Hanbok is the traditional Korean costume, worn by both Koreans and diasporic Korean-Americans at weddings and celebrations. Many people mistake them for Japanese kimonos, but they are very different, especially at the bottom. Kimonos are held tightly, funneling narrowly at the legs, and limiting the wearer’s movement. Hanboks on the other hand are open at the bottom, resembling wide-funneled Regency dresses. They are not constrictive in shape, and allow for freedom of movement. They speak, in a way, to the paradoxical situation of women in traditional Korea. While they lived fairly circumscribed lives, Korean women also enjoyed certain symbolic and literal freedoms–symbolic in terms of being able to keep their maiden names (Korean women do not take their husbands’ names), and literal in being afforded a freedom of physical movement not often allowed in other nations abiding to Confucian beliefs.
Hanboks are very colorful, and it’s what women traditionally wore–at home and outside. They’re made up of a short, narrow jacket tied down tightly at the breasts, and a long, wide skirt, usually of a different color. Color was an important part of a hanbok’s selection, informing others not only of the wearer’s taste, but also her social situation, marital status, and wealth. Made of silk and ramie, hanboks are structured and built in such a brilliant architectural way as to prevent the fabric from sitting dully over the wearer’s body. Ideally, the skirt part of the hanbok floats slightly above the body, creating the feeling of lightness and elegance.
Nowadays, hanboks are relegated to wedding celebrations, and reserved to the older members of the wedding party, like the mothers and grandmothers of the couple. But like Indian saris and Japanese kimonos, they immediately transport both the wearers and the viewers to a distant, intriguing past.
(Photo of the film Hwang Jin Yi, about a courtesan who falls in love with a male servant.)