience the spirit of the times and related cultural patterns, including the clothing behaviors of women.
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