This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Please check out part 1 [here.]
Fashion is one of the most effective tools in all of filmmaking – in fact, one of the most effective tools for communication in general. Fashion tells a person your personality, your background, and your artistry. Fashion can be used to create a character. It can be used to make a good impression. It can even be used in diplomatic relations, to communicate an idea. Fashion is one of the most useful things in the world, because it ultimately is a form of communication. In film, there are a lot of variables that change what the costume designer will choose. While that may seem like something that everyone would agree with, the decisions behind costumes are not intuitive ones. One swatch of material can alter the entire film.
What makes K-Pop so fascinating is how fashion is used to communicate a group aesthetic. Girls wear matching skirts and heels, while boys wear baggy pants and oversized shirts. Of course, there are a number of reasons K-Pop group fashion is the way it is. Everything has to give enough freedom of movement for the idol to dance. There needs to be cohesion so that no one looks out of place. And each member still needs to look individualized enough to be identifiable so that you can pick a clear favorite.
In addition to these principles of K-Pop fashion, there are also elements directly affected by the music video or song. The genre of the music video dictates whether you dress in an edgy or cutesy or creepy way. If the music video takes place in a different time period than the present, all the outfits have to be period as well. If there is a story arc, then the outfits must reflect the individual characters – what their interests are, what their past is, what their eventual fate might be. If anything feels askew to the audience then the spirit of the video is lost.
ITZY has only had two major music videos as of the writing this article, but their awareness for fashion is incredibly acute. While everything is eye-popping and beautiful, there is a level of harshness that makes it all the more wonderful to watch. I don’t mean harshness in that their fashion is bad – I mean that in the sense that it goes against the grain of what most K-Pop girl groups are doing, and therefore shatters expectations. It doesn’t capitalize on its weirdness, but it capitalizes on its difference. What makes it harsh is how it is used and what it communicates.
In this exploration, we’re going to cover “Dalla Dalla” and “Icy” at the same time, and we are not going to split it up by members. Instead, we’re going to cover four themes: cohesion, branding, makeup, and message. There will also references to other bands or works of art. None of this is meant to insinuate that ITZY is stealing their fashion from anybody – rather, it’s to provide a frame of reference so as to clearly illustrate the impact these girls have. The only way to make art is to learn from the artists that came before you.
Cohesion (or lack thereof)
As stated before, there is this tendency for K-Pop bands to have extremely coordinated outfits. Bands like AOA are good examples of this, where everyone wears the same outfit. I find this extremely frustrating in videos, unless it’s a video like gugudan’s “Chococo” where the plot kind of relies on everyone being dressed the way. It just feels a little lazy to me. K-Pop relies heavily on people being able to choose their favorite member, so when everyone is dressed the same my first question is “but why?”
A lot of boy bands manage to get away by the seat of their pants by having everyone dressed in the same style. BTS, SHINee, and EXO all do this – and they are not the only ones. So many sport coats or various forms of jacket, tight pants that are weirdly wide at the crotch (so as to maximize dance movement) and minimal difference between outfits. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it always tends to be the same kinds of outfits that get this treatment. It’s usually done to create a sense of unity between members so that they all look like they’re part of a group. The thing is, some bands take the same basic outfit and manage to do a fantastic job of differentiating members with subtle features as opposed to just “here have a scarf” (see my articles on EXID’s “L.I.E” and Dreamcatcher’s “PIRI”).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when bands just don’t care about cohesion at all and do whatever they want. Again, this is usually a guy group – BIGBANG and BTS specifically. I plan on doing an article on BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby” sometime soon (Burning Sun ruined them for me as I’m sure it did for many people, so I’ve been apprehensive about writing one) but one of the things that has always stood out to me is how different everyone looks. No one is wearing a matching outfit until the final moments of the video. Then of course we have BTS’s “Dope” which relies almost entirely on everyone wearing outfits for different professions. Girl bands also do this, but usually when they’re isolated, not in fully choreographed parts of videos. Boy bands have less restrictions in this respect.
ITZY leans into individuality more than cohesion which is incredibly refreshing. This largely has to do with the fact that the band relies on its message rather than typical K-Pop group creation. Their fashion largely reflects their “I don’t care” disposition and as a result, they aren’t relying on looking like each other.
Take for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Their are two elements that tie all the outfits in together – the color black and the occasional splash of glitter. At one point they all wear fur but it’s only for a brief moment. But their styles are wildly varied. Their accent colors are also widely varied. Their jewelry and hairstyles are varied. They also don’t have an overabundance of pencil skirts – I mean pants are more comfortable for dancing. And walking. And everything else.
