The Korean Clothing Trend Breaking Down Dating Barriers


"This is the blind-date restaurant where couples dine on their first date," my Korean-American friend said, pointing at a two-story French restaurant. He was giving me a crash course in Korean "couple culture" that involved a tour of popular hangout spots for couples near his university. "I'm not letting you leave until we see a guy and girl in couple t-shirts!" he insisted. At that moment, a couple wearing matching striped t-shirts walked pass us.

This choice of apparel is becoming increasingly popular in South Korea. Couple t-shirts reflect the ever-changing norms in an otherwise restrictive dating culture by creating a realm for romantic expression.

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In contrast, couple attire is typically consigned to specific holidays in Western culture; couples may wear matching costumes for Halloween, or take cheesy greeting card pictures in ugly Christmas sweaters.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that blogs by tourists and expats tend to comment on the silliness of dressing like this year-round — often describing it as a manifestation of Korea's obsession with kawaii or simply as "tacky." Some point out that it's part of a trend of men becoming more effeminate. Others question why women would subject their boyfriends to the excruciating embarrassment of wearing matching pink shirts with cartoons on them.

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In order to truly understand the reason behind couple t-shirts though, we need to stop gawking over its silliness and situate it within the broader context of Korean couple culture instead. The dating environment for young people in Korea can be stifling at times, because the rules of courtship are still rather rigid. Apart from university areas, it's uncommon to see young men and women hanging out together as friends. Dating is treated as a serious matter, and often couples are introduced by close friends and relatives through blind dates, with the intention of the courtship leading towards marriage.

As the Wall Street Journal suggests, couple t-shirts are empowering couples by providing them a means to wrestle back some control. Since public displays of affection such as kissing or hugging are frowned upon, couple t-shirts provide a fun, alternative way for love birds to publicly express their affection without generating finger-wagging or disapproving stares.

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These t-shirts come in various styles, offering many different ways for couples to express how they feel towards each other. While some have huge hearts or the word "love" printed on them, others stick to simply having similar colors or patterns. While buying a couple t-shirt for your significant other is normally a sign of taking the relationship to the next level, couples get to choose if they're ready to wear the "love" shirts or to stick to matching stripes.

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But there's a darker side to this practice as well. It can be depressing being a single woman in Korea, since couple culture is everywhere. In addition to Valentine's Day, there are an abundance of holidays to celebrate how wonderful it is being in a relationship — like the "100th Day Anniversary," when couples celebrate 100 days of being together, and "Kiss Day," which is pretty self-explanatory.

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The pressure for young Korean women to be perfect is deeply ingrained, from maintaining impeccable beauty and flaunting designer fashion, to securing a good job and (rich) husband. Since finding a boyfriend has been defined as one of the main tenets of success, wearing a couple t-shirt is a type of showing off, somewhat equivalent to donning a designer coat or bag. Couple t-shirts are thus also visual reminders of what some young people have yet to achieve — whether intentional or not, they often have the effect of making single girls feel envious. 

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Of course, most people would probably rather see couples wearing matching t-shirts than engaging in a make-out session in a park or movie theater. As long as it's done in good spirits, couple t-shirts have the potential to change the dating field in Korea, allowing more room for creative and artistic expression — without involving an overload of PDA.