Hanbok Style: Couture or Streetwear?

Influence of Hanbok Style on Couture Streetwear Fashion in South Korea

It is undeniable that Seoul is quickly climbing the competitive ranks of established fashion cities in the world like Paris, Milan, New York, and London. These four cities are considered “the” fashion capitals most notable for their international biannual Fashion Weeks for Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections.

If you’re a fashion enthusiast or even uninterested in fashion, I’m sure that you have heard of these places and associated them with elite fashion style once or twice in your life. 

Like these cities, Seoul has its very own Fashion Week (SFW) sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan government and conducted by Inotion World Wide. It’s a local fashion week like the ones held in destinations like Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Shanghai, and Tokyo which aims to promote the domestic fashion market, allowing young and unknown designers to introduce themselves in the industry by creating a platform where they could do so. Fashion Weeks are very important for countries who aspire to be one of the leading fashion hubs in the world as it builds business and influence.

Seoul who is just 16 years old in the Fashion Week industry aims to become the world’s fifth leading Fashion Week. Aside from the technicalities in organization and sponsorships to develop and innovate SFW, it also needs to reach a wider audience. Thanks to the increasing power and influence of K-pop and K-drama in neighboring countries in Asia and in the West, Seoul’s (and South Korea, in whole) fashion is getting bigger recognition. 

And one of the front runners of the K-fashion scene today is the modernization of their traditional clothing called hanbok (한복) often featured in historical K-Dramas (Sageuk/사극) like Jewel in the Palace, Jumong, Queen Seondeok, and Moon Embracing The Sun. After Lee Young-Hee unveiled her iconic 1993 modern hanbok collection in Paris, many local Korean fashion designers followed suit and now, there is a whole community of fashion designers specializing on modern hanboks. 

What are hanboks and why are they being modernized?

Hanboks are traditional pieces encapsulating the sartorial elegance and rich culture of South Korea. These are characterized as an article of two-piece clothing with the jeogori (jacket) for the top, chima (skirt) for women’s bottom, and baji (pants) for men’s. The hanbok’s fundamental structure was first established during the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE) and has been since then a daily clothing item.

The design of the hanbok caters primarily for ease of movement characterized by a balance of sharp angles and curved lines and billowy silhouette. But over time, hanbok with its “bulky” nature with layers of clothing items became an impractical apparel choice for daily errands to the grocery, going to work, or even just a casual hang-out with friends.

And while it remained special amongst Koreans, the “daily” aspect of hanboks has slowly disappeared. With the heavy Western influence in conjunction with the shift in lifestyles of many Koreans, hanboks became consigned as a traditional costume worn only on special occasions and celebrations like weddings, Lunar New Year, ancestral rites, and dol, a child’s first birthday. They are kept in cabinets and passed on to the next generation or displayed in glass cases waiting to be rented by a foreigner who wants to fully imbibe the South Korean culture. 

With that, the revival of hanbok to fit modern-day style has been one of the main goals of many local fashion designers. Cho Mira, a high-end hanbok designer of fashion house Baek Oak Soo, said, “While hanbok dress is traditional, hanbok is not a dying fashion. In its 5,000-year history hanbok has seen many outward changes. Regardless, very few countries have the privilege of saying they have a traditional dress [as defined as ours].”

According to designer Hwang Yi-Seul who crafts neo-hanboks at Leesle (in an article by Vogue), the traditional dress now makes up only 1 percent of the fashion industry. She expressed that she thought if this continues, the unique traditions (marked by hanboks) will disappear. “That’s why I started to make modern hanboks so that more people could see their beauty and value,” she said. 

She also added that she focuses on designing hanboks that blend in by putting traditional elements in a more subtle way. Park Hyun-Sook, a Korean fashion designer who launched GrangHanA in 2014, wanted hanbok fashions to break into mainstream couture not only in Korea but also abroad. In an interview with WWD’s Kellie Ell, she said, “If the hanbok is not in everyday fashion, then it will disappear. I want to keep the hanbok alive for other generations.”

“Foreigners already know about K-pop and Korean beauty products,” she said. “Now they’ll know about Korean fashion as well. Hanbok is part of the culture. Right now it’s called K-fashion, but one day it will just be called fashion. It’s already starting.”

Hanbok in Couture and its Influence in the West

Lee Young-Hee is considered as the pioneer of the modern hanbok, popularizing hanbok designs in the international couture fashion arena.

