Hanbok History & Evolution

What does it mean for something to be “traditionally Korean”?

The waves of westernization, modernization, and globalization that began in the latter half of the 19th century have transformed our lives to the innermost areas.

Prior to westernization, our residential space was just a house and was not called ‘hanok.’ The clothes we wear were just ‘clothes’ and not ‘hanbok.’ The food we eat were not called ‘hansik or Korean food.’

The Term “Han”

These terms–hanok, hanbok, hansik, and hanyak (or traditional herbal medicine)–were coined as constructs counterbalancing the existence of newly introduced western houses, clothes, food and medicine in the course of westernization and modernization of the mode of living. In other words, even though the substantial history of these material culture products is long and rooted in the lives of Korean people, the history of these terms are limited to the period after westernization.

Therefore, for the general public, hanbok is somewhat stereotyped with the image of clothes from the time the term was coined and then on.

Then, should we consider hanbok as our traditional clothes after the westernization of clothing culture in Korea? Or should we understand hanbok as all clothes that existed in our history?

What does “hanbok” mean? 

Dictionary definitions of hanbok are ambivalent when it comes to this categorization of hanbok by period. In the Korean Dictionary, hanbok is defined as “clothing unique to our country and especially refers to the kind of clothing worn during the Joseon Dynasty.”

In contrast, the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture defines hanbok as “clothes unique to our country,” explaining the history of our clothes from the time of the Three Kingdoms to the present. In North Korea, hanbok is referred to as “Joseon clothes,” which can signify “clothes worn during the Joseon Dynasty,” similar to the definition in the Korean dictionary in the South, or “clothes of the Joseon people.”

The “clothing of Joseon Dynasty”, however, is still ambiguous since the clothing style of the late Joseon period was strikingly different from that of the early Joseon period and was transformed again with the introduction of western clothing at the end of Joseon Dynasty. Thus, considering the viewpoint of clothing history, it is not reasonable to define hanbok as a single style of clothing or confine it to one point in time.

The Change in Hanbok – Joseon Dynasty 

For example, the clothing of early Joseon received dominant influence from China based on the Confucian tradition oriented toward the Han (漢) culture spanning from the Tang Dynasty to Song and Ming Dynasties. However, after the fall of Ming Dynasty in 1644, Joseon did not follow the clothing system of Qing Dynasty and instead independently went through the process of ‘Joseonization.’

The changes in Joseon clothing from mid–17th century to early 20th century–such as the stylistic changes in the crown and brim of gat, the extravagance in gat string, the form–fitting top and voluminous skirt trend in typical female attire of jeogori and chima, the extravagance of faux hair and banning thereof, etc.–happened independently from surrounding countries.

Going through such unique evolutionary process, the clothing of male and female in the late Joseon Dynasty developed into a style distinct from the clothing of China or Japan at that time and formed the archetype of ‘hanbok’ for later generations.

The Change in Hanbok – After the Joseon Dynasty 

However, with the introduction of western clothes after Joseon opened its doors to foreign countries, these unique Joseon garments were rearranged, with some vanishing from the wardrobe and others being fused with foreign elements.

A variety of men’s (outer garment s) and sleeveless upper garments that had developed in the latter half of Joseon period disappeared into the backdrop of history, while magoja, a modified version of magua from the Qing Dynasty became popular. In addition, men started to wear western waistcoat made from traditional fabric.

As for women’s clothing, shoulder straps attached to the waistband of traditional chima (wrap– around skirt) for convenience while tubular or seamless skirts were made as well. With brooches and western snap fasteners substituting the goruem (front sash to tie together the left and right flaps) on the jeogori, the hem line was naturally balanced without having to use the inside goreum, which eventually disappeared. 

Thus, hanbok during this period did not inherit the clothes of Joseon Dynasty in their entirety but were reorganized as many traditional elements were deserted, and foreign elements were adopted.

So… what is hanbok? 

We generally perceive hanbok as a representative element of traditional culture embodying Korean identity, the essence of traditional Korea aesthetics. However, from the point of time when the notion of ‘hanbok’ was established, hanbok was being fused with foreign elements including the Western culture to a large extent.

The Fusion of the West and East in Hanbok

The hybridization of Western and non–Western dresses since the 20th century is a topic continuously receiving attention in the field of global fashion history. 

In this regard, there are four major phenomena that have been studied in meaningful ways in the field of Korean dress history.

1) The first phenomenon

The first phenomenon is the hanbok reform movement with the introduction of convenient elements in western clothing in early 20th century.

