12 October 2008

Restrooms and fashion

As I continue to travel all over Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea, one thing I notice is the presence of squat toilets. And they remind me of a number of things, some of them relevant to Sarah. (I actually thought of all this while responding to a comment on Christy's Art Blog.)

Before the advent of modern plumbing, all toilets in Korea were no more than a pit with a holed wooden cover. The wood could be rotten, so occasionally the cover collapsed, and whoever was answering the call of nature above would've fallen into the pool of crap below. The crap would've been carried away periodically by slaves on back carriers, but aside from that, no other maintenance was ever present. Extremely unsanitary and smelly.

Fortunately, those days are gone, and all toilets today flush, and while most toilets are of the sit-down type, some still require squatting. Sarah will need adjusting to these toilets, as her assignments send her to various locales not only in Asia, but also in Europe, where some squat toilets may be present as well.

The squat toilet has a flap toward its front, so that the user's privacy and dignity would be protected - especially important in places like China, where neighborhood communal toilets have no partitions! Fortunately, here in South Korea, all partitions are very good, so even an accidental glimpse of a neighbor's privates will not be possible; this is a good thing, because male peeping toms are a major problem in women's toilets here (thank the rather conservative, oppressive sex culture here). In fact, all digital cameras sold in South Korea are required to make a clicking sound when taking a photo, to prevent peeping toms. At least Sarah will be able to answer the call of nature in relative peace, with little fear of anyone finding out about her "big clit."

Squatting does require spreading one's legs apart, however, and Sarah's cheaper hosiery from the US may not be able to survive. This may explain why South Korean hosiery/legwear, while being even cheaper, is of such great quality (I know it, I've bought excellent South Korean hosiery from US based vendors, though at inflated American prices); excellent elasticity is a must in order to survive the squat toilets. It's possible to buy a pair of the best tights of one's life, for a mere 3,000 won (USD $3), all over Seoul. Most Seoul fashionistas buy many pairs, then wear the ones that fit their current moods the best. For many women, the main means of expressing one's individuality is through hosiery choices. Tights are normal footed, stirrup cutouts (extremely popular), or footless (leggings) of various lengths; socks of various lengths are also available. All of them come in solids, textures, patterns, and lots of colors.

Sarah's very tall height and fairly large frame, unusual here, will mean that she will have to limit herself to the longest leggings possible; even then, they'll probably become capris once she wears them. Nevertheless, she'll be very ecstatic to have them, for their durability and elasticity as well as unbelievably low price; I think she'll pick up the entire color spectrum.

Another practical consideration for squat toilets is ensuring that one's clothes do not drag on the floor (or even worse, the toilet itself) while squatting. This will rule out floor-grazing skirts. In fact, in conjunction with hosiery, many women sport Ally McBeal miniskirts or minidresses, which are least likely to drag on the floor, and the easiest to roll up. Some go a step further, omit a bottom piece altogether, and protect their dignity with only a tunic top long enough to barely hit the upper thigh. Back in the 1960s, here in Seoul (under a military dictatorship at the time), the police carried around rulers, so that they could measure women's hemlines and cite them for too-short skirts; that's no longer the case. In fact, often I find myself avoiding looking ahead/up on up staircases when leaving the subway or elsewhere, since if I do look up, I am guaranteed to be flashed by someone.

Menswear-inspired button-down tunic shirts work especially well with hosiery, as they have a subliminal message that says "I've just gotten out of my boyfriend's bed, and I borrowed his shirt for today." It's a bit of a shocking statement in this traditionally conservative society - all the more reason why it's so popular. Despite being hopeless lesbians, both Sarah and I love that look (especially the combination of a white shirt and black tights), and I am known to wear it often back home. For Sarah, however, she'll have to limit her tunic shirt shopping to stateside; again, due to her unusual height and size, she will have hard time finding something here that fits, unless she wants to flash the entire city. In fact, she may keep a few of Sanford's old shirts for this purpose, for a different take on a "borrowed" men's shirt.

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