I’ve noticed that a lot of times, Asian drama reviewers and recappers don’t really focus on clothes aside from the occasional comment about whether someone looks good or not, but good stylists in high-quality dramas usually are able to use the actors’ wardrobes to help tell the story and even provide some extra information about their characters. This is the first in a two-part series taking a look at what the clothing in Goblin tells us about the characters and the story.
Lots of spoilers ahead!
The rules around clothing in Goblin are established pretty much by the first episode: lots of neutral colours, like black, white, greys, browns, and the occasional muted blue for supernatural creatures like the goblin, the Grim Reapers, and ghosts.
This lady is already a ghost.
I like how it quietly supports the theme of how the goblin and the Grim Reapers (and ghosts) are just existing, like their lives–if you can call it that–are just pale imitations of what humans go through. The goblin can’t die, the Grim Reaper can’t live, and so they don’t have the exciting ups and downs of being human (although this human isn’t too fond of the ups and downs, just saying).
Let’s take a look at the goblin, Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) first. Gong Yoo generally looks amazing in this drama, even though I don’t generally approve of his various hairstyles. My god, his wig in ancient Goryeo! They just basically clipped a ponytail to the back of his head and prayed to Jesus for a miracle.
And I’m not too sure about that fluffy early-90s hairdo that he has the rest of the time. People my age went through that with the Four Heavenly Kings (Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai, Jacky Cheung to you fetuses who don’t know these HONG KONG GODS), and we still haven’t recovered.
I also don’t know why they dressed him like Assassin’s Creed in Goryeo but what do I know.
Goblin was filmed during winter, and Kim Shin is generally dressed in winter clothing that generally have lots of texture and look like they’re lovely to touch. His coats, in particular are quite thick and look cozy, almost like blankets. The goblin is a creature of fire, after all, and so it makes sense that he likes warm clothing and goblins also like to be comfortable. I’m also sure the fashion trends for 2017 had a lot to do with this, but my conspiracy theory is that they were also trying to deliberately make Kim Shin look a little more approachable because the character is a shitty asshole. I know I’m in the minority here, but without Gong Yoo’s charm and talent, Kim Shin is seriously a jackass–he’s the type of person who’ll let other people get hurt and die just so he can stand by his principles. That is the biggest bullshit ever, and I fucking hate people like that. You know, like when you see a beggar and someone is like “I don’t give money because it’s the principle.” MOTHERFUCKER, just admit you’re too fucking cheap to part with a dollar, principle my ass.
Whoosah, that got me a lot more excited than I expected. Anyway, Kim Shin’s clothes are also kind of the current-day version of the armour he used to wear in Goryeo as a general, they’re a kind of protection physically from the cold and emotionally from the constant pain of losing the people he loves. To also really drive home the protective armour, in the scene where Kim Shin and the Grim Reaper go to rescue Eun-Tak from a bunch of goons, Kim Shin’s military-style coat is a clever little reminder of his past as a general.
When Kim Shin has variations in his clothing (like more colours or patterns), it’s usually because he has encounters with humans–particularly his future bride, Eun-Tak (Kim Go-Eun) and Duk-Hwa (Yook Sung-Jae), his irrepressible chaebol heir “nephew,” who is my favourite character in the entire drama–and starts to feel part of human life again.
With Eun-Tak, as she and Kim Shin get to know each other, their clothes tend to have similar details or elements, if not at that moment, then the scene after, as if reminding us that these characters are really fated to be with each other. I’ll go into more detail with Eun-Tak and Duk-Hwa in part two but below is a typical example with similar coats but also showing that they have big differences to overcome (with the big contrast in colours underneath the coat).
Like Kim Shin, the Grim Reaper (Lee Dong-Wook) only dresses in neutral colours, in his case, mostly black and white although he does dip into grey and brown. Generally speaking, when he’s working, his silhouette is also slimmer and sharper than Kim Shin’s–which makes sense because he’s a stickler for rules, unlike Kim Shin, who is a habitual rule breaker, and because his line of work has to do with death, and there’s a certain formality to it.
And even his pajamas.
Here’s a couple of good comparisons between Kim Shin and the Grim Reaper, and you can see how the stylists manage to dress them so differently even within a similar colour palette. The Grim Reaper’s clothes are just generally slimmer and less slouchy.
