K-pop's impact on the world is undeniable. It changed the international music scene, breaking down language and cultural barriers with their high-octane productions. Aside from that, as it made South Korean pop culture accessible to all, the phenomenon also impacted the way we see and wear fashion today. While their boy groups greatly transformed our perspectives on menswear and male beauty, their girl groups left their own mark and set new trends too. What they wore on-stage, in their music videos, on awards shows' red carpets, and as they sat on the front row of the biggest fashion events inspired us to play around with different styles throughout the years. So ahead, let's take a look at K-pop's fashion history and see how the girl group looks evolved in the decades that the genre flourished.
Hip-hop trio Seo Taiji and Boys' debut back in the early '90s influenced South Korea's local music scene. Their immense popularity inspired the emergence of other teen-centric musical groups whose concepts were based on western boy bands and Japanese idol groups. With boy groups like H.O.T. and Sechs Kies came S.E.S., Fin.K.L., and Baby V.O.X. — all of which would later be recognised as the first wave of K-Pop girl groups.
The first generation of girl groups stuck to a youthful innocent image. Aside from donning refreshing colour motifs, there was also a phase where a lot of these groups incorporated preppy uniform elements in their performance costumes.
Eventually, however, in their later years, the fashion of K-pop girl groups matured. They switched their school girl looks for masculine power dressing. Suits that were loose and comfortable enough to dance in became the on-stage staple.
The rise of the wave
Though a lot of the first-gen bands became inactive, K-Pop in the early 2000s grew even further. Local acts gained more fans overseas, particularly in Asia, as they started producing songs in different languages. Solo acts like Rain and Queen of K-Pop BoA rose to popularity in this time, marking the beginning of the Hallyu (or Korean wave). With them, boy band Shinhwa was one of the most iconic groups that rode the Korean wave, joined by girl groups such as Jewelry, M.I.L.K., and Chakra who shone under the spotlight as well.
Compared to their predecessors, the fashion showcased by female artists in the early noughties were more diverse. It largely depended on the unique branding and identity of each musical act. By default, when girl groups in this era debuted, they'd adopt a cute, youthful image. But this would easily be shed away, as it was a trend for K-pop artists of the time to adopt a sexier image. Gone are the baggy pants and rubber shoes. Now they wore midriff tops, low-rise jeans, stilettos, and the over-the-top silver accessories that dominated the era.
Girl groups like Jewelry also experimented with non-homogenous looks. While still sticking to a theme, each of their four members would wear a distinct combination of pieces from one another. While one might be wearing shorts, in the same performance, you'd spot another wearing a flowy skirt.
On the other hand, others like Chakra had a more thematic approach to their ensembles. This solidified their image, as their albums usually had an exotic concept. Though they still opted for the daring silhouettes trending at the time, the accessories they used would often result in a more costumey aesthetic that would probably be tagged as appropriation in this day.
The iconic standard
The success of the transitional generation paved the way for the second generation of groups, which further solidified K-pop's popularity across the globe. With most of them having trained intensely for years, these idol groups set the bar and established the K-pop formula we know today.
Interestingly enough, in their beginnings, a lot of the K-pop girl groups' fashion of the late 2000s re-called the uniformity of the first-gen, injecting it with more identity and colour. Everyone wore the same outfit and same styles. We saw it in the glamorous '60s ensembles of the Wonder Girls as they took the world by storm with their 2008 hit Nobody. Similarly, all nine members of SNSD, in their earlier years, adopted more or less the same formula. Remember how they all wore coloured skinny jeans for Gee and how they made military fashion trendy with Genie? Gradually, we witnessed the girl group significantly diversifying their wardrobe in the years after.
As the careers of the second-gen girl groups flourished, each of the girls started to embrace their identity, donning looks that perfectly matched their individuality. One great example was f(x), where Amber's androgynous looks were vastly different compared to Krystal's chic and sophisticated wardrobe.
The girls of the era also began getting more experimental with their looks, all while sticking to their branding. 2NE1, known for their R&B and electrifying dance hits, complemented their edgy and cool image with streetwear pieces — often a wonderful mix and match of loud prints and textures.
The increase in diverse groups that debuted in what was arguably the golden age of K-pop prompted fans to look for fresher content — something they haven't seen before. Taking on the challenge, a new breed of groups came to dominate the scene. The third generation of groups that included the likes of BTS and Blackpink pushed creative boundaries. As such, their concepts are more elaborate and every tiny bit of detail — from their makeup to their background — does its part to communicate their story.
Girl groups of today continue on the individualistic style of the second-gen. However, despite their differing images, they stick to looks that are elegant yet bold. In their dance performances, they stick to edgy pieces, while most of their music videos would also feature their members wearing Avant-garde pieces or haute couture for dramatic flair.
But, as you know, K-pop history doesn't end there. The scene is ever-evolving, with the third-gen groups dominating the world and getting the recognition they deserve. They continually push out productions that surprise us, not only in terms of music but also in fashion. And we definitely can't wait to see all the things in store for us this coming decade.
Speaking of K-pop fashion, why don't you try out these looks worn by SNSD's Hyoyeon?