To say that Kpop is a recent trend is an understatement. The genre that has conquered the world and launched numerous musical prodigies has been around for quite a while. So much so that you can classify each act under their corresponding Kpop generations.
As of now, most aficionados will agree that the Kpop timeline can be divided into four generations. Some groups or soloists debuted right at the cusp of a new chapter in the industry. However, for a new generation to start, there are a few distinctive musical, visual, and conceptual resets. And most of the time, it is up to the fans to decide that a new era has commenced.
Fans will argue that a particular idol or group belongs to one generation or another. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll classify them according to popular opinion.
Without further ado, let’s get right to it!
- Kpop 1st Gen: H.O.T., Sechs Kies, S.E.S, BoA, Rain
- Kpop 2nd Gen: BIGBANG, Super Junior, SNSD, Wonder Girls, 2NE1
- Kpop 3rd Gen: EXO, Red Velvet, BTS, Twice, GOT7, BLACKPINK
- Kpop 4th Gen: Stray Kids, Loona, TXT, ITZY, aespa, ATEEZ
Kpop 1st Gen: H.O.T., Sechs Kies, S.E.S, BoA, Rain
Seo Taiji and The Boys undoubtedly changed the Korean music landscape. These pioneers paved the way for so many new acts that also experimented with sound and incorporated choreography into their performances.
For this first generation, which was heavily influenced by American pop and hip-hop, we can highlight H.O.T. They were the first idol boy group, and their sound catered not only to Korean but also Japanese audiences.
New entertainment agencies were also established, thus producing groups that could rival SM Entertainment. Some of these include Sechs Kies, S.E.S, and Fin.K.L.
Later on, just before the second generation, a new collection of acts that experimented with the root elements of Kpop emerged. The most popular were Shinhwa, god, BoA, and Rain. And following their debuts, the genre gained international attention in other East Asian countries. This is also when the term ‘hallyu’ (otherwise knows as the ‘Korean Wave’) was coined. As their popularity grew, the international press began to report on Korean idols – not only on their musical achievements but also their personal lives and, inherently, their style.
The fashion of the first Kpop generation
This first generation of Kpop was very heavily influenced by American pop culture, and their fashion showcased just that. Boy groups dressed very similar to their Western counterparts (like Backstreet Boyz or ‘N Sync). Loose clothes and baggy jeans were a staple of 90s fashion, and this style reflected the hip-hop scene flawlessly. But there were some particular occasions in which the styling would become more theatrical, through the wear of leather features and patterned shirts.
But towards the end of the era, some groups adopted a more ‘formal’ approach. Some acts would perform in coordinated suits and white button-ups. This is also the time when high school uniforms were first worn – a trend that has transcended all Kpop generations.
As for the female acts, they were more consistent in style. Girls favored lighter color palettes and would dress very similarly to the average person. Jean pants, jackets, hats, and basic tops were staples. As for hair and makeup, it also wasn’t nearly as dramatic as nowadays, with most keeping their hair black or brown.
The first generation of Kpop had a very attainable style, as most dressed quite casually and luxury brand styling had not come into play yet. Idols would keep a very natural look. Darker skin was not brightened for the sake of beauty, as those conventions were not yet popular. Most wouldn’t dye their hair and makeup was very minimal.
Kpop 2nd Gen: BIGBANG, Super Junior, SNSD, Wonder Girls, 2NE1
The second chapter for Kpop generations started in a period of economic turbulence in South Korea. Still, entertainment companies still managed to turn outstanding profits. So much so that Kpop became one of the most important industries in the country. And while the training system was indeed an innovation of the previous era, the marketing and entrepreneurial aspects of Kpop are novelties of this time.
Some of this generation’s biggest names include TVXQ, Super Junior, BIGBANG, Girl’s Generation, Wonder Girls, and 2NE1. All of these are still widely talked about by the Kpop community and served as an inspiration to the biggest Kpop stars of today. In fact, these were the first to cross intercontinental borders and the pioneers for Kpop ‘world tours’. Besides this, idols also first showed up on television shows, with some having their own reality programs and others starring on popular Kdramas of the time.
The success of these early acts pushed many more others to debut in this era. SHINee, Miss A, f(x), and SISTAR are only a few of the major household names that came later on in the second generation. Even though these new acts benefitted from the success of those that came before them, the bar was now set much higher. The fans craved new faces but simply singing and dancing started to not be enough.
Nearly at the very end, the exponential growth of Youtube globally facilitated audience reach. And those who were completely clueless about the genre were now introduced to Kpop through the massive hit that was ‘Gangnam Style’ by singer PSY. Since then, Kpop has never really been the same.