And my favourite:
I should mention that Kim Shin observes the same formality when it comes to acknowledging death, and he dresses up in a slimmer silhouette, too. Here he is paying respects to his dead friends–buried in a park in Quebec City of all places. I couldn’t really believe it at first because there weren’t any random Québécois hissing câlice and tabarnak and complaining about people speaking English and saying “eh” with a French accent and being all je me souviens. Speaking of which, I once met this Québécois chick who had “Je me souviens” tattooed on her wrist, and she got all pissed off when I was like, but if you really remember, what do you need a tattoo for?
Back to the Grim Reaper, check out two very interesting things: his black hat that makes him invisible and his crown pin (which none of the other Grim Reapers share). The first thing that Kim Shin ever says to the Grim Reaper is how tacky his hat is, which must have made Koreans laugh because the folktales about Korean goblins have them wearing a hat that makes them invisible. In this case, the hat is a metaphor for avoiding the sins of his past life (Grim Reapers are the souls of people who committed heinous crimes in their past lives).
The crown pin, on the other hand, is the big clue to his past life as the Goryeo king, Wang Yeo. (As just a quick digression, Lee Dong-Wook is really good looking but as Wang Yeo, he is BLAZINGLY HOT.)
The Grim Reaper’s wardrobe starts to change when he grows to be friends (or, in my imagination, thanks to their amazing chemistry, lovers) with Kim Shin and meets Sunny (my beloved Yoo In-Na). The overall shape of his clothes loosen up and he even wears colours as he begins to to feel emotions .
Here, he’s wearing a beautiful indigo blue outfit for his first date with Sunny.
But then the date doesn’t go well, and look: Grim Reaper is wearing another colour because he feels vulnerable, ie. human. (Take note that Kim Shin is wearing a plaid blanket because he’s also feeling vulnerable (he’s sick) and that the blanket has a similar colour palette as the Grim Reaper’s sweater. Whenever characters are somehow bonding each other, their clothing usually have some kind of connection to each other.)
I also want to point out that all the different shades of red tend to show up on the supernatural creatures of the show. Whenever it does, it usually means that some kind of connection has been (or is being) made between the supernatural and humans. It’s the colour most closely linked to the fairy(?) grandmother, Magic Halmoni (the beautiful Lee El in terrible aging makeup that looks like rotten milk skin that you get from boiled milk) and Hot Magic Halmoni (Lee El freed from her milk skin torment). Since Magic Halmoni interferes a lot in human lives, she’s usually dressed in ahjumma red or, as Hot Magic Halmoni, in intense red.
It also shows up even in the casual humans that have some kind of interaction with Kim Shin. In this case, I think the colour has a deeper significance–vitality and humanity, two things that the goblin is drawn to, which is why he can’t resist getting involved with humans. There’s that bit of red in the sweater worn by the Korean adoptee from Quebec (I’m finding it funny that the stylist thinks that kids from Quebec dress like backup dancers in Oliver!, by the way). And notice how the grey shades in the kid’s outfit matches the grey of Kim Shin’s suit.
And of course, Eun-Tak’s mom, whose life is saved by Kim Shin, was wearing a red scarf when she got hit by a car, and there’s also all that blood on the snow, although it looks more like raspberry chocolate sauce. Also, who bleeds like that without any visible injuries? It’s like they slaughtered a goat, Jesus.
Green, on the other hand, seems to be the colour which pops up whenever love seems to be the main theme of a scene, whether sad, like Kim Shin mourning Eun-Tak…
Or happy, like Kin Shin finally reuniting with a reincarnated Eun-Tak…
Or the Grim Reaper and Sunny falling in love again in their next life…
Or even just Kim Shin feeling love and pride in Duk-Hwa.
See how Kim Shin is wearing casual green in contrast to the Grim Reaper’s all-white outfit as he drags him out for a “chance meeting” with Sunny–out of these two, Kim Shin is the one who’s becoming more integrated into the lives of the people he cares for.
It’s even tied into the green jade ring that Wang Yeo gives the original Sunny in their tragic past life, the ring that she dies wearing.
I also love the visual puns that match the light humour in the drama. When Kim Shin returns from limbo, he changes into this sweater with its dropped stitch detailing that’s a callback to how raggedy he was in limbo.
And the Grim Reaper wears a sweater whose ribbon detail in the back looks like a spine. I really want this.
Although there are a couple of outliers here and there, I’ve found that the themes and colours have generally held true. In part two, I’ll look at Eun-Tak’s semi-unrealistic clothing, explore the Korean drama chaebol heir looks that Duk-Hwa wear, admire Sunny’s wardrobe, and show how clothing creates connections between characters.
And here’s Part 2!