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Netflix Original’ Squid Game’ has become the streaming service’s most successful show. And in doing so, the violent swipe at capitalism has entered the global cultural consciousness with a full-on frontal lobe onslaught. Its influence is also rippling through fashion spheres, so what is behind its retro-utilitarian costuming?

Not since the 1990s have tracksuits been so hot. Not since the 1970s have they been so easy to wear. Not since the 1980s have playground games been so rediscovered. Not since the (long way from over still) global pandemic has survivalist chic been so utterly on top of us.

Age-old children’s books and vintage magazines are inspiring wardrobes on the back of the dystopian K-drama’s worldwide insurgence. Once the number of people who can be counted as ‘yet to watch’ dwindles into single figures, where will the Squid Game fashion influence head next? After all, how far can the trend for flannelette tracksuits, boiler suits, plain tees and white slip-on sneakers really stretch?

Normcore intertwined with individual backstories

The normcore trend has been with us for some time now. The term for a unisex, slouchy, comfortable look originated over a decade ago and until Squid Game could never mean anything more. How could it? How else can you twist a t-shirt, a pair of sneakers, and a button-down?

But Squid Game takes normcore into prison apparel and spins it into something far darker and more androgynous and classless still. We learn that the participants in the tournament come from all walks of life. There is the migrant factory worker, the doctor, the gang member, the investment banker, and so on.

Each is assigned a number and a standard-issue teal tracksuit. Intertwined in the cast of characters are those with something more to hide and a murderous evil intent that may even be beyond that of the hot pink-suited boiler suit-clad guards. Normcore meets hardcore with a dystopian underbelly. We can see themes of this continuing as a popular style for a time to come.

The meaning of colour in Squid Game

The choice of teal and white for the participants in Squid Game and the hot-pink and black for the guards is no coincidence. The show’s art director, Chae Kyung-sung, revealed that they decided the colours upon very early to amplify a clear distinction between the two groups.

Pink is a playful colour traditionally associated with feminine qualities. The guard’s uniform is hardly baby-pink, more a dark hue that hints at red and danger. The masked faces of the oppressors only heighten this paradox of childhood colour with a shade of tension. On the other side, teal is often a colour associated with peace and healing. This sure sharply contrasts with the contestants’ constant flirtation with death and destruction. But perhaps they will find peace and healing once the games are over. Will they?

So, what of the tracksuit?

The tracksuit plays a big role in Squid Game. There are 456 wearers at the outset, after all. The humble tracksuit has poked its head into the realms of mass, popular fashion but twice in its existence. It was in the mid-1970s that the monochromatic pant and jacket set entered the fashion consciousness. The stripes of Adidas, the kung-fu of Bruce Lee, and the increasingly-common colour TV sets of the day elevated the black-and-white athletics and soccer stars wearing sweat pants and zipped tops into brightly-hued sports apparel advertisers.

The fitness boom of the 1980s did little to wane the popularity of the tracksuit but the general style continued as it had in the previous decade. It was the rise of the shell suit in the 1990s that twisted trackie-style upside down. Baggie versions of shiny tracksuits now adorned the burgeoning hip-hop and rap artists of the day, with the likes of Jay-Z and Run DMC flirting with the mainstream.

Everyone wore tracksuits once upon a time. They remain retro, but they work on Squid Games. What else would contestants wear? Will we soon be returning to our Juicy Couture trackie days? We may well do. After months of isolation during the coronavirus crisis, the tracksuit has become an indoors reference point. As has the plain white sneaker of the slip-on variety – again worn by those playing ‘red light green light’ and ‘marbles’.

Squid Game style beyond the show

Certainly, the designers of Squid Games have given more than a nod to the pandemic and to lockdowns. They’ve encapsulated our real dystopian experiences and reflected them in their kids-game macabre version, hinting at what we’ve all been through. It’s compelling. The fashion-art infusion and the multi-coloured hit to the senses only serve to remind us that K-style is here to stay.

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Image by afra32 via Pixabay