South Korea dress code: Too hot for suits, but legs are taboo

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Seoul's mayor Park Won-Soon (C) wears shorts on a catwalk to help promote a casual clothing campaignImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Seoul's mayor Park Won-Soon has promoted casual business wear this year

Summer temperatures and a desire to save energy usually expended on air-conditioning have left many South Koreans hot and uncomfortable this year - but while attempts have been made to relax dress codes, many office workers find conservative clothing habits die hard.

It is probably the first time anyone has ever described a BBC office as heaven.

My friend sat sprawled on the Seoul bureau's ancient couch, soaking up the tepid air-conditioning, sinking into a mass of newspapers with a sigh of pleasure.

"Seriously" he said, "this is Heaven."

I would love to report that it was my stimulating conversation that prompted this accolade. It was not. It was the temperature.

My friend, you see, works for the government. And the air-conditioning in all government offices here remains resolutely off during South Korea's sweaty summer months, until the temperature tops 28C (82F) - that is 28C inside the building. Or around 30C (86F) outside.

All a bid to combat electricity shortages, which last summer led to blackouts in major cities and red faces in the cabinet room.

And this is a government that not only prides itself on its green policies, it is also heading into a presidential election campaign - and so the summer rules are being applied more rigorously than ever this year.

In Seoul's humid climate, that makes for some very uncomfortable (and it has been hinted, aromatic) working conditions for ministers and their staff. Hence my friend's reluctance to leave the BBC's rather tatty couch.

To get around the problem, the president has applied "summer dress codes" - a relaxation of the dark-suit-and-white-shirt uniform worn by almost every salaryman in Seoul.

In the president's office, jackets and ties may now be discarded, and short-sleeved, coloured shirts are allowed. As are jeans as long as they are not blue. Or decorated. Or torn. The summer rules are nothing if not specific.

The president himself has been setting an example by conducting cabinet meetings in his shirt-sleeves - a shocking state of undress for a Korean president.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
In public, the South Korean president habitually wears a dark suit

Seoul's mayor has gone one step further this year, and told his staff they were free to wear shorts and sandals to work.

Korean news photographers waited eagerly outside city hall this month to catch the bare legs of its civil servants entering a government office - they struggled to find just two.

My couch-surfing friend thinks people simply feel uncomfortable showing their legs in the office.

"This is still a very stiff and conservative culture," he says. "The few that do try it get odd looks from others. People think it's weird."

Habits here are hard to break. Despite their leader's example, senior officials in the president's office are still walking around in suit jackets, even in the sauna-like conditions.

One of the president's staff told me the older men had complained that T-shirts and jeans left them nowhere to put their wallet.

The real reason may be more complex - a fear that dressing down in front of their junior colleagues might diminish their authority.

Or perhaps it is just because they simply do not own "smart casual" attire.

Korean men's clothes tend to be either suits or home-wear, I was told. Many older men do not own a shirt that is not white, and at work they would not be seen dead in weekend clothes.

And so, all too often, the jackets stay on and the cuffs stay buttoned.

Dress codes are important here. They are a way of marking authority, or just blend in.

One government employee told me how she used to tailor her outfit as she travelled between her home and her university.

The place where she lived was smart and moneyed - her campus hippy and grungy. To look out of place was unthinkable.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
During the cold winter months many government offices use little heating

And so she would change her clothes twice a day - on the journey out, and the journey back, just to fit in.

Now she is all grown up and a senior civil servant and the rules are just the same - no-one removes their jacket before the boss, she says, no matter how hot it gets.

So, instead, government employees are finding other ways around the problem of overheating this summer. One of them, clearly, is hanging out at the BBC.

Another is sneaking an electric fan on to your desk for personal use - which, as it has to be plugged into the electricity supply, sort of defeats the object of the whole energy-saving exercise.

But it has become so common that at least one ministry sends inspectors round on a regular basis to check for unofficial cold-air supplies - and confiscate the offending articles.

The president, I am told, does not really feel the heat. Though I do remember last winter, when the temperature dipped to -18C (0F), reading in the paper that he had adopted thermal underwear, and found it very effective.

Winter, you see, is just the same. Government officials sitting at their desks wrapped in blankets, coats and gloves, running fan-heaters as the building's radiators stay resolutely off.

So when it gets cold again - round about October - I will expect my friend once more, nestled amongst the newspapers on the BBC couch.

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