July 17th, 2018 Tue

Embodying age-old philosophies, Korea's traditional clothing is a practical as it is beautiful

in Category Culture

Written by Samuel Songhoon Lee
The article courtesy of Korea Culture and Information Service (Korea People & Culture JAN. 2014)

▶ The traditional Hanbok is still worn on special occasions today

There is perhaps no other artifact that captures the richness of Korean cultural herigag as well as Korean traditional attire, known as Hanbok. While the origins of Hanbok can be traced back millennia to the ethnic origins of the Korean people, historical records in the form of murals painted during the early period of the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) show that Koreans began to wear a modern from of Hanbok as early as the fourth century B.C. The basic design of Hanbok comprises of twopieces, an upper and lower garment. The upper garment, the jeogori, is a bolero blouse-like jacket worn by both women and men. For the lower garment, women wear a chima, a full-blown skirt that reaches past the ankles, and men wear a baji, a pair of roomy trousers. On top of these basic garments, a wide variety of accessories and outerwear can be worn for different seasons and different occasions.

What is most astonishing about hanbok is the way in which its form and design have been preserved, despite a time lapse of two thousand years. While the particular style and specific length have undergone changes over the years, the basic appearance of hanbok has stayed intact. In looking at Goguryeo period murals dating from the fourth century B.C., one will see an uncanny resemblance to the Hanbok being worn on the streets of modern Seoul.

It is this remarkable preservation of Hanbok that provides a window into the rich cultural heritage of the Korean people. Although Hanbok is popularly won today on special occasions such as weddings and birthdays, there is renewed interest among modern Koreans in wearing Hanbok as everyday wear, just as their ancestors once did. The revival has been touched off by Korea's first female head of state, President Park Geun-hye.

▶ A Russian visitor dons a Hanbok at a Korean homestay facility (Left), Koreans often wear Hanbok on traditional holidays (Right)

▶ The many Hanbok worn by president Park Geun-hye at various diplomatic functions

Hanbok Diplomacy

Since being elected in December 2012, President Park Geunhye has surprised the world-and the Korean people-with her steadfast devotion to wearing Hanbok on official occasions. Her devotion to Hanbok traces back to the influences of her mother, Yuk Young-sook, who, in her role as first lady, oversaw Korea's miraculous economic rise from being one of the most impoverished countries in the world in the 1960s to being one of the riches today.

Yuk preferred to wear Hanbok instead of Western dresses. This instilled a sense of pride and confidence amonst Koreans who were struggling to pull themselves out of the destruction and destitutino of the tragic Korean War (1950-1953) and the brutal colonial rule of Japan (1910-1945).

Widely known for her humble lifestyle and abstention from luxuries, Yuk was unrestrained in her concern and devotion to the livelihood of the commone people, regularly paying visits to the poor and sick. Today, even the staunchest political opponents of President Park opnely express their admiration and respect for her mother.

President Park rekindled the people's yearning for such benevolent leadership when she opted to wear Hanbok at key post-inauguration ceremonies in January 2013. She donned a red durumagi, or outer coat, and a blue chima at the goodwill ceremony that took place minutes after her inaugural address. The symbolism of the color combination did not go unnoticed: the colors red and blue, found on the Korean national flag, have historically represented the harmony of opposites. Many took her outfit as a plea for unity amongst the Korean people.

President Park has also been dazzling the global stage with her Hanbok, a policy that has come to be known as "Hanbok diplomacy." In her official visits to the United States and China, she donned several varieties of Hanbok each laden with different symbolism and meaning to mark the particular occation.

In an honorary dinner to mark the 60th anniversay of the Korea-US alliance at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., President Park wore a cobalt-colored chima and beige jeogori with elaborate embroidery. According to Kim Younsuk, designer of President Park's Hanbok, the colors of the president's Hanbok were carefully selected in consideration of the many U.S. veterans of the Korean War who were in attendance. The cobalt color symbolized the Korean sky and the elaborate embroidery adorned with flowers and trees marked the prosperity and cultural refinement of Korea today.

Toward the end of her visit, President Park traveled to Los Angeles, which has historically been a popular destination for Korean emigrants. When meeting with Korean emigrants, she wore a pink Hanbok. In an interview with a newspaper there, Kim said he wanted to accentuate the motherly warmth and feminine was also te first Korean designer to have her works featured in Frances' esteemed pret-a-porter collection. Her collections feature Hanbok adapted to modern sensibilities that stretch the boundaries of the imagination.

Lee's Hanbok collections ahve often been described as daring and experimental. Indded, some of her women's Hanbok did away with jeogori, and had chima befitting a Western dress. Leading French media took notice of Lee's collections, and Le Monde praised the seamless way in which Hanbok drapes over the human physique in smooth, flowing lines while retaining its elegant and sophisticated demeanor.

The beuaty of Hanbok has also not gone unnotices in the eyes of Western fashion designers, who have come to draw inspiration from the centuries-old Korean traditional attire. Carolina Herrera, whose collections have been worn by such prominent fitures as Jacqueline Kennedy and actress Renee ZEllweger, showcased Hanbok-inspired dresses for her 2011 S/S collection. In particular, Herrera incorporated the ample spatial feature of the chima with an added emphasis on the naturally flowing silhouette lines.

