A Brief Look At Korean Hanbok

Hanbok for man and female

(Photo courtesy of Korea.net’s Flickr page)

Many traditional cultures have some kind of clothing that embodies the culture. When you see a girl in a kimono, you think “Japan”, if you see someone in cowboy clothes you think “America”, or áo dài for “Vietnam”, etc.1 For Korea, the national clothing is the hanbok (한복) also called joseon-ot in North Korea (조선옷) which literally means “Joseon clothing”. You will often see Hanbok in formal occasions, and celebrities wear them as well during New Year’s celebrations or for Seollal and Chuseok.

Hanbok are interesting because they originally have origin from Siberian-Scythian culture in north Asia. Since the Scythians were nomads and rode horses most of their lives, they needed clothes that would keep them warm, but also work well in combat, especially while riding a horse.2 This kind of style was eventually adopted by other north-eastern Asian cultures because it was practical and easy to move around in. Later, a big change occurred when the Korean Goryeo Dynasty made peace with the Mongol Empire, and Mongol princesses married with Korean royalty. They brought styles that later influenced the Hanbok by causing the jeogori (저고리) jacket to be tied with a large ribbon and shortened above the waist. Meanwhile, the woman’s chima (치마) skirt became shorter. Mens’ trousers, or baji (바지) have remained more or less the same all these generations, while trousers for women are now hidden under the skirt.

Also, I kind of think the Korean black hats or gat (갓) look cool too:


Such hats were mostly only worn by middle-class men or above, and especially for married men. I think I read somewhere that the color black was especially for men who had passed the Confucian civil-service exams and were “certified”. But I can’t find the source.

Anyhow, this basic style has been preserved since Goreyo Dynasty, though the lengths of clothing have become longer and shorter depending on the times. One thing I like about Hanbok is the variety of colors. It’s really interesting to see the different many combination of colors used. With Japanese kimono, the styles are reflected in the many kinds of patterns used in the cloth, but for Korean hanbok, the color combinations themselves come in many varieties. The photo above shows more traditional style Hanbok, and you can see similar styles in concert video from KBS featuring the famous folk-song “Arirang” (mentioned previously here):

…but as I said earlier, younger generations will often adopt more flashy, colorful styles:

This is a New Year’s video by the group “Secret” for example:

And here’s a New Year’s video by label-mates, B.A.P.:

As you can see, the girl’s jackets are hiked up just under the bust-line, while the men wear much longer, flowing jackets. But each person has a unique color pattern too.

It’s fun to see how “nomadic” fashion has become so refined in the 21st century. 😉

P.S. The last 2 videos above have English subtitles if you click on the “CC” icon. Thanks to whomever did the translation.

P.P.S. For those interested, I’ve also written a book-review on the famous Japanese diary, the Gossammer Years in my other blog. I felt it fit that blog-theme better.

1 When I studied abroad in Vietnam, I found a nice tailor who made me a custom red-silk ao dai, complete with the round hat, etc. Very touristy of me, but I was 22 years old then. Since I am pretty big, it had to be custom fit too. ;p I still have it, even though I gained weight since then, and haven’t worn it in many years. Maybe I’ll post a picture one of these days, but I don’t want to insult Vietnamese people who probably look much better in ao dai than me. 🙂

2 Interestingly, high-heels for ladies have a similar origin.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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