Seoul’s Dongmyo flea market: What I learned while hunting for vintage clothing
Just a little fashion nerdery
When I set out for Seoul's Dongmyo outdoor market at 8am on a chilly Sunday morning, all was tranquil and silent on the streets. I walked by empty street food stalls covered in clear tarpaulins — under which shiny, freshly-cleaned grills and kitchen utensils awaited a new day of cooking — and trucks unloading styrofoam crates overflowing with fresh seafood.
There's a ghostly quality to a city that's not quite woken up yet, and I suppose that ghosts (after a fashion) were what I was in pursuit of that morning. The objective of thrifting, speaking as a self-professed expert on the subject, is not to walk away with an armful of bargains, or indeed with anything at all. I thrift to connect with the past, and to understand society as it was or is becoming. I know, I know: "Pretentious much?"
Seriously, though. If you've the affinity for it, rummaging through the detritus of consumerism can show you — aesthetically, materially, and intrinsically — what the world once prized, what it still prizes, and the sheer magnitude of human desire. In a world where the scale of all we consume and create has destructively tipped the scales, that's powerful knowledge to have.
Thrifting tip #1: Expect nothing, but be open to everything.
SHINY... AND NEW?
As soon as I arrived at my destination, I was blinded by light. Stand after stand was covered in secondhand wristwatches, glassware, and electronic devices whose shiny surfaces reflected the sun. There were fun oddities mixed in, too, like realistic-fake Japanese food from restaurant displays. One table offered a tangled mass of around 100 pairs of spectacles, extracting a single pair from which looked like a nightmare.
I amused myself by roughly dating items, certain that some of the beat-up rice cookers and other appliances stretched back to at least the early '80s. Part of me felt sad, knowing that most of these quaint items had reached the end of their lifespan. They were destined for parts-salvaging or landfill, and were of limited value, even to a thrift addict like myself.
It's often said that nothing's new, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Everything was once new, especially the mundane objects from our past. In retrospect, products are frozen in the era from which they came; but when they first emerged, society's vision of the future was infused in their shapes, their colours, and even their physical composition.
Built-in obsolescence — i.e. things having an implied use-by date, even if they still function — has always been an unpleasant feature of capitalism. I comfort myself that some things are less ephemeral than others. Clothes, for example, have a knack for coming back into style every 20-odd years, and thus have more longevity than say, a busted cassette player. I was convinced there was beauty to be salvaged at Dongmyo market; a pleated chiffon day dress, perhaps, or a cotton cutwork blouse.
Then I got to the garment stalls, and my heart sank.
Thrifting tip #2: Purchase conscientiously. Ask yourself "do I really need this?" even if something costs only a dollar.
ON THE FLOOR
I have thrifted genuine — not reproduction — Art Deco jewellery from the side alleys of Buenos Aires's San Telmo market; borne incredulous eyebrow raises from cab drivers who took me to Pasar Senen and Metro Atom Plaza in Jakarta, where I walked away with a bagful of '70s day-dresses I wear all the time; and lovingly restored a rainbow of stinky '60s coats from the charity stores of London's outer boroughs. My neighbourhood drycleaner hated me for the odours I regularly dragged into his establishment.
Wherever I'm lucky enough to travel, flea markets and op shops are the itch I just need to scratch. Little in my previous experiences, though, could have prepared me for Dongmyo. I knew that clothes were tipped into inglorious floor piles, and it's not that they were monumentally huge or anything; what surprised me, instead, was the utter lack of reverence in the entire setup.
A blend of elderly regulars and curious visitors like myself poked through the ugly mounds, unable to discern much of anything without getting down on all fours. People trod on the piles and shifted clothes about with their feet, hoping to uncover something worth the effort of a crouching inspection. It was a depressing affair overall, but wait — what was that flash of lace I just saw?
I dove like a hawk, and emerged with a lace-collar mini dress between my talons. It was navy and printed with dainty cream flowers, had long sleeves, and buttoned up the back; with the help of my trusty measuring tape (an indispensable thrifting tool), I made sure that I could actually fit into it... Success! The dress looked extremely '90s, but peeking inside at the seam finishes and overall construction, I guessed that it was a retro-inspired piece from the early-to-mid 2000s instead.
As a designer by training whose work was mostly based in quality control, it's bittersweet to observe the gradual decline in clothing's quality from the '80s onwards. What I've found reliably distinguishes a sloppily made vintage garment (yes, those did exist) from a relatively new, fast fashion piece is the care label. In the past, they would have mostly been monolingual, signaling the clothing's intentionally narrow domestic audience; they may even have hinted at the local manufacture of the item. Nowadays, care labels are multilingual, a sign of the huge international market they're intended for.
