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An Introduction To Korea’s National Dress: Hanbok

By Oluwatomiwa Ogunniyi
07 August 2022   |   5:27 pm
If you are very familiar with Korean culture, then you wouldn’t be a stranger to South Korea’s traditional dress, which is gorgeous on its own with vibrant colours that all connect beautifully together. It is called hanbok in South Korea and Chosŏn-ot in North Korea. The term “hanbok” literally means “Korean clothing.” Traditionally, the basic…

Hanbok. Photo Madame de Pompadour

If you are very familiar with Korean culture, then you wouldn’t be a stranger to South Korea’s traditional dress, which is gorgeous on its own with vibrant colours that all connect beautifully together.

It is called hanbok in South Korea and Chosŏn-ot in North Korea. The term “hanbok” literally means “Korean clothing.” Traditionally, the basic structure of the ancient hanbok consisted of a jeogori (top), baji (pants), chima (skirt), and the po (coat).

These basic structural features of the hanbok remain unchanged to this day, however, the present-day hanbok is patterned after the hanbok worn in the Joseon dynasty. It was worn daily up until about a century ago and it remains an important part of Korean culture, with people wearing it on special occasions and holidays.

The Hanbok

It is classified according to gender, season and purposes; everyday dress, ceremonial dress and special dress. Ceremonial dresses are worn on formal occasions, including a child’s first birthday, a wedding, or a funeral. Special dresses are made for shamans and officials. It can also be classified according to social status because a person’s social position could be identified by the material of his or her hanbok. The upper classes wore closely woven ramie cloth or other high-grade lightweight materials; they were also dressed in plain and patterned silks while those in the working class were restricted to cotton.

The colours of the hanbok also symbolised social position and marital status. For example, bright colours are generally worn by children and muted hues are worn by middle-aged men and women. Unmarried women wore yellow jeogori and red chima while matrons wore green and red. However, the upper classes wore a variety of colours while the working class was required to wear white but dressed in shades of pale pink, light green, grey and charcoal on special occasions.

Another noticeable feature of hanbok is its vivid colours; traditional hanbok had vibrant hues that corresponded with the five elements of the yin-and-yang theory: white (metal), red (fire), blue (wood), black (water) and yellow (earth).

Patterns were embroidered on hanbok to represent the wishes of the wearer. Peonies on a wedding dress represented a wish for honour and wealth, lotus symbolised hope for nobility, and bats and pomegranates showed the desire for children. Dragons, phoenixes, cranes and tigers were only for royalty and high-ranking officials.

Accessories worn with the hanbok

Binyeo: Also known as Pinyeo, was a traditional ornamental hairpin and it had a different-shaped tip again depending on social status. To a woman, binyeo was an expression of chastity and decency.

Daenggi: This is a traditional Korean ribbon made of cloth to tie and to decorate braided hair.

Norigae: This was a typical traditional accessory for women and it was worn by all women, regardless of social ranks.

Danghye: Also known as Tanghye, were shoes for married women in the Joseon dynasty. They were decorated with trees bearing grapes, pomegranates, chrysanthemums, or peonies which were symbols of longevity. Danghye, for a woman in the royal family, were known as Kunghye and was usually patterned with flowers. Danghye, to an ordinary woman, was known as Onhye.

Modernisation of the Hanbok

Hanbok was worn daily up until just 100 years ago and was originally designed to facilitate ease of movement. But now, it is only worn on festive occasions or during special anniversaries. It is a formal dress and most Koreans keep one for special times in their life, such as weddings, Korean Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year, ancestral rites and dol (a child’s first birthday). The traditional hanbok was beautiful in its way, but the design has changed over the generations.

The Hanbok has undergone various changes throughout its history and, although the modern Hanbok does not express a person’s status or social position; it continues to evolve. These modern reinterpretations of the hanbok have continuously made appearances in the fashion world across the globe, including on catwalks of New York Fashion Week.

It has been re-popularised in modern fashion and contemporary brands have incorporated traditional designs in their upscale modern clothes. It is popular among Asian-American celebrities such as Lisa Ling and Eriko Lee Katayama and has also been worn by international celebrities such as Britney Spears and Jessica Alba, Venus Williams and Hines Ward. It was worn by Sandra Oh at the SAG Awards and by Sandra Oh’s mother, who made fashion history in 2018 for wearing a hanbok to the Emmy Awards.

In Korea, hanbok has become popular in street fashion and music videos; it has been worn by the prominent K-pop artists like Blackpink and BTS, Oh My Girl, VIXX, among others in their respective music videos. The South Korean government has supported the resurgence of interest in hanbok by sponsoring fashion designers while in Seoul, tourists wearing hanbok make their visit to the Five Grand Palaces free of charge.

Nevertheless, while it may continue to evolve, hanbok preserves a splendid cultural heritage that is not only cherished for its historical value and the preservation of Korean traditional clothes but also for its Korean artistic impact.

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