The Head to Toe Fit of the Hanbok Aesthetic
Historical movies, dramas, and documentaries are not everyone’s cup of tea. Only a few find historical concepts fascinating while most find it quite boring. Interestingly, historical dramas in the context of Korean culture have gotten a lot of viewership not only locally but internationally as well.
Dramas like Jumong and Jewel in the Palace and the more recent ones like Love in the Moonlight and Hwarang have captured the hearts of many regardless of gender, age, or nationality. Even if you’re not a history buff, you can totally enjoy historical Korean dramas. Aside from the visually appealing cast, scenic landscapes, the never-ending palace conspiracies and plot twists, and heart-gripping love stories, these dramas also showcase the long history and vibrant culture of Korea.
From the looks of the palaces and the historical settings of houses to the traditional Korean dress, historical dramas take you on a journey back to the kingdoms and dynasties of South Korea. These historical dramas have attracted a lot of tourists into South Korea to take the city by the flesh and to witness its wonderful and rich tourist places.
One of the many attractions in Seoul are the Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을) and Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁) wherein foreigners take in the beauty and the view by donning different and beautiful hanboks for what they call a “full experience”. For many Koreans, it is a cause for pride to see foreigners wearing the traditional Korean dress as part of appreciating the Korean culture. The Korean Board of Tourism promotes this kind of culture and hanbok became a common gift to foreigners as a token of friendship.
What is a hanbok?
A hanbok is an exquisite cultural heritage and an important icon of Korea. Its first recorded history traced back during the Goguryeo Kingdom (one of the three ancient kingdoms) between 37 BCE - 668 CE. It is a traditional Korean dress with its North Korean counterpart called Chosŏn-ot and is worn as a semi-formal or formal attire during traditional festivals, celebrations, and ceremonies.
Hanboks are usually worn during (1) Seollal (음력 설날) or the first day of the Korean Lunar Calendar, (2) Chuseok (추석) or the harvest festival which happens both in North and South Korea between September and October - the autumn equinox, and (3) the traditional wedding ceremony (폐백).
There are different styles of hanbok for different purposes either ceremonial or casual, gender, age, and season. A hanbok depending on color and fabric material and pattern signifies social and marital status.
Today, many hanbok designers have started to update the traditional hanbok to suit the modern times. Modern hanboks now are donned as daily wear and have incorporated contemporary elements. Most popular takes on the modern hanbok have been worn by global KPop superstars, BTS and Blackpink. They have also been worn in many different performance stages by groups like Vixx and Oh My Girl.
The Main Structure of the Hanbok
Its fundamental structure can be stitched from three basic parts. The first is the jeogori (저고리) which is the basic upper garment of the hanbok or what most usually refer to as the “short jacket”. It is worn with a chima (치마) or the skirt for women or a baji (바지) or pants for men.
In detail, the basic jeogori (저고리) consists of gil, git, dongjeong, goreum and sleeves somae. And for women, there is an additional piece called kkeut dong.
- Gil (길) is the largest piece of garment of the jeogori covering both the front.
- Git (깃) is the band of fabric which trims the collar.
- Dongjeong (동정) is the squared-off white collar placed over the end of the git and is removable.
- Goreum (고름) are the coat strings which are attached at the breast part of the jeogori.
- Somae (소매) which is the sleeves.
- Kkeut dong (끝동) for women is a different colored cuff placed at the end of the sleeves.
The chima is the lower garment of the women’s hanbok. It is a floor length wrap around skirt with a wide waistband that is placed over the chest to allow the skirt to take on a more billowy look and consequently giving the wearer freedom of movement. To provide a more voluminous look, there are around five to seven layers of underskirt called sokchima (속치마). Nowadays, modern women usually wear only one layer of underskirt under the hanbok.
On the other hand, baji is a baggy and loose pants which is tied around the waist. In the past, Korean women used baji as an inner clothing.
The Basic Aesthetic Framework of the Korean Hanbok
The Korean Hanbok is inspired from the Confucian style dress code. The jeogori is a tight-fitting top garment designed to cling and silhouette the shape of the wearer while the chima and the baji are wide and flexible bottoms which provide comfort and add gracefulness to the overall look. Additionally, they give the illusion of “floating” making it look very light.
The design of the hanbok is also gleaned from the Korean’s fondness for naturalness and desire for supernatural protection and blessings. Its shape is generally very flexible which flatters all body shapes, fitting for the traditional Korean dress. Its lines can be characterized as undulating and delicate mimicked from the soft-sloping eaves of the Korean traditional house called the hanok.
Hanboks exude softness and elegance by combining the sharp angles of the dongjeong which are the creased white lining of the jacket's collar with the curved bottom line of the jacket sleeves or the baerae.
It’s fascinating that since the Goguryeo Dynasty which is roughly two thousand years ago, the basic form and design of the hanbok had been preserved while making it a fashion-forward piece strutting the runway couture of fashion weeks.
Part of the aesthetic of the traditional hanbok is its vibrant hues borrowed from East Asian philosophy with the yin and yang elements: white (metal), red (fire), blue (wood), black (water), and yellow (earth).
