These days, the experience of touring South Korea’s historical sites like Gyeongbokgung, Bukchon Hanok Village, and Jeonju Hanok Village is given an “authentic” touch by offering visitors the opportunity to don a hanbok, the country’s traditional clothing, which undeniably makes for great souvenir photos. But beyond what has become a trend among locals and tourists alike is a history that’s deeply rooted in the peninsula’s rich past. So before you pick a pretty hanbok at the rental shop on your trip, make sure you know the most essential facts about South Korea’s most prized garment.
The early design of the hanbok was inspired by the clothing of nomads from Northeastern and Western Asia. Its design, however, evolved over time, making way for the wearer’s ease of movement as well as the incorporation of shamanistic motifs.
The standard hanbok you see today takes after the style established during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) when the goreum (the bow tied in front of the chest) was added to the jacket known as the jeogori.
The hanbok’s general structure is made up of the jeogori and chima (skirt) for the women and the jeogori and baji (pants) for the men. When worn together, the slim top and wide bottom create a shape similar to a bell—a unique and rather special feature of the hanbok that sets it apart from other traditional costumes.
The classic Korean aesthetic is depicted on the hanbok through a delicate flow of lines and angles that can be seen on the outfit’s baerae (the curved bottom line formed by the jeogori’s sleeves) and the clean-cut angles of the dongjeong (the creased white lining of the jeogori’s collar).
As is, the hanbok appears flat, but once it’s worn, it achieves dimensionality and even adds grace to the wearer, as the wide and flexible skirt hides the movements of the lower body—so much so that the person wearing it may seem to be floating on air.
The hanbok has been made with various materials throughout its more than 1,600-year history. In fact, contemporary designers continue to experiment with different types of fabric for their oeuvre.
Traditionally, though, the material of the hanbok represent the wearer’s place in the social hierarchy. Those born into royalty wore hanbok made with the finest materials like silk and satin, highlighting their power and authority. Same goes for high-ranking officials and people of nobility. The common folk, on the other hand, wore hanbok made from hemp and cotton at best, suggesting their humble backgrounds.
The colors of the hanbok play an integral role in defining the wearer’s character and social status.
Those from royalty or nobility wear hanbok naturally dyed with bright colors, while commoners wore hanbok that came in light and earthy colors, which can also be attributed to the materials used to make their modest hanbok.
To decide on a hanbok’s colors, Koreans follow a traditional color spectrum called “obangsaek,” which is composed of black and white, red, yellow, and blue. These hues refer to the theory of yin and yang and the five elements—water and metal, fire, earth, and wood, respectively.
A secondary spectrum called “ogansaek” is also used to add variety to the shades of the hanbok. The ogansaek features colors drawn from the combination of the primary colors such as green, light blue, and bold red.
Here are some common hanbok colors and what they symbolize:
Infinity, creation, intelligence, wisdom, death, darkness
*Black was often worn by intellectuals and—as the legend goes—by the grim reaper. Black hanbok is also worn during funerals.
Purity, modesty, peace, patriotism, life
Passion, love, good fortune, wealth, masculine energy, fire, the cardinal direction of the south
*Red is commonly worn by women on their wedding day.
New birth, clarity, cool-feminine energy, the direction of the east
*Court officials wore blue coats, while women of the court had blue skirts.
Center of the universe
*In the past, the color yellow was exclusively worn by royalty and gold was reserved for the emperor. Light yellow, however, was worn by unmarried women.
New beginning, youth
*Despite its symbolism, green—ironically—was typically worn by married women.
Symbolic patterns were embroidered on hanbok, mainly to express the wearer’s wishes. For instance, a wedding hanbok may feature peonies for honor and wealth or pomegranates for fertility. Powerful emblems such as dragons, phoenixes, cranes, and tigers could only be seen on the hanbok of royalty and high-ranking officials.
There’s a wide selection of footwear that goes with the hanbok. For women, kkotshin (silk shoes with flower embroidery), unhye (low-cut silk shoes decorated with cloud-shaped silk pieces), and dinghy (low-cut leather shoes with scroll patterns) were some of the most common footwear. Meanwhile, men usually wore heukhye (leather and fleece shoes) and taesahye (animal skin shoes lined with silk). Although commoners—regardless of gender—wore jipshin or straw sandals. To protect their feet, men and women also wore white socks known as beoseon.
The hanbok may look elegant on its own, but people, especially women, who can afford to spice up their look and outfit sure have a multitude of accessories to choose from. This includes the norigae, an ornamental tassel with a charm, which is tied to the goreum, coat strings, or the waist of the skirt; daenggi, a thick decorative ribbon tied at the end of a woman’s braided hair (daenggi-meori); baesshi-daenggi, a decorative piece worn atop one’s head with the daenggi-meori; and the binyeo, a pin made from wood, jade, gold, or animal bones—among many others—that holds the bun together.
Men don’t usually accessorize their outfit, but they may opt to wear headgears like gat, a type of hat made of horse hair used to protect one’s sangtu or topknot; heukrip, a type of gat that’s smaller in size and worn by upper class men; and paeraengi, a bamboo hat worn by commoners.
Renting a Hanbok
Most hanbok you will find at rental shops near historical attractions already have a modern twist to them, as characterized by trendy patterns and colors.
Once you’re at the shop, you are free to choose the jeogori and chima or baji you’ll be wearing. But feel free to ask the store staff for some recommendations, especially if you want to stay true (or as close as possible) to tradition.
Hanbok rental shops usually offer free hairstyling services and a small handbag, where you can stash your valuables. If you’re bringing a big bag with you, they will keep your belongings in the meantime as you tour the surrounding areas.
On average, you can wear the hanbok you rented for two to four hours. Going beyond the time limit may incur additional fees, so make sure to keep track of the time no matter how much you’re enjoying your sageuk-worthy #OOTD.
Now that you know the most essential facts about the hanbok, live out your period K-Drama dreams by booking your hanbok experience with KKday now!