Hanbok (한복), which itself can be translated as ‘Korean clothing’, are traditional outfits that used to be the everyday attire of those living in Old Korea.
Origins of the Hanbok
Almost all of the traditional hanbok seen today are fashioned in the style of the Joseon Dynasty, which began in the late 1300’s, but the birth of the hanbok dates back much earlier than that. Some researchers have found evidence of hanbok in murals within burial tombs dating back to the Goguryeo Era (37 BCE–668 CE) – over 1600 years ago! Other researchers can even trace hanbok styles through ancient Siberia and Mongolia.
Hanbok have always consisted of comfortable and easy to move in skirts (chima 치마), pants (baji 바지) and jackets (jeogori 저고리), which, through different era’s and fashion trends, have evolved into what is known as a typical hanbok.
During the beginning of Three Kingdoms era, both men and women wore short, tight fitting baji and waist-length jeogori. But towards the end of this period, women of higher class began wearing long chima and short jeogori that were tied around their waists, likewise, noblemen wore looser fitting pants, that were cinched at the ankles, and tunic-esque jackets that were also bound at the waist.
As time went on, the hanbok trend didn’t evolve too much from this baggy and comfortable style, which remained pretty much the same throughout the later eras of Silla and Baekje, the Joseon Dynasty and down to modern day Korea!
A Unique Hanbok Style
As the Joseon Era continued, women’s chima became fuller and their jeogori became shorter and more tight fitting, whereas the men’s paji and jacket didn’t change much during this time. Near the end of the Joseon Era, around the 18th century, the jacket of women’s hanbok became so short that it didn’t even cover their chests, so they began wearing a piece of fabric called heoritti (허리띠), originally worn beneath the jeogori, to cover themselves.
Although those among Joseon’s nobility began wearing heoritti, the women of the lower, common and slave classes preferred not to wear any chest coverings at all. In her book Women’s Life During The Chosŏn Dynasty, Han Hee-sook wrote about the common woman’s unique fashion, stating that;
“Women belonging to these classes exhibited a unique fashion style after giving birth which basically consisted of them exposing their breasts, a practice which appears to have been limited to women from the commoner and lowborn classes.
This practice of bearing one’s breasts after giving birth to a son and proudly breastfeeding the child in public, over time, became firmly entrenched within the culture of these classes.”
During the 17th and 18th centuries, undergarments made of linen and silk, such as the sok-sokgot (속속곳), dan-sokgot (단속곳), go-jaengi (고쟁이) and dari-sokgot (다리속곳), were worn beneath women’s skirts in order to give the hanbok varying elegant forms.
Other accessories that accompanied women’s hanbok were ornamental hairpins or binyeo (비녀), norigae (노리개) or colourful tassels that indicated social class, as well as shoes. The shoes, much like most aspects of Joseon clothing, indicated social status – keung-hye (궁혜) were shoes worn by royalty, dang-hye (당혜) were worn by married women of nobility and the un-hye (운혜) were worn by those belonging to ordinary or lower status.
Hanbok Colours and Patterns
The colour of one’s hanbok depended on the level of your social and marital status. The hanbok of the royal family were usually decorated with various patterns, each with their own meaning, for instance, kings would be decorated with symbols of mountains, fire, water plants and dragons to symbolise their characteristics. Likewise, queens would wear images of phoenixes, whereas princesses were to wear lotus’, butterflies and cranes. Only members of the royal family or of the noble class could decorate their hanbok with dragons, tigers, phoenixes or cranes.
Members of the nobility wore more colours in their everyday hanbok than those of the lower classes; typically the children and young girls wore bright colours whereas older women wore more subtle tones, unmarried women wore red chima and yellow jeogori while married ones wore green and red or navy blue when they had given birth to a son. Other hanbok patterns for the nobility included pomegranates, peonies, bats and lotus flowers.
In contrast, commoners wore white hanbok, often made of cotton with hemp undergarments, but on special occasions, they were permitted to wear light pinks, greens and greys.
Hanbok in Modern Korea
Up until a hundred years ago, Hanbok were still worn as everyday attire in Korea, but now, wearing a hanbok or any traditional clothing is limited to special occasions such as weddings, Lunar New Year or Seolnal (설날) and other traditional ceremonies.
However, in recent years, influential fashion designers such as Lee Young-hee, Lee In-joon, Lee Seo-jung and clothing stores have incorporated the traditional elements of hanbok and made their own adaptions, which have led to a wave of modern hanbok and a resurgence of interest in Korea’s ancient fashion culture.
Wearing hanbok has also become more available for foreigners to wear; it’s now a common sight to see tourists and locals alike visiting historical palaces while wearing traditional hanbok – the reason for this is because many of the palaces in Korea offer free entry to those wearing traditional hanbok (which is a fantastic little tip to remember if you ever go travelling!)
One of Korea’s many charms is the fact that it finds the perfect way to combine its modern culture with traditional aspects, and the prevalence of hanbok is one of those thousand-year-old traditions that we hope will never fade from modern culture!
Information Source: Women’s Life During The Chosŏn Dynasty, Han Hee-sook, International Journal of Korean History (Vol.6, Dec. 2004)
Feature Image Source: ©Hanbok D’Arte, inspiremekorea.com