These hues are colored by using natural dyes and are resistant to fading. Aside from the usual social and marital status represented by the colors of the hanbok, they also have specific symbolisms.
Regardless of any status, Koreans often wear a white hanbok as a symbol of purity and modesty and also highlights the jet black hair of Koreans. The red color is often associated with good fortune and wealth. This color is donned by women during her wedding. Indigo, on the other hand, is the color of constancy often used for the chima or skirt of court ladies and coats of court officials. Black is the infinity and fountainhead of all creation while yellow symbolizes the center of the universe and are worn by royalty.
On the other hand, patterns represent the wearer’s wish and also identifies his/her social status.
In the modern days, hanboks are much more stylish and are adorned with many different patterns but back in the day, these patterns held significant symbolism. Most patterns are nature patterns such as lotus flowers for nobility, peonies that are embroidered on a bridal gown symbolize honor and wealth. For royalty and other high-ranking officials, we usually see this in historical k-dramas wherein their red hanboks are adorned with patterns of dragons, phoenixes, cranes, and tigers.
If you’re wondering with the Chinese characters that are often seen embroidered in hanboks, these are wishes for (복) good fortune, (회) happiness, and (수) a long life.
The Accent of the Hanbok: Accessories
Most of the accessories of the hanbok are hair accessories and each hairstyle (or in Korean is usually affixed with the word “meori/머리” which means hair) signifies a woman’s marital status.
Daenggi is a large decorative ribbon made out of cloth and is used to tie and decorate braided hair called daenggi-meori (댕기머리) which is associated with unmarried women. This hairstyle is considered one of the most classic hairstyles and is observed done by women all the way into the 1960s.
According to the History of Northern Dynasties, married women of Baekje (백제) - kingdom located in southwestern Korea and is one of the Three Kingdoms alongside Goguryeo and Silla - also braided their hair but into two plaits which were secured to the crown of their heads. Additionally, men also had the same hairstyle following the teachings of Confucianism which requires that hair cannot be cut as it is part of your body given by your parents. They also used a daenggi but a differently-colored one than those used by maidens.
According to some sources, there are different types of daenggi depending on purpose, age, and social status. One of the most popular type or variation of daenggi is the baess[h]i-daenggi (배씨댕기) which is a thin and soft material stuffed into a colored cloth which is then worn atop the head.
Here’s Hyo Eun of Sungkyunkwan Scandal played by actress Seo Hyo Lim wearing a daenggi (댕기) and baess[h]i-daenggi (배씨댕기). Ha Hyo Eun is the daughter of a prominent government minister who is arranged in marriage with a young nobleman named Lee Seon-Joon played by Park Yoochun.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal is set in the Joseon Dynasty which tells the story of a young woman disguised as a man. You can catch Hyo Eun in this attire in episode 3!
Seo Hyo Lim as Ha Hyo Eun in Sungkyunkwan Scandal
Credit: The Talking Cupboard
A binyeo is a Korean traditional hairpin used to hold the bun or chignon of a jjokjin-meori (쪽진머리). In this hairstyle, the hair is brought at the back of the head which is then styled into a bun secured by the binyeo. A jjokjin-meori is one of the many hairdos of married women.
A binyeo can be made from different materials. Commoners and lower class people usually have simple binyeo made out of wood. On the other hand, more wealthy women from the upper class and royalty can afford a more intricate binyeo with jade, precious gems, pearls amongst the many adornments embedded into their binyeo. This signifies their wealth and social class. Some other materials used for a binyeo are bamboo and animal bones.
There are also two types of binyeo: jam (잠) and chae (채). A jam has a long body while the chae has an inverted u shape.
One notable use of binyeo back in the Joseon Dynasty is during a girl’s ceremony turning into adulthood. During the ceremony, the girls signify this transition by putting a binyeo into their hair.
Many historical kdramas have featured this intricate accessory. Probably one of the most noteworthy for us is worn by the female shaman (used to be the Crown Princess) named Wol played by actress Han Ga In in the drama Moon Embracing The Sun.
Moon Embracing the Sun is a love story between King Lee Hwon played by Kim Soo Hyun and Wol. Watch their love story unfold in one of the most popular historical dramas in South Korea.
Han Ga In as Crown Princess in Moon Embracing the Sun
A dwikkoji is a traditional Korean hair ornament and like a binyeo is also used in a jjokjin-meori hairstyle but instead of putting it in place, it’s used to decorate the bun or the chignon.
This one has a sharp end and is presumed to have originated from Baekje with the three-legged dwikkoji. Its different types correspond to one’s social status. The more common dwikkojis used by commoners are bichigae (빗치개) and guiigae (귀이개) made out of silver.
Actress Kim Tae Hee played Jang Ok Jung who effortlessly dons a beautiful dwikkoji in the drama Jang Ok Jung, Living by Love. Her character was also known as Lady Jang Hui Bin, one of the most famous royal concubines in the Joseon Dynasty.
Jang Ok Jung follows the life of a court lady who started her career as a fashion designer of her time. See her powerful development as you watch the drama!
