What is Kimbap Fashion?

Dozens of North and South Korean athletes walk together at the 2018 Olympics' opening ceremony, wearing the same long white padded jackets as they wave under a white flag signifying a unified Korea.
Joint Korean Olympic Team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Image from VOA News

If you watched the 2018 Olympics in South Korea,* you might not have noticed what everyone was wearing, let alone known that there’s a popular slang term for it. Because puffy winter jackets don’t tend to stand out when everyone is wearing them. Especially when it’s really, really cold. But if you go back and watch old clips of the 2018 Olympics on YouTube, suddenly you’ll see them. You’ll see them everywhere. 

The padded jacket invasion.

That’s right — padded jackets, also called 패딩 in Korean, have turned into something else entirely: 김밥패딩 (kim-bap pae-ding) or 김밥패션 (kim-bap pae-shyun).

Instagram is brimming with hashtags that refer to this, but why? Why is everyone wearing this fashion, and why are they calling it kimbap?

It makes sense when you look at pictures. If you’re at all familiar with the popular snack or meal that fills refrigerated shelves at Korean convenience stores and that hikers carry with them into the mountains (along with some makgeolli, or fermented Korean rice wine, and I can vouch from firsthand experience that nothing is yummier at the top of a mountain than this Korean convention), you’ll immediately draw the same conclusion that many Koreans have; when you wear a padded jacket, you look like a giant human kimbap.

Kimbap has a center filled with a variety of delicious ingredients like pickled yellow radish, carrots, spinach, egg, beef, tuna, burdock root, and more (though not necessarily all of those in the same roll), rolled up in warm rice, and wrapped in dried seaweed. You could compare it to Japanese sushi, but besides the fact that both are based on rolls of rice and seaweed and absolutely delicious, there isn’t much else that’s similar.

Just as cylindrical kimbap is a staple in a Korean convenience store (it also comes in triangle shapes, but we’ll ignore that since we’re talking about kimbap padding and humans don’t usually come in triangle shapes) and in kids’ lunches when they go on field trips, padding, or padded jackets, are a critical staple in current fashion in Korea. But they’re exorbitantly expensive, ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on which high-end brand you sell your soul and firstborn child to (at least it saves you money on clothing one less human being like kimbap).

As someone from a very cold hometown with many winter jackets, I can tell you that higher price tags don’t always equate to a significantly warmer winter experience.

That price is worth it to many people, however, because it’s not really about being warm and functional. It’s about fitting in. No one wants to be the one kid (or the parent of a kid) who doesn’t have what every other classmate has. No one wants to look cheap or unfashionable.

On the other hand, some people think the trend isn’t worth the cost or burden. After all, in a few years — or even a few months, something else is likely to replace kimbap padding. And while kimbap is only fifty cents to a few bucks for a roll, the padded jackets are far too expensive for many consumers to purchase for a single season.

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*That’s right. Even though, as I write this in December 2018, it feels like the Olympics in South Korea happened a couple years ago, the Pyeongchang Olympics happened this year. That’s how long this year has felt — at least for me. Are you ready for 2019? 

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