In “Icy”, they almost completely do away with coordinating styles except for white accents on some of the outfits and some branding in one choreography section. The styles are even more varied than before, akin to something like a BIGBANG video. This does have to do in part with the plot, but not very much. The plot of “Icy” is girls not caring what other people think of them, so they get placed in a number of situations where they are clearly outsiders. So they are simply meant to look “different”. I actually think that this is fairly effective here, more so than it would be in “Dalla Dalla” where there is not much plot. What we get in “Icy” is a fully realized version of that idea.
Branding in fashion has been an interesting component. It’s been a major part of fashion since the 1960s that has phased in and out of style over time. It used mainly to flaunt a brand, and was adopted tenfold by the black community in the late 20th century to the point where brands such as Chanel began to copy black designers and their use of logos. Our current century of fashion doesn’t really advocate for “branding”. If anything I’d say the retro album t-shirt has replaced the designer logo among millennials and Gen Z. Furthermore, modern fashion emphasizes people combining different pieces however they decide so as to turn it into a form of expression. You may notice certain groups claim different fashion trends – but very specific ones, so as to let you combine whatever you like and express yourself, how you choose. (For anyone who is interested, I recommend watching the CNN docuseries “American Style” to learn more.)
Brands in K-Pop, however, have generally been sparse until recently. Logos and designs have been common, but in a genre that generally relies on the coordination of its idols, it can be distracting for everyone to have a logo. As a result, virtually nobody has a logo on their jacket – unless it’s a hip hop style boy band which, again, pulls influence from African-American fashion.
ITZY, however, leans into the branding completely. Precisely 38 seconds into their first video, “Dalla Dalla”, we get a glimpse at a brand name. Again at 1:06, and again at 1:10 (this time more than one, as all five members are there). They’re peppered throughout the rest of the video. It’s usually a belt buckle, or something on the shirt. “Icy” goes all out – when we first see all five girls together, four of them have logos on their shirts – largely because they’re wearing athletic wear, something that has an abundance of logos. In one of the other dance sequences, the band has matching outfits, all from the same brand, with matching logos. But, it’s all very different pieces from this brand (Iceberg, in case you’re wondering.)
“Icy” is branded content but not in the way most people would understand it. There is a lot of promotion of different fashion labels – Versace, Iceberg, Chanel, Sportmax, DSquared, and many others – the promotion is centered around the members themselves and the labels do not get explicitly mentioned. The pieces are used to build the personalities of the members, not distract from them. Furthermore, these are all luxury brands, and I find it unlikely that most fans would have the means to buy them. Not implausible, but not likely, since most younger fans are probably going to be dependent on their parents and parents are not typically willing to spend that much. I find it much more likely that they’re used to depict ITZY as a band that’s indulgent and takes care of themselves, which is at the core of their message. Obviously, it’s unlikely that the members chose these outfits themselves since JYP probably has an army of stylists. But ITZY appears to be a brand promoting self-indulgence, self-care, and a general “Screw the rules” attitude.
In essence, they’re the embodiment of the “Treat Yo Self” principle.
When I was ten years old, I went to a birthday party. A bunch of my female classmates were there already, and they were being treated to manicures and makeovers. All of the girls went straight to picking their favorite colors for eyeshadow – glittery greens and blues that looked extremely gaudy. I ended up surprising the makeup artist when my fourth grade self asked for brown. I had been reading fashion magazines, and I had light olive skin, I knew that warmer colors looked good on me and my brown eyes would look even bigger if I had brown eyeshadow on. I was super proud of my choice, and the makeup artist seemed to like it too. I remember getting a bunch of blank stares from all my classmates, but in the end it didn’t matter. I looked damn good, and went home feeling like I made a good fashion choice.
I don’t wear a lot of makeup now, but I always take great pride in it. I love experimenting with tons of different colors, brands, etc. One of the reasons I love cosplay is because makeup is such a beautiful and powerful component to it. I used to spend a lot of time filming videos for theater in my high school, and my favorite thing to film was always the makeup room, because you could see a person transform into someone else.
Makeup is always interesting in K-Pop because it’s used by everyone. Men use it. Women use it. It can be over the top and it can be bareface, which means that you don’t want people to think you’re wearing anything, but secretly you are. It’s extremely transformative, but it affects how you see the idol. From G-Dragon’s glitter covered face in Bang Bang Bang, to his lip art in Fantastic Baby, to his sunken eyes in Coup D’Etat…basically, everything G-Dragon has done to his face is worth an article.
