Spring Fashion Hurdle: The Korean Cockatoo T-Shirt Dress

by Brittani Sonnenberg

Every six months or so, I go to Hong Kong for work. I love these trips because I grew up in Shanghai and Singapore; ducking through narrow streets and crowded markets makes me feel at home. There’s one tiny clothes shop in Sai Ying Pun, surrounded by butchers and tire shops, that I visit religiously, even though I’ve never written down the address, so I always have to wander the neighborhood for a good half hour before I stumble upon it again.

This last time, the shopkeeper, a quiet, bespectacled Chinese woman in her late forties, wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, informed me that Korean fashion is now where it’s at. She pointed at several of the shirts I had in my hand. “Great quality,” she said. “Everyone wants to wear Korean designers now.”

From what I saw in that shop and in similar establishments, Korean fashion “now” involves a lot of what can best be summed up as the T-shirt dress.1 It’s a look I would have appreciated being “in” when I was 13 in Shanghai, where I went around in a large, shapeless green sweatshirt that came down past my thighs. Perhaps as a way to indulge that old yearning, I purchased a couple of these T-shirt dresses. One featured an enormous cockatoo surrounded by roses and peonies. The other was a nauseating ochre hue with the inarguable statement “Miniskirts have been in fashion for the past few years” in no-nonsense font across the front.

(I also purchased a pair of black floral jeggings with rhinestone-studded pockets, luckily available in my American-woman size, XXXL: that translates to an 8 in the States.)

The “Miniskirts” T-shirt dress was a smirk purchase, the kind of thing you buy in Hong Kong because it’s so damn goofy. But I was thrilled about my cockatoo T-shirt dress, which felt like an intriguing new look. I live in Berlin, where fashion is extremely understated and shruggy: very “Yeah,” (shrug) “I just threw this on.” Munich and Hamburg are where Germans dress up, in pearls and riding boots; Berliners are the kids at the back of the bus who couldn’t care less. But I care, at least sometimes. I emerged from my green sweatshirt chrysalis in college and now I like choosing outfits.

But the first night I attempted to put on the cockatoo to go out, I realized the inherent challenge of the T-shirt dress: it is basically a nightshirt, and the distinctions between the two clothing genres are pure semantics. Especially when your T-shirt dress is essentially a large, white, cotton T-shirt, like something made by Hanes. And who’s to say a blissful cockatoo, surrounded by roses, wouldn’t make for a lovely nightshirt motif? I tried to pair it with skirts, leggings, and sweaters–anything that would signify dressiness. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the only way to wear the T-shirt dress was to admit to myself that I was wearing a nightshirt with a large cockatoo on it. That was just my outfit.

I had come to this type of realization once before, in tenth grade, when I came back from the States to Singapore, and had to embrace the year-long nickname of “Moonboots” after I went to my high school armed with fresh, white basketball shoes that I thought even cooler than the de facto black hi-tops. It was like that when I arrived at the restaurant in my cockatoo T-shirt dress and my friend gave me a hug and said, kindly: “Nice shirt. You’re bringing grunge back!” before we sat down. I didn’t correct her and point out that technically, the shirt was a dress. A T-shirt dress. What would have been the point?

And anyway, just ask Rihanna: fashion right now is all about blurring the lines between inner and outerwear. Witness her recent attire at the MTV Music Awards. Sure, you could call it a bathrobe. Or, you could call it what I call my cockatoo T-shirt dress: a really elegant choice for a night out, something perfect for the red carpet, or any occasion at all.

[1] Disclaimer: I’m a fiction writer, not a fashion expert, so by “Korean fashion now” I’m only referring to the Korean attire I saw on sale in several shops in Hong Kong, not what’s happening on Seoul’s runways. Although this and this shot on Sol-Sol, a Seoul Streetwear tumblr, seem to give some credence to my theory, as does this Steve and Yoni look at a recent Seoul Fashion Week show. Or the hockey jersey/ tacky tourist T-shirt dresses sported by two members of the Korean pop sensation 2NE1.

Brittani Sonnenberg is a writer based in Berlin. Her debut novel, Home Leave, is forthcoming this June from Grand Central.