Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul

Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul


Reviewed by Laam Hae

First Published:

16 Sep 2022, 9:45 am


Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul

Seo Young Park, Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021; 186 pp.: ISBN 9781501754289, $26.95 (pbk)


The so-called fast fashion industry has arisen through the flexible, just-in-time system that characterises the neoliberal global regime. The sped-up transnational circuits of fast fashion require geographical nodes of production, consumption and logistical transmission. Dongdaemun marketplace in Seoul is such a node where hundreds of thousands of garments are produced daily, and new designs are put on the shelves in less than two days. Dongdaemun is also home to numerous shopping malls and wholesale shops open until dawn, making it a vibrant shoppers’ destination.

Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul, by Seo Young Park, weaves together stories of people in Dongdaemun’s fast fashion industry. The interlocutors in the book include seamstresses (mostly female), designers, wholesalers, retailers and labour activists. Engaging thoughtfully with these stories, Park reveals the dense texture of intimacy, affect and passion that run through these interlocutors’ lives, which illuminates the entangled time–space matrix of garment labour and the city.

Conversing with theories of affect and various urbanists’ works, Park raises thought-provoking questions, and disentangles them in eye-opening ways. She unsettles seemingly self-evident binaries and discourses, bringing to light unexpected relationalities among them. In Chapter 3, Park challenges the distinction between the creative and the imitative by interrogating a perception that Dongdaemun fashion, much of which imitates branded designs, is inauthentic and unrespectable. The narratives of Park’s interlocutors, however, reveal a different story, whereby what’s creative vis-à-vis imitative becomes elusive. Starting from the ‘sampling’ of branded clothes, Dongdaemun designers develop deep attachments to their clothes and infuse new ideas as the clothes go through phases with other actors such as fabric cutters and seamstresses. Calling this ‘passionate imitation’ (p. 84), Park prods us to ‘[shift] the focus of creativity from a regime of trademark to the rich interactions between people, ideas, and materials, generating divergences and improvisations’ (p. 96).

Park also challenges neo-developmentalist tropes that embrace a linear historical narrative, in which Seoul has supposedly moved from its industrial past to a post-industrial future wherein garment labour is vanishing (Chapter 5). Park’s stories show that, not only is garment manufacturing thriving in Dongdaemun, but most of it still operates in home-factories, which many consider ‘premodern’. For Park’s interlocutors, there has been no fundamental rupture between the past and present. The conditions of garment workers have remained precarious, and the tenor of labour activism in previous decades is consciously preserved in the present, inscribed in everyday spaces of Dongdaemun.

While the book engages with such interesting revelations, the discussion of ‘time’ and ‘speed’ is perhaps the most central thread of the book. The lived world of Dongdaemun bears witness to time and tempo not as abstract and singular, but subjectively experienced and heterogeneous. The multiple tempos co-pulsate in workshops, marketplaces, built environments, spaces of family and friendship and workers’ bodies, creating a kaleidoscopic cosmos.

The book also investigates two recent projects that attempted to build humane-paced alternatives to speed, though these ended up entrapped in the same developmentalist tempo. The first project involves one developed by MANI, a non-profit social enterprise established by former labour activists and funded by the government (Chapter 4). In this project, seamstresses make clothes at a slower pace, and through affective and deliberative relationships with other participating seamstresses. The programme was meant to help workers unlearn the tempo that they have internalised under fast fashion, find different meanings from their labour and establish craftsperson credentials. However, the project was mired in the contradiction of the ‘social fix’ associated with neoliberal governmentality (Miraftab, 2004). The project had to adjust its goals to the funding cycle of the government, which required social enterprise programmes to demonstrate quantifiable achievements within the cycle. As Park asserts, ‘[the] imposed and engineered slowness… needed to be expedited for the success of the project’ (p. 123), hence the irony.

