The Hanbok is the traditional dress of Korea, worn by men and women, rich and poor, across the north and the south for over 1600 years. Throughout this time, its general design was similar to the sloping eaves of the Korean traditional house – the hanok – with a soft division of lines and angles. Throughout the centuries, it’s obviously maintained its popularity for good reason. It’s a garment of pure beauty, synonymous with Korean aesthetics and tradition. Thoroughly theatrical and distinct, it’s hard to not admire the strong visual structure of the hanging sleeves, bulging full-length skirt, floral detailing and pretty bows.
Women’s Hanboks are comprised of two elements: the jeogori (cropped blouse) and the chima (skirt). It’s said that the wide curved arms of the jeogori represent the warmth of the embrace of the Korean people, and the wide flowing chima symbolises space and freedom. A sad representation, given the borders that now divide the Korean people. Under neath the dress is special type of (adorable) Hanbok underwear and a petticoat which adds the fullness to the silhouette. The whole look is completed with accessories such as a Norigae (hanging good luck charm) and hair accessories. The loose cut of the style makes for very comfortable wear, this is perhaps part of the reason why they’ve been so popular with all Koreans, regardless of class, for centuries.
Traditional Hanboks were vivid garments, with colour used to symbolise the five elements of yin and yang: white (metal), black (water), yellow (earth), red (fire) and blue (wood). The colour of ones Hanbok was also used to symbolise status – unmarried women wore yellow jeogori and red chima. Maidens (and spinsters) even had their own exclusive hairstyle: Daenggi, where the hair is braided with a thick ribbon tied at the end. Lower classes typically wore white for everyday wear. Variations in style and textiles were indicators of class, profession, and social status and were also employed for garments for different seasons and genders.
There’s nothing like the Hanbok in Western fashion, which uses straight lined fabric and stitching. In contrast, the Hanbok is made from a flat fabric cut in a linear shape, but which takes on a dimensionality when worn thanks to its combination of straight and curved lines. The form it creates flows off the body. They are effortlessly elegant and flatteringly feminine – giving the illusion of a tiny upper body, bound waist and full flowing lower half. Basically, everyone looks great in a Hanbok.
Due to massive economic development in South Korea and the Westernisation of traditional styles, Hanboks have mostly disappeared from contemporary fashion. Despite their flattering form, they are by nature conservative (arms and legs all totally covered) and so have slowly disappeared from everyday wear during the last century. Today, they are sometimes worn on formal occasions such as weddings, the birth of a baby and during traditional festivals. The South Korean government recently introduced a national ‘Hanbok day’ (usually held in October) to encourage people to wear and celebrate them.
Where to rent a Hanbok in Seoul
Hiring one for the day is a popular tourist attraction now in Seoul, and you can see many young Koreans and foreigners walking down the blossom-strewn streets of Hanok villages and posing near the traditional palaces, making the most of the photo opportunities the Hanbok creates.
Renting a Hanbok is pretty easy and widely available, especially in the traditional Hanok villages such as Namsangol and Bukchon. Prices vary depending on which type of hanbok you want to wear, if you want you hair styled and if you want to hire a photographer or use a studio etc, but you can expect to pay anywhere between 10,000 to 30,000 KRW for the day.
To get to Bukchon Hanok village take the Seoul subway (line 3) to Anguk Station and exit at gate 1 or 2. Walk straight for about 300m to arrive at Bukchon Hanok Village.
Where to Buy a Hanbok in Seoul
Again price will vary depending on quality and if you want to buy a Hanbok off the rack or select your own fabric and have it made to measure.
I visited Gwangjang market (ground floor past the food stalls) and Dongdaemun market (second floor) which have a huge selection of Hanbok shops and tailors. One should expect to pay in between 200,000 KRW for a cheap one and 400,000 for a good one with underwear and matching accessories, budget more if you should desire extras like hand embroidery and beading.
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