Hanbok: An Introduction to South Korea's National Dress

Korea's national dress is characterized by vibrant colors | © USAG- Humphreys / Flickr
Korea's national dress is characterized by vibrant colors | © USAG- Humphreys / Flickr
Hanbok, the traditional attire of the Korean people, has a history as colorful as the garments themselves. Worn daily up until about a century ago, the hanbok remains an important icon of Korea, and is still donned on special occasions and holidays. We take a closer look.
Hanbok-clad girls pose at Gyeongbok Palace © Jeon Han / Flickr

Hanbok, which has nomadic roots in northern Asia, was originally designed to facilitate ease of movement. The fundamental structure of hanbok, specifically the jeogori (jacket), baji (pants) and the chima (skirt), was established during the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE- 668 CE), and the design features have remained relatively unchanged to this day.

Hanbok can be classified into ceremonial and everyday dress, and then further categorized by gender, age and season. Regardless of the differences in these classifications, the basic aesthetic framework of all hanbok is centered around the Korean fondness for naturalness, desire for supernatural protection and blessings, and the Confucian style dress code.

Sseugae chima, used by lower-class women to hide their faces when going out

The general design of hanbok aims to create a delicate flow of lines and angles. Similar to the soft, sloping eaves of hanok – traditional Korean houses – the balance of the curved baerae (bottom line of the jacket’s sleeves) with the sharp angles of the dongjeong (creased white lining of the jacket’s collar) illustrates the softness and elegance of traditional Korean aesthetics.

Another prominent attribute of hanbok are its vivid colors. Traditional hanboks boasted vibrant hues that correspond with the five elements of the yin and yang theory: white (metal), red (fire), blue (wood), black (water) and yellow (earth).

Colors also symbolized social position and marital status. Bright colors, for example, were generally worn by children and girls, and muted hues by middle aged men and women. Unmarried women often wore yellow jeogori and red chima while matrons wore green and red, and women with sons donned navy. The upper classes wore a variety of colors. Contrastingly, commoners were required to wear white, but dressed in shades of pale pink, light green, gray and charcoal on special occasions.

Colourful children's hanbok on display at a market © Rowan Peter / Flickr

One’s social position could also be identified by the material of his or her hanbok. The upper classes dressed in hanbok of closely woven ramie cloth or other high grade lightweight materials in warmer months and of plain and patterned silks throughout the remainder of the year. Commoners, in contrast, were restricted to cotton.

Patterns were embroidered on hanbok to represent the wishes of the wearer. Peonies on a wedding dress, for instance, represented a wish for honor and wealth. Lotus flowers, on the other hand, symbolized a hope for nobility, and bats and pomegranates illustrated a desire for children. Dragons, phoenixes, cranes and tigers were reserved for the hanbok of royalty and high-ranking officials.

Symbols such as phoenixes and dragons were characteristic of hanbok worn by royalty © KoreaNet / Flickr

Beginning in the late 19th century, hanbok was largely replaced by new imports, such as the Western suit and dress. Nowadays, formal and casual wear are predominately based on Western styles. However, traditional hanbok is still worn on special occasions and celebrations such as weddings, Lunar New Year, ancestral rites, and dol, a child’s first birthday.

The hanbok has undergone various changes throughout its more than 1,600-year history, and continues to evolve even today. Specialty designers have made classic motifs wearable with designs that render traditional patterns and structures in simple cottons, linens, leather and lace. These modern reinterpretations of the hanbok have made a splash in the fashion world and have been spotted around the globe, from the Champs Élysées to the catwalks of New York Fashion Week.

A mix of traditional and contemporary hanbok © Jeon Han / Flickr

However much it may continue to change, hanbok remains an exquisite cultural heritage, not only for its historical value but also for its uniquely Korean artistic significance, and will continue to be for many years to come.