Compelling mature female characters in television are hard to find. It’s no great secret that actresses struggle to land fascinating roles as they age. If you’re like me and you use television as a surrogate personal stylist, it can be frustrating when women characters of a certain age are dressed to fade into the background.
However, unlike in most American TV shows, where older women are stuck with pantsuits and no-nonsense expressions, in Korean dramas, every woman can be a fashionista, even if she’s over 70. Some of the highest-rated Korean dramas in recent memory, such as Sky Castle, The World of the Married, and Penthouse, have featured women in their 40s and 50s donning envy-inducing outfits that have calmed the anxieties stoked in me by ageist-sexist discourse. You know, the kind that claims a woman’s value is linked to her youth and beauty and that women over 35 are invisible. Uh, not anymore, not if you’re noticing the meteoric rise of mature women-centric K-dramas.
Those claims that a woman’s value is linked to her youth? Uh, not anymore, not if you’re noticing the meteoric rise of mature women-centric Korean dramas.
The ratings for these shows reflect the demographics of the viewership in South Korea. Most nationwide K-drama watchers are women, and the success of these dramas testifies to their appeal. In these dramas, everything is served with flair: the storylines, the dialogues, the fashion. Mature women giving us eye candy is not only fun, it’s inspiring. I often find myself bookmarking outfits later, paying attention to the details that I hope to recreate.
Penthouse, that drama featuring crazy rich people doing outrageous (and admittedly extremely questionable) things, was so popular, its second season was slated for release a mere two months after the end of the first. Sequel seasons are a rarity in Korea, so in anticipation of the feast of fashionable looks from Penthouse II, I present style inspo for mature women I’ve gleaned from these Korean dramas. I’ve also broken down major fashion trends I’ve noticed because I like to data-fy my K-drama addiction, er, hobby.
The Details Are in the Dress
The dresses in these dramas often have details and textures that elevate them above the ordinary. Take Kim So-yeon’s black dress in Penthouse. It seems like a fairly standard LBD, but its chiffon-y neck ribbon and button detailing add a flirtatious twist to the design.
So-yeon’s neighbor, Shim Su-Ryeon (played by Lee Ji-ah), at first appears naïve and sweet—the “perfect” wife—set off by her feminine, almost lingerie-like dresses. But as she becomes more determined to find her daughter’s murderer, she wears a parade of trench coat dresses, signifying to the viewers her secret ambitions and character growth.
Dresses are also wielded to seduce and conquer. Fellow Penthouse resident Eugene wears a sexy black dress to win her dubious employer’s trust, and So-yeon’s choice of deep colors and animal prints hints at her ambitions to stay at the top of the Penthouse hierarchy.
A favorite phrase in Korean fashion is “key point” (or “point”), which references a detail of the garment that renders it unique or special. Eugene’s white work blouse, seen here, is my favorite look in the drama because of how simple and unique it is. Close examination reveals the lacy camisole attached to her blouse, which instantly takes her look up a few notches.
Similarly, Lee Ji-ah’s otherwise ordinary olive button-down shirt is elevated with cape-like sleeves, which instantly makes her work-friendly look fashion.
Meanwhile, the bow at the back of Ji Sun-woo’s blouse in The World of the Married adds an unexpected element to her otherwise work-appropriate blouse.
For these K-drama fashionistas, coats are not items to be shrugged on and off depending on the weather. They are an integral part of an entire ensemble. In Sky Castle, Han Seo-jin’s double-breasted white coat with balloon sleeves is both flattering and subtly indicative of her elite status, while her neighbor Jin Jin-hee’s colorful coat is reflective of her bright and outgoing personality.
Meanwhile, in The World of the Married, physician Ji Sun-woo possesses a whole gallery of coats that run the gamut from burnt orange leather to cozy woolly blue. Her coats alone do away with the myth that 50-year-olds can’t be fashion leaders.
Basics Don’t Have to Be Boring
Pantsuits and skirt-blouse combos are generally staples of mature style, yet Korean dramas feature intriguing takes on these classics. Kim So-yeon’s short double-breasted blazer over an accordion skirt with a veil of black net is an outfit that subtly screams slay. And Lee Ji-ah wears a pantsuit that is anything but boring, thanks to its sash, which makes it look both svelte and comfortable.
The shirt-blouse pairing is reflected in this still for Sky Castle where Lee Tae Ran’s character pairs a blazer over a shining skirt with a daring slit. Yoon Se-ah’s shirt-blouse combo is anything but boring with its oversized bow and chiffon-layered sleeves, while Han Seo-jin elevates the look with a cozy, shoulder-baring sweater over a pastel-hued accordion skirt.
Clean, Flawless Makeup
Among Korean makeup artists, a frequently heard word of praise when discussing makeup is “clean.” It refers to makeup that’s both flawless and neat, which enhances natural beauty rather than (literally) overshadowing it. Makeup allows these mature women actresses to play to their character’s personalities. Oh Na-ra’s character frequently wears bright lipstick that balances between restraint and eye-popping.
Eugene’s eyeliner is applied so precisely, it looks almost tattooed on, while her pink lip tint complements her skin tone.
Lee Ji-ah’s innocent and feminine character appears to wear very little makeup, save for artful uses of highlighter, almost imperceptible eyeshadow, traces of glimmer underneath her eyes, and MLBB lip tint.
And lest you think that such looks are effortless, think again. Lee Ji-ah’s makeup artist reveals the time and effort—the literal art—that went into this “natural” look.
In contrast, to Lee Ji-ah’s angelic appearance, Kim So-yeon’s “femme fatale” character wields makeup as a standard weapon in her badass arsenal. Through her scenes she wears a gradient eyeshadow (layering eyeshadows so they deepen and widen the eyes) and rich red-brown to plum lip shades that complement her warmer skin tone.
Watching these K-dramas reminded me how empowering it is when mature women are featured as fascinating, interesting, and beautiful characters. And with the makeup, style, and storylines of these hit Korean dramas, there’s no doubt that mature women will continue to feature prominently in the entertainment scene.