How ‘Squid Game’ Reflects South Korean Culture and History

“Many things in hallyu could be said to come from a certain type of outsider trying to do something different,” Ms. Kim said. She noted that Mr. Hwang, the show’s creator, began developing the idea for “Squid Game” more than 10 years ago and told the Hollywood Reporter (along with other outlets) that he lost six teeth from the stress of filming it. She added that he is a prime example of a “deok-hu” — the Korean slang equivalent of the Japanese word “otaku,” or niche pop culture obsessive — who has brought immeasurable visibility to the “hallyu” industry.

Mr. Hwang’s vivid, if unorthodox, approach has proved to be a success. Combining childhood nostalgia, economic disparity and high-stakes action, “Squid Game” is at its heart a deeply relatable, human tale about adversity that has resonated with viewers around the world.

“There’s often something sinister about Korean shows and films,” said Jiminie Ha, a designer in New York. And fashion has been a hallmark of K-dramas, especially when they’re undercutting a tragic or dramatic scene about to take place.

Recent examples include the action film “The Villainess,” in which the actress Kim Ok-bin, playing an assassin disguised as a bride in a flowing white gown, is ordered to kill an ex-lover; or the protagonist of the mafia-inspired series “Vincenzo,” played by Song Joong-ki, an adoptee of an Italian family who becomes a consigliere and wears silk pajamas, custom suits and luxury watches.

Many K-dramas expertly combine references to globally popular shows, and the overt references to films in “Squid Game,” including “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale,” are no secret, either.

“Koreans know how to adopt a style, and then do it even better,” Ms. Ha said. What makes the show’s costuming stand apart, she added — aside from its airtight production design pairing pastel-colored playground sets with outré violence as a tool of high contrast — is that the outfits are intentionally drab: “It’s so anti-high fashion.”

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