"The dress made by Herrera retain the unique Korean concept of the silhouette," said Kim Eun-jung, a clothing and textiles professor at Chonnam National University. "The way the clothes envelop the body and the ample folds of the chima all point toward how well she understands th emphasis on lines found in Hanbok." Herrera also featured female models wearing gat, a wide brimmed hat with an emerging center usually worn by Confucian scholars during the Joseon period.

Another Western designer who has drawn inspiration from Hanbok is the Belgian Dries van Noten, who was once described by The New York Times as "one of fashion's ost cerebral designers." For his 2012 Paris Collection, van Noten incorporated prints found in the paper collar of the jeogori.

His fascination with jeogori led to a unique collaboration with Korean Hanbok designer Kim Hye-soon, whose extensive research into the upper Hanbok garment led to her authoring the book Our Beautiful Jeogori(2011), which traces the evolution of the jeogori over more than 600 years. Van Noten featured several jeogori designs and patterns found in Kim's book in his own collection.

▶ A hanbok by designer Lee Yong-Hee at the Korea-Turkey traditional fashion show in Istanbul on Sept 11, 2013(Left), The spring 2011 collectional designer Carolina Harrera is modeled during Fashion Week in New York, Sept 13, 2010 (Center), Fashion show by designer Kim Young Seok at the Wedding Fair at the Westin Chosun Hotel, Seoul, June 2012 (c)Traditional Korean Costume Kim Young Seok

The Beauty of Hanbok

Flowing lines

When discussing the aesthetic delight of Hanbok, what inevitably emerges is the beauty of its flowing lines. Indeed, it is this attribute that distinguishes Hanbok from other East Asian traditional outfits, such as Chinese cheongsam of the Japanese kimono. Korean Hanbok incorporates both straight and curving lines, which combine to create a sense of naturally flowing harmony. When the wearer moves, the flowing lines of Hanbok create an udulating silhouette that is subtle yet palpable.

The collar of women's Hanbok, which forms a V-shape, can be adjusted to accentuate or subdue the neckline. The rounded curve of the sleeve's inseams bring out a sense of gentleness. The straight line that is projected from the hanging goreum, the coat string-like long ribbon that ties the jeogori closed, presents a simple but elegant look. The layers of wrinkles that gradually spread out from the waist-line of the chima to the bottom also add to the subdued elegance.

Color arrangement

Another distinguishing feature of Hanbok is the contrast in complementary colors. The color schemes often found in Hanbok are variations of the primary colors of red, blue, green and yellow, as found in the natural world, along with black and white. The East Asian philosophy of yin and yang and the five elements that are believed to be the basis for the cosmos also yield great influence on how colors are picked and arranged. The contrast in complementary colors adds to the elegance and refined beauty of Hanbok. White was the default shade historically favored by the Korean people for its symbolism of modesty and pure spirit.

Red signified good fortune and prosperity so it was the color used in bridal Hanbok. Indigo represented dedication so it was the color used in Hanbok worn by court ladies and the official attire of government officials. Black, which symbolized eternity and the origin of all creation, figured in men's hats. Yellow, which represented the center of the universe, was the color preferred by royalty and its wearing by common people was strictly regulated.

The complementary colors are one of the most captivating aesthetic attributes of Hanbok. The contrast of bright yellow against deep blue, or light green against solid red, for example, are among the more popular color arrangements preferred for their eye-catching quality. During major events, such a color scheme is worn by the primary participants or important guests.

Beauty and Practicality

Although it may appear at first to be a daunting attire to be worn every day, Hanbok in reality maximized practicality and comfort. Because Hanbok is sewn in a curved fashion in accordance with the general shape of the human body, it allows easy movement and mobility. Becuase its silhouette and flowing lines are not directly tied to the wearer's physique, Hanbok can be worn by people of all body types without compromising individual dignity or elegance. 

Simple changes in color arrangements allow the wearer to create a variety of looks with different underlying emotional tones. The ample room of Hanbok also allows it to be easily fitted to adapt for changes in physique. Hanbok is also widely known for its durability. Because the attire is colored using natural dye, its faded color can easily be restored without compromising tis original colors. 

There have been growing efforts to modernize Hanbok so it can be work as everyday wear along with popular clothing such as blue jeans. One pioneer is Hanbok designer Pak Mi-yeon, whose brand "Armi" (pronounced ar-MEE) has a distinctively casual flair (www.armbang.co.kr). She has adapted Hanbok to modern, casual sensibilities that could be easily worn along with other daily wear while preserving the fundamental design and spirit of Hanbok. Park's brand is carried by more than 50 chain stores throughout the nation.

Another pioneer in modernized Hanbok is Lee Gi-yeon, who heads her own brand, "Jil KYung Yee" (www.jilkyungee.co.kr). Since the 1980s, Lee has led research and production efforts to adapt Hanbok as everyday wear. She goes about achieving the adaptation by looking further back in time in attempting to bring out the spirit and philosophy of the ancestors into modern light.

The "modernization" of her Hanbok collection comes from adapting the clothes with consideration for increased mobility and also the blood circulation patterns of the human anatomy. "We embed our culture into our clothes," Lee said in a TV interview.

Modern Hanbok maximized mobility and function. Some collections do away with the draping goreum, the coat-string like tie that drops below waist, and also shortens the width and length of the chima while extending the length of the jeogori.

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