Her career started in 1981 as she held her first solo fashion show at Hotel Shilla in Seoul. Two years later, she was invited to the White House where she helped celebrate US Independence Day. In 1984, she held a show during the Olympics in Los Angeles and in 1988, she celebrated the upcoming Seoul Olympics with a fashion show as well. 

Perhaps the most iconic of all her shows and in the modern hanbok history was her 1993 “Clothes of Wind” (바람의 옷) collection featured in Pret-a-Porter Paris which introduced a new type of revealing hanbok without the jeogori garnering praise in the international fashion arena. 

Reviews across France noted the collection with such rave calling it the most modern yet at the same time most Korean of looks. Some also said, “It’s a combination of freedom and elegance as if it embraces wind all over.” Sadly, It was denounced by many South Koreans saying that it was “an ambiguous garment of no nationality and no traditionalism.”

Nevertheless, Lee Young Hee continued on to take part in more than hundreds of fashion shows in global stages such as Carnegie Hall in New York in 2000, in Pyongyang in 2001, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and Dokdo Island in 2011.

She also designed durumagi (두루마기) which are traditional overcoats in hanbok for global leaders at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Busan in 2005 and for the Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. After her, hanbok-inspired couture graced the runways of Caroline Herrera and Dior (designed by John Galliano)  in 2011 New York Fashion Week which reflected different experimentations on the hanbok from looks inspired by Lee Young Hee’s Clothes of the Wind Collection to contemporary twists in A-line silhouettes. 

During the same year, Swarovski Elements partnered with Korean designers creating hanboks incorporated with precious Swarovski crystals. 

In 2012, the modern hanbok was featured in the September 2012 cover of Vogue Korea donned by actress Han Hyo Joo who was known for her roles in TV dramas, Spring Waltz and W as well as in the film Cold Eyes.  But this wasn’t the first time that a hanbok was worn as a cover of a fashion magazine. In 2008, Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh donned the hanbok designed by Los Angeles-based designer Kim Me Hee for the cover of Nuvo. 

One of the major appearances of hanboks in couture fashion was during Chanel’s 2015 annual resort show which was held in Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul (also the site of the biannual SFW) unveiling the luxury brand’s Resort 2016 collection, a ready-to-wear interseason line. In an article published by Korea Herald, it said that “[Karl] Lagerfeld was inspired by traditional South Korean dress for his colorful interseasonal line, which bridges the staple spring and fall fashion seasons.” The German fashion designer and Chanel’s creative director “channeled” the hanbok in the hairstyle, silhouettes, makeup, embroideries, and palette. 

“Everybody has already referenced China, Japan, Africa, whatever,” Lagerfeld said. “But (in Korea) there are those typical Korean things like patchworks and the proportions of those high (waist) dresses that are very, very beautiful and that have never been used by other designers.” He also added in a backstage interview that he was glad he was first to take on hanbok-inspired collection. 

“It’s a modern, pop take on traditional Korea,” said Lagerfeld. The collection was concluded by a “breathtaking peach and pale pink dress with an airy skirt” worn by model Park Ji Hye.

Several luxury fashion brands have been eyeing South Korea not only as inspiration in their collection but also as a potential growing market. A fashion industry watcher credited this growth “a lucrative crossroads” — that is, entertainment, music, celebrity, and fashion.

Off The Rack: Couture Streetwear Meets Hanbok

Many have noted the refreshingly different style of South Korea’s couture fashion. While most fashion shows in the West feature eccentric, intricate, and glamorous styles dominated by brands we have all heard like Chanel, Dior, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton (to name a few), SFW goes for a more high-end streetwear style. That is why what walks on the runways are what you’d also see on the streets from Gangbok to Gangnam. The fashion style is very inclusive and wearable with trends worn beyond the elite fashion circles. 

One hangover design that has been dominating the runways is the increasingly popular modern hanboks. Local fashion designers have been reinventing the hanboks repeatedly by incorporating fabrics, shapes, patterns as well as detailing from traditional dress in their street-style and casual-wear collections. In the 2017 autumn-winter collection, the hanbok’s influence was definitely easy to spot. The Kam held a collaboration concept show titled “Wear Grey” with four other sustainable fashion designers. In an article written by Crystal Tai published in the South China Morning Post, The Kam director Seonju Kam described the collection. He said, “The collection features different aspects of the hanbok’s tie or collar.” He also added, “I think the grey tones of this collection are reminiscent of the late Joseon dynasty.”