The point is, makeup is a transformative tool that no one should ever take for granted. So it’s interesting to me how so many female groups are minimalist in their makeup choices. They actively avoid overwhelming you, the audience. ITZY is no different in this respect, but I think it’s done for a different reason. Most girl groups go for bareface makeup with small bits of color. This is largely done to emphasize innocence. But ITZY is actively against that textbook innocent message. So what does the minimalist makeup do?
It’s actually pretty simple.
It makes them look good.
ITZY’s entire core is about making you feel good about yourself. Live vicariously through them and learn their lesson of not giving a f*** about what other people think about them. So when they wear makeup, they’re not doing it to be eye catching. They’re doing it to look good. Take, for instance, “Dalla Dalla”. Most of the eye shadow is smokey brown or black, but it’s not overt. It does just enough to highlight their eyes. Their lips are generally neutral tones, warmer glosses or nude lipstick, neither of which makes them look artificially pretty. There’s a little bit of shine/strobing but it’s actually very tastefully done.
It gives you a reason to pay attention to their face. Similarly, there is minimal hair dye in this – their hair is dark, either brown or black, which makes it look much more natural. The styles are varied, and there are colored accents, but it keeps them from feeling doctored.
The concept changes somewhat in “Icy”, but it still makes them look natural. The whole theme of “Icy” is inserting girls in situations that don’t match their personality types, so the makeup reflects that. As such, Ryujin has a cat eye going, because she is surrounded by prudes at her job interview. Lia has deep red lipstick because she’s wearing a formal outfit in a restaurant that is not. Yeji has glitter under her eyes, but her outfit is ostentatious and she’s in a grocery store, so it absolutely works. I’d also like to point out her aesthetic is incredibly similar to that of Jolyne from the Japanese manga Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – a character who exudes “I don’t give a crap what you think of me.”
Yuna has similar makeup to what she had in “Dalla Dalla”, but it’s actually much less overt – not smokey, a little more pink. Chaeryeong is wearing pretty much the same kind of makeup as in “Dalla Dalla” but like Yuna, not as overt. This largely has to do with the fact that she’s just casually on the street, looking cool and doing street performance – which is considered a natural, genuine form of art.
But the fact of the matter is the makeup never distracts from the members themselves. Because they make it work. They look great, it’s not done to make all the members look the same or be part of some major theme. It’s instead emphasizes their core message. I will say that the hair is a bit distracting, but what’s a summer K-Pop release without bleaching your hair.
ITZY’s makeup is all about making the members seem individual. They are a band, but they have lives, independent hobbies, and so on. JYP wants you to be aware of that. So, when it comes to the most beautiful expressive and beautiful of the human body, the face, they want you to see the members as beautiful on their own terms.
As evident by everything I’ve said so far, Itzy’s image revolves heavily on them seeming organic and unabridged. Nothing is done specifically to shock you as the viewer, nor is anything done to make them seem copy-pasted. Each member is unique. This is not just evident in their songs and videos, but in their fashion as well.
What this ultimately tells the fans who are watching is that it’s okay to be yourself. These idols are young adults in the modern age, where young people are struggling to find a balance between image and authenticity, being present online and being present in the real world. This is a loaded thought when it comes to K-Pop, an industry that is extremely manufactured – however, something about ITZY’s combination of fashion, music, and video work makes them feel more alive than many idol groups do.
ITZY wants its viewers – particularly its young female viewers – to feel heard. Having this seemingly random combination of logos, a relatively minimalist style of makeup, and a lack of cohesion between members makes them feel all the more like a unit. But it also makes us feel like we can relate to them. JYP Entertainment, as I’ve said before, has always been good about finding a hole in the market and filling it. When BTS went into a more pop direction, the hole they left behind for edgy social commentary got filled by Stray Kids. As Red Velvet has teetered the line between vibrant colors and vaguely disturbing imagery (“Peekaboo”), we got Twice, a band that uses its cheerfulness as a way to subvert expectations. And now we have ITZY, which fits both markets, but simultaneously represents the group that fits in neither.
So if you fit in ITZY’s demographic – even if you don’t – take some lessons from the way they dress. No I don’t mean dress in Versace all the time. But dress to make yourself feel good, and confident. If that means wearing overalls and sparkly makeup in the middle of a bustling city, go for it. If you don’t want to wear much makeup and dress in all black, do it. If you like dressing like a character from a manga, I am in full support. But the point is that you need to dress the way that makes you feel good, the way that makes you stand out. It’s not that wearing brands will make you stand out – your confidence will do that for you. So when you wake up tomorrow, make sure you feel good about yourself.
Or at least, dress like you’re Icy.