There are inseparable couples, and then there are Korean couples.
In South Korea, relationships are considered an all-consuming affair, complete with celebrations every 100 days, constant social media bragging, and almost-monthly holidays devoted to romance. Park Junhyuk and Kim Chohee, a couple from Seoul’s surrounding province, embody that love-obsessed approach. When they celebrated their 1,000-day anniversary last May, they booked a lavish photo shoot with pink and silver balloons, visited a spa, ate Korean barbecue, and shared a decadent cake.
It wasn’t a typical day for the two lovebirds, who document their relationship on their popular blog, “Lover in a lifetime.” But their coordinating outfits—a pink sweatshirt and pleated white skirt for her, gray sweatshirt and white pants for him—are common for young couples throughout the country.
Indeed, matching outfits have emerged as a popular style for lovestruck millennials in this country of 50 million—particularly in college towns and youthful neighborhoods. The style is called 커플룩 (kou-peul look) or, for the more demure pairing, 시밀러룩 (si-mi-leo look). Couples might match basics on their own, like t-shirts or sweatshirts in complementary colors, or go all out and find pre-designed outfits at a host of couple’s retailers, including Sweet Bongbong, Couple Market, Style, and Couple or Honey Plaza. A serious duo might drop ₩420,000 (around $360) on matching puffy parkas or a his-and-hers gray suit for ₩144,000 ($125.50) each. Going on a surfing vacation or honeymoon? Why not buy, for ₩78,000 a pop ($68), matching fluorescent yellow rashguards.
“When I choose clothing to go on a date, I usually ask my partner what she will wear,” says Tosol Yu, a 30-year-old doctor in Seoul. “Then, I choose a similar color or style. It’s not the exact same outfit, but I prefer to look like a couple to other people as well.”
To outside observers, it might seem odd that young lovers would choose to dress in matching denim jackets or identical mocknecks. But the distinctive look is a natural outgrowth of current Korean cultural trends: the glorification of young love, the longing for relationship stability, and a fixation on appearances.
In contrast to America’s youth hook-up culture, where the friend group reigns supreme, South Korea glorifies the couple. The desire to show off your partner thus leads to matching outfits; as one Korean man told the South China Morning Post in 2014: “We can show off that we are a couple, not one of those lonely singles.”
“It may strike you as weird,” says 24-year-old Sarah J. Ha. But, she adds, “Koreans think dressing alike is viewed as a way to show how much the couples love each other.”
The rise of the couple look can be traced back to several decades ago, when Korean couples decided to ditch the traditional honeymoon attire—a suit for men and hanbok for women, a belted silk dress. Instead, newlyweds began coordinating their outfits as a way of signaling that they were on a honeymoon together. Soon couples in earlier stages of their relationships started adopting the style as well. Ha saw it first when she was 12 and knew she wanted to do it when she had a boyfriend.
But matching outfits have really picked up in the last few years in large part due to social media. Hashtags like couple look, lovestagram, and couple selca (selfie), have flourished on Instagram, increasing the importance of performative couplehood. People gain social currency when they’re in relationships, and they can broadcast their status to the world with lavish 100-day anniversary rings, pretty couple outfits or festive dates with perfectly edited selfies.
That’s not to say the couple look is entirely for show. Jihyun Choi, originally from Daegu, is currently in the US studying chemistry while her boyfriend is doing military service in Korea. (His Facebook featured photos are entirely of Choi.) She says that when she matches hoodies or sneakers with him, it increases their closeness.
The stability that comes from a romantic relationship is important to Korean millennials, the first generation to truly benefit from the country’s massive economic growth. They often grew up with fathers who worked constantly, and were accustomed to losing close friends, who might move as early as sixth grade to New Zealand, Canada or the US to learn English. Families, lovers and friends regularly get torn are for two years of mandatory military service. There’s even a term to describe fathers living in South Korea while their families go abroad: “goose father,” a reference to the fact that they must fly to see their children.
But the couple look is also the result of South Korea’s obsession with appearances. The country has the highest per-capita plastic surgery rate in the world. Flawless-looking K-pop singing idols and K-drama actors set the standard for beauty and are glorified on everything from pencil cases to massive subway signs that wish them a happy birthday.
There’s a sentiment in Korea that if you’re not good-looking, everything else about you may be defective, too. By that logic, if your relationship isn’t well-put-together and camera-ready, there may be something wrong with it.
Some Koreans also attribute the couple look to the strain of competition that informs much of contemporary society. Korean parents, who are highly involved in even their adult children’s lives, expect their progeny to secure the best job and family situation—including the perfect partner. Although the average age of marriage is 31, Ha says that even young Koreans feel a lot of pressure to find a boyfriend or girlfriend who’s attractive, rich, and smart enough to please their parents. “Getting into a steady relationship is difficult,” she says.
So when you finally do land in a good relationship with a desirable partner, it can be a bit like getting a promotion at Samsung or a top CSAT score. It’s thus expected that couples will brag about their happiness and feel proud that they aren’t celebrating Black Day—a holiday on which singles left out of romantic celebrations dig into a bowl of black-bean noodles. That said, on this day, singles do get to participate in one important feature of South Korean coupledom: They coordinate matching all-black outfits, too.