Kim Tae Hee as the powerful Lady Jang Hui Bin in Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love
Cheopji is a rod-like hairpin which is used to fasten the knotted hair of the jjokjin-meori. This is primarily made of silver and is in the shape of dragon, phoenix, frog, duck, peacock, or flowers.
Unlike the binyeo that can be afforded by any woman in the middle class, a cheopji indicates that you live inside the palace or that you belonged to the king. That means any woman who wears a cheopji is assumed to be either a royalty like a queen, crowned princess, or princess at that or a high ranking lady in court. If a woman dons this hair accessory, she is of a powerful and respectable position.
Some sources note that commoners may don this intricate piece only when they are wearing a ceremonial dress. The use of cheopji started after Baljaegaeheok (발제개혁) which is a reformation proclaimed by Yeongjo of Joseon which prohibited the use of Gache (wig) style.
If you’re into kdramas, then surely you know the new hype in town, Mr. Queen. Shin Hye Sun plays the character of Queen Kim So-Yong (Joseon Dynasty) possessed by the spirit of Jang Bong-Hwan, a chef at the President’s Blue House (modern era).
Shin Hye Sun dons the powerful cheopji worn only by royalty like her. Catch her funny quips in the royal kitchen and her magnificent play as the best queen.
Shin Hye Sun in her role as Queen Kim So Yong in Mr. Queen
Credit: Yoo Seul Hwa Blog
This is a round-shaped ornament that is added to the braids of eoyeo-meori (어여머리) and the keun-meori (큰머리) to give it a more luxurious look and depicts the rank and position of the wearer.
Eoyeo-meori is worn by queens, kings’ wives (concubines), and queen mothers and mainly consists of wigs such as darae (다래). The wig is weaved into a thick looping braid which is then secured at the top of the head. A keun-meori is essentially the same but atop of the hair is a ddeoguji (떠구지) which was first made of human hair but was switched into wood since it was too heavy.
Queen of Seven Days tells the love story of Queen Dangyeong and King Joongjong. Actress Do Ji Won played the character of Queen Jasoon in the drama. You can see her donning beautiful ddeoljams signifying her position as Queen!
Do Ji Won as Queen Jasoon in Queen of Seven Days
Credit: Korean Drama 드라마
This beautiful jewelry piece like the cheopji is reserved for the women of the court with high ranks like the queen, dowager queen, and the crowned princess. These are fluttering accessories put in the eoyeo-meori to signify their status in the palace.
Another major and most common accessory of the hanbok is the norigae (노리개) which is an ornamental pendant tied to the goreum (coat string of the jeogori) or at the waist of the chima or skirt to give a more luxurious look. It means “pretty and playful objects” which are worn by all women from the Queen to the commoners.
A norigae is made by a traditional knotting artisan using maedup (한국 매듭) or the art of Korean knotting. To make one, the artisan employs an 8-strand technique. This technique involves pulling dyed fibers into a single strand with steady tension to make it fixed and uniform. The strands are then intertwined into a thick string.
The norigae is composed of three parts: the main ornament, the knot, and the tassel.
- The main ornament is usually made of gold, silver, jewels, and precious stones. The motifs can be narrowed down into 5 basic branches such as animals, plants, daily objects, characters, and religious symbols.
- The knot is dependent on the size of the ornament — that is, a small knot will go perfectly with a big ornament while a big knot goes well with a small ornament. It’s made using 8 bobbins in a case each with four of the single strands made into a thin thread then a thick one before making a knot.
- The tassel is made out of colored silk thread. A ttidon or a clasp is used to attach a norigae together and can come in many different shapes like a butterfly. The process of making a tassel is by twisting strands in pairs until they are all the same length then threaded to a needle.
A norigae functions as a decorative pendant and a good luck charm for many things like eternal youth, wealth, and children. These are usually passed down from generation to generation. The most popular types of norigae are samjang-norigae (삼작노리개) which is a pendant with three ornaments and danjang-norigae (단작노리개), a pendant with one ornament.
A hair accessory called eunjangdo (은장도) is a silver knife worn as a norigae for self defense. It can hold chopsticks so that the wearer is safe from any type of poison.
Other accessories used to accent the hanbok is the buchae (부채) or the Korean fan. It is also used in the fan dance (Buchaechum) named after it. This dance was created in 1954 by Kim Baek-bong influenced by the Korean shamanic dance rituals and traditional Joseon court and folk dances. It is performed with brightly-coloured hanbok in many different Korean ceremonies and events and is now one of the most popular neoclassical Korean dances.
The buchae is painted with pink peony blossoms and the dancers create formations representing images like birds, flowers, butterflies, dragons and waves. The dance is performed with minyo (folk song) or sanjo (instrumental solo) accompaniment. As a neoclassical dance, it showcases the elegance and graceful aspects of the classic technique suitable for modern audiences.
Another accessory is the gakdae (각대) which is a belt worn by officials.
These are just a few of the many accessories that one can use in a hanbok. Nowadays, these accessories have their own DIY versions which you can try for a mini-project!