2) The second phenomenon: Daily Hanbok 

The second phenomenon is the birth of ‘daily hanbok’ in the 1980s. Hanbok had become a special garment worn only on special occasions. It became splendid and attained the status of a formal and ceremonial dress. However, there was a movement to reclaim our clothes that had disappeared from our daily lives. 

If the ‘reformed hanbok’ in the early 20th century was an attempt to improve hanbok by adopting western elements of clothing on the foundation of hanbok, the ‘daily hanbok’ movement that emerged after the full adaptation of western clothing as daily wear involved adding elements of hanbok and its natural aesthetics to the basic composition of western clothing. The intent of daily hanbok was to revive common usage of our traditional clothes.

The Difficulties with Daily Hanbok

However, it was impossible to return to our old clothes prior to westernization of clothing completely ruling out the western technologies that are already prevalent in the clothing industry.

As daily hanbok was often worn by anti–government and anti–American activists, it was also seen as an anti– fashion subcultural style symbolically expressing resistance to mainstream fashion. However, this movement for daily hanbok failed to develop into a mainstream fashion.

Meanwhile, with the economic development from the 1970s thru the 1990s, the domestic ready–to–wear

They include Kim Dong–soon, Lee Shin–woo, Jin Tae–ok, Lee Sang–bong, Seol Yoon–hyung and Hong Mi–hwa. As western dress designers, they explored Korean beauty as their unique creative strategy to distinguish themselves from other designers on the world stage.

3) The third phenomenon

On the other hand, as a hanbok designer, Lee Young–hee introduced her world of fashion on the global stage with designs that combined western elements with traditional Korean elements. After decades of indifference to the beauty of our tradition in pursuit of global standard focusing on westernization and modernization of clothing culture, we saw for the first time how traditional beauty became the major trend in the collections of these designers.

This is the third phenomenon that reflected the major trend of culturally authenticating out traditional dress alongside foreign elements.

4) The fourth phenomenon: New Hanbok

The fourth phenomenon is the emergence of a new genre called ‘new hanbok,’ featuring novel designs and embracing the characteristics of various non–Western local cultures by taking advantage of the 21st century development of the Internet that allows instant sharing and exchange of information and culture.

For young consumers, ‘new hanbok’ was a means of ‘new, unique and eye–catching fashion statement’ rather than ‘a tradition that needs to be preserved.’ As the practice of hanbok design was dominated by the post–modern global fashion principle that ‘any style can become a fashion,’ the social norms and conventions that defined the design elements of hanbok such as form, color, material, pattern and decoration collapsed.

The development of traditional silk fabrics may have characterized hanbok in the 20th century, but it is taken for granted that hanbok in the 21st century are made with all kinds of materials such as lace, Liberty cotton made in Britain, silk sarees made in India and so on.

Modern Hanbok: A Fusion with Other Cultures 

Beyond the traditional image of elegance and modesty, some young designers are adopting bold and avant–garde styling and hiring other ethnic groups as models so as to target the citizen of the world for hanbok consumption. In the late 19 th and early 20th centuries, when the Meiji government of Japan promoted the image of kosode (小袖, literally meaning ‘small sleeve’) as a garment symbolizing Japanese identity with a new name of ‘ kimono ,’ dressing gowns based on the patterns and shape of kimono enjoyed explosive popularity in Europe with the craze for Japonisme.

The modern style qipao, which was based on the original garment of the Manchu people in Qing Dynasty and turned into a dress fitted to the body by adopting the Western garment construction method, became the dress symbolizing the modernity of Chinese women in the 1920s and 30s. This dress also gained visible universality as it was adopted by Western women as an evening dress.

Terms originating from detail elements of Japanese or Chinese garments, such as ‘kimono sleeves’ and ‘mandarin collar,’ have become current fashion vocabularies commonly used in the composition of Western dresses.

The Complicated History of 20th Century Hanbok

There are so many examples indicating the hybridization of Western and non–Western dresses since the 20th century that it is no exaggeration to say that the history of world fashion since the 20th century is a continuation of appearance, prevalence and extinctions of non–Western costume elements.

Therefore, Western fashion academia and museums have shown interest in the study of ethnic clothing in non–Western regions and have paid close attention to orientalism fashion. In the early 1980s, when Japanese designers such as Yoji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake conquered the world fashion with designs based on Eastern aesthetics, the Japanese government promptly laid the foundation that would promote their historical significance, which is why their influences are highlighted all across the world even to this day.