The fashion of the second Kpop generation
The second generation is when fashion and style became a quintessential element of Kpop. The new groups would come up with uniquely different concepts for each comeback. And as female groups and soloists started to rival their male counterparts on the charts, their fashion grew a lot too.
Some groups still took inspiration from 90s trends and other styles that were popular in America. But many started to play with different elements, taking away that ‘approachable’ visual that their predecessors had. Hairstyles, in particular, were now big and dramatic, even for the boys. And hip hop-inspired clothing wasn’t just limited to looser garments now, but also bandanas, chains, and darker palettes.
On the other end of the spectrum, female acts were now wearing more colorful pieces. Also, matching outfits were very popular at this time. If groups wouldn’t all wear the exact same thing, there would be very minimal differences, either a personalized color or a small alteration to the design.
The further we got into the era, the more unconventional the fashion became. There was a futuristic styling for many comebacks, as companies understood that originality and eccentricity captured people’s attention. We got to see new hair colors along with the (sometimes) extravagant hairstyles. Metallic wear, neon colors, and funky patterns were some of the most prominent features we can highlight at this point.
Kpop 3rd Gen: EXO, Red Velvet, BTS, Twice, GOT7, BLACKPINK
The first generation can be summed up by the implementation of an idol training system. The second introducer a larger scale monetization of these celebrities’ image. So naturally, the third generation of Kpop coincides with the expansion of the genre globally.
If idols were already marketed previously, now it was done more strategically, aiming for target audiences both domestically and internationally. The popularity of social networks and streaming platforms also contributed immensely to this expansion.
With this era, a new strategy of storytelling through music became quite popular. Fans were now drawn in by the different concepts and ‘universes’ created for the purpose of musical promotion. And the production quality improved immensely, thus allowing for better music videos, intricate choreographies, merch, and much more. The groups that better synthesize the transition into the third of the Kpop generations are EXO, BTS, VIXX, Red Velvet, TWICE, GOT7, BLACKPINK, and many others.
As a result of this global takeover and the growth of the industry, survival programs became quite popular as means to select a new debut lineup. The infamous PRODUCE 101 series (which has since been discredited) launched four successful new groups through that survival format. Most notably, we can highlight I.O.I and Wanna One. As the public got to accompany the challenges and evaluations of trainees since the beginning, there was a sense of attachment way before these groups’ debut.
The fashion of the third Kpop generation
With the new concepts and how groups now began debuting with many more members, Kpop fashion became an even more intrinsic part of the whole genre. People craved variety and novelty above all.
Many male groups who would first debut with an urban/hip-hop concept (like BTS and GOT7) would eventually change up their style multiple times. We also got to see some styles that combined formal and casual wear, like Winner, VIXX, or Block B.
Now more than ever before, companies prioritized fan service. Many fashion choices catered to the fans’ wishes. School uniforms weren’t much of an innovation, but fandoms have always appreciated that styling. There were new comeback concepts in which fashion played a major role, like girl crush, dark and mysterious, or young and cute.
Whereas the second generation favored a futuristic style, this one appreciated a good throwback moment. Many groups nodded to the fashion of 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, even if their current sound didn’t quite fit under the ‘retro’ category.
Kpop 4th Gen: Stray Kids, Loona, TXT, ITZY, aespa, ATEEZ
The fourth generation, which we are currently witnessing, only really started in the last couple of years. This is a time in which Kpop doesn’t belong to the Koreans anymore, and the industry aims to please foreign fans just as much as their own.
The most noteworthy names include Stray Kids, Loona, TXT, ITZY, aespa, and ATEEZ. All of these were successful right from (sometimes before) their debut, earning some the title of ‘monster rookies’.
This fresh new batch of idols is composed of individuals that devoted most of their teenage years to training and polishing their skills. Furthermore, the industry has evolved and grown immensely, which allowed for the best of the best to be recruited and coached in a now-perfected system.
In this way, there is some benefit in the sense that companies and the system are so well established. But debuting as a Kpop idol is also harder than never, as so many need to compete to make it to a debut lineup. Even those who debut may soon return to obscurity or inactivity – such are the downfalls of this fast-paced business.
The fashion of the fourth Kpop generation
Nowadays, luxury brands are ordinary features in Kpop music videos and performances. The globalization of the genre allowed for marketing strategies to go digital. And several major fashion houses have decided to offer brand ambassador deals to Kpop starlets.
This generation’s fashion is very much aligned with the newest trends in the west. Kpop stylists keep their eyes on the biggest designer houses, trying to secure collaborations, sponsorships, and the latest off-the-runway pieces for upcoming releases.
We see now more than ever before, Kpop groups’ members seem to have more freedom when it comes to individual style. Many get to work closely with stylists on their stage looks, having their personal taste represented as well.