One piece from the collection was a lilac lace embroidered with polka dots pattern layered over a hanbok-inspired dress with the chest-level ruffle detail emulating the top of the chima or the skirt of a hanbok. Another take on the hanbok-inspired streetwear fashion leaned on a more eccentric style. Kang Dong Jun of Dgnak who is popularly known as one of Korea’s more eccentric designers took inspiration from the 1993 Hong Kong martial arts film “the Bride With White Hair” with models strutting the catwalk with whitened hair and silvery contact lenses donning black hanbok-inspired robes and coats with added effects of fog from a smoke machine. 

Kang has once experimented marrying the traditional silhouette of the traditional hanbok with all-black-street style looks and has often recruited local underground hip hop groups to perform and also model in his shows. Yohan Kim of Yohanix, on the other hand, reinvented the traditional patterns of hanbok usually worn by the older generations into a more youthful vibe. He imbibed “a series of shiny brocade coats in pink and navy, lime-green and navy, and violet and green, featuring cherry blossom and other floral patterns” into a more edgy style perfectly fitting into the streetwear fashion. 

While Yohan Kim flipped an old classic into youthful streetwear style, Miss Gee collection designed by Gee Chun Hee who caters mostly to older women embraced the traditional elements with her tailored, feminine womenswear collection which features a black satin two-piece suit adorned with floral patterns layered with a topcoat with the same pattern and finished with a fur rimmed collar.  There was also the Moon Lee Artwear collection which focused on the fun, youthful twist of the hanbok playing on the silhouette and colors and combining traditional materials with modern pattern cutting techniques. This collection piece included a “velvet goreum sashes and an array of billowing gem-toned chima-like tones.”

Off The Rack: K-Pop Meets Hanbok

Recently, K-pop idols have been sighted wearing modern hanboks in stage performances and music videos. And in this era, when we say K-pop we are referring not only to a music genre or idol groups but also to the devoted fandoms. These fandoms have been cited as one of the major factors that propelled K-Pop into the international arena. With their growing strength in numbers and their loyalty to groups they follow (or in fangirl/boy language, “stan”), they have also helped bridge modern hanboks to a bigger audience. 

One example of this is when Blackpink wore modern hanboks in their music video “How You Like That”. In an instant, modern hanboks became a trending topic on Twitter and DANHA, the hanbok company which designed Jisoo, Jennie, Rose, and Lisa’s hanboks, reportedly received a lot of inquiries and recorded a high traffic and increased number of visits on their official website. Additionally, Jennie’s pink hanbok quickly sold out. 

Aside from Blackpink, we also have BTS who donned a dopo (hanbok overcoat) in their “Idol” music video designed by famous hanbok designer Baek Oak Soo. BTS is so popular now even in the West and with that large reach, they were able to introduce modern hanboks into an audience who are unfamiliar with Korean culture. And just last October, Leesle, a modern hanbok brand founded by Hwang Lee-sle and launched in 2014, released a collaboration with K-pop group KARD. The collaboration shifted from Leesle’s signature minimalist style to a bolder and dramatic look which perfectly fits with the unique and edgy vibe of the group.

This collaboration was part of the  “CAST” (Connect, Accompany to Make Synergy and Transformation) project run by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in South Korea. For this project, KARD members modelled 2 different modern hanbok concepts – Hidden Moon (inspired by KARD’s Red Moon album and fandom name, Hidden KARD) and Street.

For the Hidden Moon theme, the group wore a combination of black and red in a fierce yet refined look. These pieces aim to capture the traditional modest beauty of hanboks mixed with a subtly sexy vibe. The members looked regal in their modern hanboks paired with casual pants and shorts and completed with sneakers, heels, and boots. If we are talking high end streetwear couture, then we don’t need to look further away from this collection because this is IT. 

For the Korean Street concept, the traditional hanbok was reimagined with Korean street fashion aesthetics by using modern materials like nylon and leather to bring out the edgy style popular in the 21st century street style. In this look, the members donned the couture streetwear fashion infused in modern hanbok style in gold, black, and white color theme. This is a subtler style than the Hidden Moon basically because of the colors and can definitely blend in style as a fashionable casual wear. 

Hanboks are very versatile pieces of clothing that have evolved and adapted through time. According to Hwang Lee-sle, hanboks shouldn’t be sidelined only as novelty wear that should be worn once or twice in a year. Traditional does not have to stay traditional and the fashion industry should adjust to the consumer lifestyle. Modernizing hanbok is one way of preserving the culture of traditional clothing of South Korea while encapsulating the modern aesthetics and making it wearable on a fashionably daily basis. 


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