The second project is about urban developments of a new paradigm, in which the past regime of compressed development is renounced and a creative, slow-paced and eco-friendly city is posited as the ideal (Chapter 5). New development spectacles emerging in Dongdaemun since the 2000s captured this paradigm, in such projects as the restoration of the long covered Cheonggye stream, the demolition of the overpass, and the construction of Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), a new aesthetic architecture designed by starchitect, Zaha Hadid. While these projects were promoted as models of new urbanism that embody a rupture with the past, most of these projects were completed in a compressed manner with massive displacement of existing residents and businesses. That is, the new urban still remained in the continuum of the developmentalist capitalist tempo.

Park also problematises the theory of fast production that defines it as inhumane, such as in ‘Marxist’ accounts. Park maintains that fast fashion is more than the ‘tyranny of abstracted time’ (p. 28) and subsumption of bodies and minds to the ruthless capitalist speed; rather, it is a spatio-temporal assemblage of affective and passionate practices and a thick, caring and intimate network. Park’s interlocutors feel attachment, excitement and gratification in their work, aspiring to be creative and entrepreneurial. This is why one of Park’s interlocutors feels conflicted when she is told that her love for her work and her aspiration to be productive and efficient would only deepen her own exploitation.

Undoubtedly, the working conditions of garment workers have remained poor. Under the enormous pressure for the rapid turnover that fast fashion demands, workers are subjected to back-breaking work for long periods of time, exposed to workplace hazards, all while being underpaid and enjoying few benefits. Such conditions, one would argue, should have bred workers’ discontent and the sorts of militant garment labour struggles that characterised Dongdaemun in the 1970s. However, labour activism has waned as labour relations have changed. Factories these days are small home factories (with five workers or fewer) and are dispersed. Workers are mostly ‘independent subcontractors’ (p. 117), displaying a growing sense of micro-entrepreneurship. The boundary between seamstresses, designers, retailers, wholesalers and factory owners is porous as one person ‘often move[s] from one role to another’ (p. 98). Moreover, the people in these different registers are connected through family or other intimate ties, and even seamstresses in home factories speak of the caring sisterhood they have forged with their factory owners. As such, determining which groups are exploiters or the exploited often proves elusive. That is, labour relations in Dongdaemun are complicated, and refuse to be entirely captured by conventional Marxist idioms of exploitation and alienation, according to Park. Along this line, Park calls for a new optic that foregrounds affective, experiential dimensions of fast fashion and takes into account various complexities.

While this is a valuable point, I wish Park had engaged more with the dialectics of the affective and the structural, and the entrepreneurial and the oppositional. To be fair, the structural and the oppositional are not completely absent in Park’s analysis, but the affective and the entrepreneurial carry more weight. Even though garment activism has waned since the 1980s, there have been resilient efforts to organise workers. What is heard in those campaigns is the demand for ‘fair wages’, ‘workers’ rights’ and ‘labour justice’, but these phrases are somewhat absent in Park’s stories. The question, then, is how we theorise desires and politics for labour justice alongside the creative and entrepreneurial desires of workers. Work is a creative activity for human beings, and it is in their everyday practices that people discover pleasure of labour and structural constraints that suppress or utilise their creativity for the purpose of value production. This point has been central to feminist Marxist work on social reproduction (e.g. Ferguson, 2016), which points out the open totality of capitalism where complex, affective and contradictory processes of everyday life have spawned transformative politics of labour.

Despite this gap, however, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in urban ethnography of labour, temporality, affect and spaces. This book offers fascinating stories and compelling analyses that illuminate affective and embodied time-geographies of labour. The range of interesting questions that Park poses also offer an excellent vantage point through which we de-essentialise conventional approaches to fast fashion and labour.


Ferguson S (2016) Intersectionality and social-reproduction feminisms: Toward an integrative ontology. Historical Materialism 24(2): 38–60.

Miraftab F (2004) Making neo-liberal governance: The disempowering work of empowerment. International Planning Studies 9(4): 239–259.


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