These are enormous quantities of a single item we're talking, where correcting production mistakes that arise from human error is generally unfeasible. Economies of scale drive prices way down, and mass-market brands push the poorly made clothing onto the shop floor anyway. They hope, not unreasonably, that consumers will overlook flaws because of items' rock-bottom price tags and trendy-but-short lifespan.
Fast fashion is a vicious cycle that has desensitized consumers to proper construction, and skewed our perceptions of how much clothing should cost. Having said that, I don't see it as the root of 'the problem'. Fast fashion is merely a symptom of the times we live in, where most of us in the developed world are so removed from the making of our food, technology, and clothing, that the pollution and exploitation behind them is hard — despite our best intentions — to grasp as anything more than abstract.
Thrifting tip #3: Always have a tape measure handy; if you can't remember your measurements, mark them on the tape with a sharpie before you hit the shops.
GETTING TO WORK
I asked the elderly gentleman running the stall how much the dress cost. Unable to speak English, he fished out the equivalent sum from his wallet and stretched his palm out to me: approximately two Singaporean dollars. I paid him, popped the frock in my tote bag, and went on my way. After about half an hour of rummaging at other stalls, I'd found a couple of interesting items that just weren't right for me. Chief among them a too-tiny, pristine pair of lilac-satin, Gianni-era Versace pumps. A subsequent search on 1stDibs would reveal pairs of similar origin selling for over a thousand dollars; if there was ever proof that the medium mattered as much as the message (or, in this case, the product), the presence of such a gem in less-than-glamorous surroundings was it.
It was time to move on.
Near the stalls and on adjacent streets, there were several stores that also sold secondhand clothing. Their proximity to the floor piles was no coincidence; it's likely that the majority went sourcing from the same depressing heaps I'd abandoned earlier. But these were 'edited' selections, which were displayed more appealingly, and consequently commanded higher prices. I was particularly drawn to a store that was filled with vintage work-wear, which I've seldom had the chance to examine up-close.
You can discern a lot about a location's economic history from its vintage offerings. In Singapore, for example, it's likely that most boiler suits are imported, given our limited local industries. South Korea, meanwhile, has enjoyed several decades as a world-class shipbuilder and automobile manufacturer, accounting for the racks and racks of authentic industrial gear that I gleefully perused. Having always secretly desired a work-wear jumpsuit — although I mostly live in frilly skirts and blouses — I acquired an appealing moss green number for close to forty Singaporean dollars, which I've now worn on two occasions, ironically, with heeled sandals and ballet flats.
The further I wandered from the main flea market strip, the more specific each vendor's wares became. One specialised in vintage Burberry and London Fog rainwear, while another traded almost exclusively in biker and American military gear, a clear sign of USA's long military presence on the Korean peninsula.
At the latter, a well-preserved, full-body leather motorcycle suit from the '50s featured an astonishing level of detail, while a battered pair of aviator's trousers from WWII blew my mind; it was padded and must have weighed close to 10 kilos, had two zips running all the way up the front legs which function I still don't understand, and came with elasticated suspenders that remained surprisingly springy after decades of load-bearing. Neither of these extraordinary pieces had a place in my wardrobe, but their stall-keepers generously allowed me to photograph them — especially their tags — for research.
Thrifting tip #4: Take photos (but ask for permission first), especially labels of items that you liked, but weren't right for you. Research/window-shopping elsewhere may yield a good purchase.
A LAST LOOK BACK
Lest you think that my thrifting habits are dispassionate and purely analytical, rest assured that there's an emotional dimension to the experience as well. You get hit hard with the feels when you realise that your own childhood has crossed over the Great Vintage Rainbow Bridge.
In a cramped little shop, the sight of one cropped sleeve, zippered 2000s jacket literally made me tear up. It was hopelessly dated, and it (plus others of its kind) have consequently vanished from the contemporary world. But in their heyday, there were hundreds of them, and together they made up my memories of poring over glossy magazines and daydreaming of the fashion industry as it was presented in Ugly Betty.
That time (or any past time, really) as we knew it is gone now. Recreations may imitate, but never replicate the moment. One could choose to look upon this fact wistfully, or one could instead appreciate the ephemerality of everything and every thing, then make a choice to live in the moment more fully. And after a morning of thrifting fun, what I looked forward to the most was lunch. My footsteps began to follow the faint aroma of fried chicken...
Buro 24/7 Selection