Ajumma: noun, \’a joom ma\ A middle-aged Korean woman, typically identifiable by a mop of tightly curled short hair; loose, mismatched clothing; and a no-nonsense, out-of-my-way attitude.
Cartoon by Emiko Sawanobori.
For some time now, the stereotypical Korean ajumma has long been thought of as the antithesis of style — something, as a young Korean woman, you never wanted to become. In Korea, you see them hawking their wares from food carts or squatting on the side of the road, picking weeds. In Los Angeles, I’m being jostled left and right by all manner of ajumma in the produce section of the Korean market. Travel almost anywhere in the world and you’re likely to see a whole swarm of ajumma, dolled up in brightly colored North Face windbreakers and talking super loud over one another. It’s a cringe-worthy sight.
And yet, I’ve been noticing that ajumma style is slowly seeping out into the real world, the non-ajumma world of the rest of us. It’s something Valerie Luu and Andria Lo noticed about San Francisco’s Chinatown senior citizens. Whether intentional or not, it just goes to show — those ajummas might actually know a thing or two. Here, four ways the ajumma is the new style influencer.
1. Mismatched prints
Print clashing has been a thing on fashion runways for several years now. But when restaurateur Roy Choi took the mismatching prints ajummas are famous for wearing and turned it into the wait staff uniform for his new Korean restaurant Pot at The Line Hotel in Los Angeles, I knew the ajumma had reached icon status.
Mismatched prints from the fall/winter 2014 runways of, from left, Acne, Duro Olowu and Viktor & Rolf.
The mismatched prints worn by the hostess at Pot, left, and the wait staff, right, are styled after a typical ajumma, says restaurateur Roy Choi.
2. Sun Umbrellas
Sun umbrellas among the young are already a thing in China.
According to the Korean newspaper Joongang Daily, small sun umbrellas, or yangsan, have officially become a must-have among the younger set. In Korea, portable parasol sales jumped by 35 percent compared to last year, with almost half the purchasers in their 20s and 30s. It’s really no surprise, given the obsession with skincare in the country. It’s only a matter of time before this trend spreads to the States. After all, the ajumma has mostly bypassed the sun umbrella these days in favor of the …
3. Oversized Visor
I’ll admit — this one threw me for a loop. Sure, visors came down Marni’s spring 2014 runway, but they were so hyper-embellished and sleek, they were actually cute. Sure, golf superstar Michelle Wie wears amply sized visors on the green, but come on, she’s an athlete. Yeah, OK, so Donald Sterling ex V. Stiviano piqued curiosity about the welding mask-like visor that ajummas have worn for years. But I realized visors might actually become a thing when, on a business trip to Korea with other magazine editors, a prominent beauty editor of an American fashion magazine (she’s white) fell in love with the giant visor worn by some ajummas gardening on the side of the road. Oblivious to the so-not-chic connotations, she promptly declared it genius and went out and bought one to wear herself. It truly opened my eyes to the possibilities.
Visor chic at Marni’s spring 2014 show.
Oversized visors are already catching on in Asia.
V. Stiviano and the infamous visor.
4. Arm sleeves
This ajumma trend has been going on in Asia for some time, and not just among the ajummas. Young women in Asia now regularly wear arm sleeves to protect their skin while driving. But when I saw my Chinese Honduran sister-in-law casually put on fingerless gloves one morning before starting the car, I knew the trend had officially crossed over. Needless to say, I promptly dug out my fingerless gloves, circa 2004, and now keep them in the car. Just in case.
So, is the short, tight perm (or pamma in Korean) next? (It does look like an Asian ‘fro, after all.) I say, when it comes to the Korean ajumma, don’t count anything out.