The Re-Orientalizing of Traditional Clothing

From the end of the 20th century, Asian countries saw a trend of “re–orientalizing” traditional clothing. Since the 1990s, yukata (a simple style of single–layer kimono) look became popular among the young people, reviving kimono as a street fashion.

The famous rock star and fashion designer Yoshiki attracted public attention when he presented bold and challenging kimono looks at the Tokyo Fashion Week in 2015. The 2016 Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu entered the headlines as young Japanese people presented a variety of fancy kimono fashion during the celebrations including a look that exposes the shoulders.

A Boom in Hanbok as Casual Fashion

In Korea, there was a boom in wearing modern hanbok to clubs or on world tour and uploading those looks on social networking sites. Also, the popularity of hanbok among visitors at old palaces and museums increased significantly.

In Vietnam, the aodai boom in the late 1980s and 1990s led to the phenomenon of aodai design being adopted even in school uniforms. Meanwhile, being a nation consisting of 56 ethnic minorities, there was a growing awareness in China for the lack of a unified form of national dress that can be revived as a 21st century fashion to represent the Chinese identity.

Accordingly, some younger generations in China started the ‘Hanfu Movement’ to reestablish their Chinese identity through the traditional garments of the Han ethnic group which constitutes the majority of Chinese population. Because qipao is associated with the Manchu people as its origin, the Hanfu Movement claims to stand for the clothing style of Han–Tang–Song–Ming embodying the Confucian tradition.

It appeared certain that ethnic dresses in Asian countries had fossilized as tradition in the course of westernization in the 20th century. These dresses, however, are revived as new and even exotic fashion as they are ingeniously altered, worn playfully and spread among younger generations at great speed.

These movements are taking place not only within each Asian country but also in overseas countries via the Internet among study–abroad students and immigrant communities.

The role of the internet in Hanbok’s popularity

Moreover, the formation of world– wide mania groups irrespective of nationality and ethnic affiliation, such as ‘Hanfu community,’ ‘Kimono community,’ and ‘Hanryu followers of K fashion and K beauty’ and so on, serve as a meaningful wake–up call for fashion theorists and historians.

The Costume Society of America has shown interest in ethnic clothing since 1989. At the 2019 symposium entitled “The Pacific Rim & Beyond: Diffusion and Diversity in Dress,” CSA mainly covered the importance of teaching about the history of dress of various regions from a global perspective while breaking away from the Western–oriented history of dress.

Existing standards of tradition are no longer valid and traditional elements are recognized only for their usefulness as inspirational resource for recreation. In today’s global age where sharing and acquiring knowledge and information is becoming more and more easy, learning and researching about hanbok is no longer a privilege exclusive to Korean people.

The Study of Hanbok

Since communal cultural heritage such as hanbok is not under copyright, anyone, regardless of nationality, can engage in creative activities using hanbok as a creative resource.

The special exhibition held at Korean Cultural Center New York until this September features the creative hanbok works by Ying Bonny Cai, which is evaluated as a monumental project by a non–Korean. Recently, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, announced the intention to eliminate exhibition rooms by country such as Korean gallery, Chinese gallery and so on, advocating for collection exhibitions that transcend nationality.

These approaches imply that the global art market will take steps beyond cultural nationalism in the future. Koreans are endowed with favorable conditions to access and research hanbok as their own culture.

The Future of Hanbok

However, we will lose our hegemony for future fashion of hanbok if we give up on researching and developing hanbok. Recognizing the global trends discussed above, related academia in Korea must make an effort to promote researches on the history and direction of Korean national dress and enhance their quality to world– class level.

They should also pay attention to what roles ethnic dresses other than hanbok have played and continue to play in the world fashion stage. Learning from the experience of the fashion industry that witnessed the dissolution of boundaries between hanbok and western clothes, the academia should abandon such strict separation between ‘Major in Korean Dress’ and ‘Major in Western Dress’.

Instead, it should diversify and integrate curriculums in order to foster experts who can move in and out of Western and Eastern costume trajectories and utilize both elements for future fashion design.

It is time that we confront the fact that the currently imposed criticism on today’ s hanbok practice is associated with the responses of the academia and higher educational institutions that have separated and reduced Korean dress from the general curriculum.

We hope that relevant organizations, the academia and higher educational institutions expand the breadth and depth of education with the vision to develop future design competitiveness and train hanbok experts who are not only well versed in the history and composition of hanbok but also have extensive knowledge about the diversity of world regional dresses and current fashion trends and major issues.