South Korean Culture: How to Dress Appropriately for Work

April 8, 2014
South Korean Culture: How to Dress Appropriately for Work

foreign-correspondent badge finalWhen I was about to graduate from college, my school hosted several seminars and events focused on how to get a job after graduation. I sat through talks on how to write resumes, write cover letters, rock an interview, and dress for success. As a good little college girl, I paid attention and took notes; I was so ready for the working world…but only the American one.

There are plenty of differences between the Korean working world and the American one. I could write loads about the differences in resumes, interviews, and working hours, but for now I’m going to focus on what’s given me the most trouble: dressing for work in Korea.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’m still feeling my way through Korean fashion, particularly appropriate work fashion. Here are some helpful tips I’ve learned so far.

South Korean Culture: How to Dress Appropriately for Work

1. Don’t show any cleavage ever.

This isn’t to suggest that American workplaces are okay with women showing a lot of cleavage, but in Korea, they’re even more sensitive about it. Even regular street fashion in Korea is more conservative than America on the cleavage front. I got in a bit of trouble last summer when I wore a tank top with a sweater over it because the tank top was too low.

In America, it would have been acceptable work attire, but in Korea, it was too revealing. From what I can gather, if the top is lower, at any point, than three inches above you nipple line, you’ll get some not so good looks from coworkers.

good neckline
Good neckline
bad neckline
Bad neckline

2. Hide your shoulders.

Should you ever come to Korea, you’ll probably see an advertisement for bras and underwear. If you see a bra advertisement, you will see that in many ads, the woman featured is wearing a bra with no shirt, along with a sweater, an unbuttoned oversized oxford shirt, or a suit jacket covering her shoulders. Why? Because showing your shoulders is kind of a no-no.

This is an issue for me because Korean summers are so hot and humid that the second you step out of an airconditioned room, your body will start pouring sweat. If you must ditch the sleeves, make sure you only ditch the sleeves. Steer clear of tank tops, spaghetti straps, and straps thinner than two inches in width.

good sleeve
Good sleeve.
bad sleeve
Bad sleeve.

3. Follow the fingertip rule when wearing skirts and dresses.

If you put your arms straight down and touch skin, it’s too short. Also, if you teach little kids you might want to skip flowy, loose skirts as many a child will be tempted to pull them up to see what’s underneath. Not really the best lesson to be teaching the kiddies in English class!

4. Leave the slippers at home.

I’ll admit it: I love Birkenstocks. They’re durable and comfortable. Unfortunately, they look like the slippers people wear in their houses, and when you wear them to work, you look like a slob. I didn’t know this and unintentionally looked like a slob. But I learned my lesson and now reserve my Birks for weekend adventures.

good sandals
Good sandals.
bad sandals
Bad sandals.

It should be noted that I live in a fairly conservative area of Korea, so this might not apply to every school, city, and workplace, but these are the problems I have personally run into.

Hopefully this little list will be helpful and hopefully it will remind me to keep my wardrobe in check as the weather starts to heat up on the Korean Peninsula.

good dress for korea
Good outfit.
bad outfit for korea
Bad outfit.


South Korean Culture: How to Dress Appropriately for Work photo credits: Kylie Genter and Unsplash.

About Kylie Genter

Kylie Genter is an English teacher in South Korea.

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