“Squid Game,” the dystopian South Korean drama that is poised to become Netflix’s most-watched show, is, at first glance, an unlikely new entrant into the fashion-tainment complex.
Unlike previous hits for the streaming giant, such as “Bridgerton” and “The Queen’s Gambit,” it is not full of characters wearing glamorous and ever-changing wardrobes steeped in romance and historicism, the kind that inspire in viewers a deep, pining yen for an empire waist frock or a checkerboard shift.
And unlike other survivor-take-all films such as “The Hunger Games” (which is often cited as a point of comparison for “Squid Game”), it is not full of characters wearing cool, futuristic bodysuits as they duck and weave their way through life-threatening situations.
Rather, “Squid Game” is full of players wearing banal teal-green tracksuits, generally speckled with blood and dirt, as they are forced to play children’s games to the death in a drive to pay off their debts. Referees in hot pink boiler suits and black masks watch the spectacle (and shoot anyone who breaks the rules of the game). Sometimes the players take off their zip-up sweatshirts to reveal white baseball shirts bearing matching teal sleeves and the identifying number they have been given instead of a name. It’s the normcore-ization of dystopia.
That the black masks and stained sweats shot almost immediately to the top of many people’s Halloween costume list isn’t so surprising. But the fact that the signature outfits and gear of “Squid Game” are proving trendy in the style sense seems a little harder to explain.
According to a spokeswoman for Lyst, the shopping platform, “global searches for retro-inspired tracksuits, white slip-on sneakers, red boiler suits and white numbered T-shirts have all spiked.” Interest in tracksuits has nearly doubled since the series debuted in mid-September, she said, and searches for white sneakers are up by 145 percent, with Vans getting a special boost in the last week.
Netflix itself has a dedicated “Squid Game” collection in its online store offering hoodies and T-shirts in the show’s trademark colors and shapes. And Grazia US, inspired by the show, recently published a roundup of items titled “the ‘Squid Game’ Tracksuit … but Make It Fashion.” Perhaps to that end, Louis Vuitton signed HoYeon Jung, the female star of “Squid Game” as a brand ambassador almost as soon as the show was released. (Though she is also a model, the Vuitton contract vaults her into the international big leagues.)
Yup: They’re all banking on the idea people really want to get the look.
So consider, for a moment, that look. Like Netflix’s other widely watched (and merched) series, “Squid Game” offers a quick-hit of endorphin-spiking escapism framed in such luscious imagery it imprints almost immediately on the retinas.
The complex where the games take place is saturated in the candy colors of childhood, with sets that resemble playgrounds and giant plastic castles. Dead players are carted off in black coffins tied with giant rosy bows. And the Play-Doh green vs. pink uniforms of the two primary social groups have the absolute clarity of us vs. them.
For much of the series the only character that stands out from either group is the Front Man — the organizer — who wears a gunmetal gray, exactingly tailored coat and trousers with a hood (rather than any old hoodie) and a sculpted face mask that makes him look like a sort of corporate Darth Vader. Which, given that the show is about economic disparity, makes a lot of sense.
It also highlights the way the clothes play with old notions of class structure, and who wears what, heroizing the least fancy garments onscreen and turning the ornate brocade bathrobes of the rich voyeurs who come to revel in the desperation of the game players into shorthand for decadence and moral bankruptcy.
After all — who can’t relate to a tracksuit? Not just because they wore one once upon a time (anyone who was on a school sports team probably did; ditto anyone who had a moment with Juicy Couture), but because of what has happened over the last year.
Tracksuits have become almost a universal reference point after months of isolation. So have slip-on shoes. By opting for the costumes of the everyday, “Squid Game” upped the shock value and humanized it at the same time.
It is why, even as the final three players change into black tie for a last meal — and later, the winner dons a nicely tailored blue suit — the teal uniform of the games remain seared in our memory. They’ve gone beyond basic.
It is proof positive, if any were needed, that our changed viewing habits are likewise altering not just what we watch and how, but what we wear. A new Louis Vuitton tracksuit is really not that hard to imagine. (Balenciaga and Celine already have their own.)
Call it the trickle-pixel theory: Mass media consumption begets mass outfit obsession. In the cutthroat game of fashion, it’s increasingly a way to win.