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Beauty of Traditional Korean Hanbok
Nowadays, most people do not consider the hanbok, Korea's national costume, as daily wear, preferring to wear it on special occasions such as social gatherings and seasonal festivals. Still, for many modern Koreans, wearing a hanbok is a way to show pride in their cultural heritage.
As is true with any national costume, the hanbok is a reflection of the nation's climate as well as its aesthetics. A study of the hanbok can thus provide insight into the character of the Korean people.
A hanbok basically consists of an upper part and a lower part. The woman's hanbok is composed of a chogori, a bolero-like blouse, and a ch'ima, a skirt. A vest called paeja, a jacket called magoja, and a coat called turumagi may be worn over the outfit. A headgear called ayam or chobawi may be worn to complete the ensemble. A man's outfit is similarly composed of a chogori and paji, trousers. Whereas a vest or racket mayor may not be worn over the chogori, traditional etiquette requires a man to always wear a coat or turumagi over his hanbok when outside his house.
In olden days, hanbok differed according to the wearer's gender, class, profession and social status, with other variations depending on individual preference and lifestyle. Ceremonial clothes for weddings, funerals and other important occasions, especially those worn by royalty and court officials, showed the most diversity.
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However, it is the basic two-part out, fit for daily wear that has long been favored by Koreans, regardless of class or profession. It was even worn under ceremonial gowns on special occasions. Referred to as hanbok in the narrow sense of the word, it has become formal attire for modern Koreans.
Like Korean art, the hanbok is characterized by flowing lines and curves The chogori is especially rich in subtle curves, such as in the collar, the underside of the sleeves, the hem and the fly, which are sometimes highlighted with dark lines. The silhouette of the dress also has curves that undulate into more curves as the wearer moves. The ties and folds of the dress also create flowing curves.
A straight silhouette was the fashion in the mid-sixteenth century, but it gave way to voluminous curves in the mid-eighteenth century which evolved into more moderate, natural curves in the late-nineteenth century. The changes in the silhouette reflected changes in the lines of each part of the costume. Nonetheless, the hanbok has been characterized by flowing, supple lines throughout the centuries. In tang-ui, a jacket worn by court ladies during the Choson period, the curve of the front fly reverses sharply as it meets the curve of the hem, emphasizing the beauty of reversal The sharp angle thus formed at each corner is one of the aesthetic points commonly found in all forms of Korean arts.
The curved line is visible not only in clothes but also in the eaves of traditional buildings, in dance movements and in handicrafts and paintings, and can even be heard in classical melodies. It is also visible in the eternal circle of t'aeguk on a fan and in a small iron, indu, used for pressing the collar of the chogori. The beauty of the curved line cannot be stressed enough when discussing the beauty of hanbok.
Empty or open space is a characteristic common to Korean arts. The blank areas of a porcelain jar, free of any ornamentation, complement its beauty. The blank areas in a painting inspire the viewer to fill the canvas with empathy. The same holds true for the hanbok. As it covers most of the wearer's body, the hanbok abounds in blank areas. Women's skirts and men's coats and robes especially have large unadorned areas. Koreans have traditionally favored plain fabric for clothing and even when the fabric has decorations, they are generally patterns woven into the fabric rather than added later. This contributes to the look of empty spaces that characterizes the hanbok.
Fabric pieces of contrasting colors appliqued on the collar, armpits, cuffs and ties enhance the beauty of the woman's chogori. At the same time, pleats along the upper rim of the skirt flow into long, fluid lines which, shifting as the wearer moves, serve as a decorative element for the great expanse of blank space that is the skirt.
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The empty spaces of the hanbok allow for versatility as testified to by plentiful anecdotes. When a woman soiled a skirt she had borrowed from her neighbor, Shin Saimdang, a famous poetess and painter of the Choson period (1392-1910), painted a grapevine on the skirt, thus solving the woman's dilemma for she could sell the decorated skirt at a high price and reimburse the owner. Men often painted on the skirts of their mistresses as an expression of their affection. In fact, it was the dream of every kisaeng (professional entertainer) to have her skirt painted by her gentleman friend and she would shamelessly flaunt such a skirt.
Beauty of White
Ancient Koreans had such a great predilection for white that they were long known as "the white-clad people." White was used in both men's and women's clothing because it contrasts well with black hair. In fact, today's sartorial experts concur that black and white is one of the best color schemes for Koreans. They reason that the black and white contrast becomes Koreans because the tonal values of their hair color and skin color differ so radically.
The Korean preference for white clothes was so excessive that the government often promulgated special orders to ban white clothes, but the people responded by dyeing their clothes the lightest blue, ivory or gray. The frequent government prohibitions suggest that people continued to wear white, government orders notwithstanding.
White has been favored in many countries but the persistence with which Koreans adhered to the color for thousands of years sets them apart from other peoples. The powerful attachment to white is believed to be closely related with the innate nature of Koreans to value purity in material and spirit. The Korean predilection for white should be understood as a spiritual matter rather than as a visual preference.
On the other hand, however, combinations of strong colors are another feature of the hanbok as evidenced by such oft-cited descriptions as "a green blouse over a red skirt," "a yellow blouse over a red skirt," and "a green blouse over a blue skirt."
Whereas commoners wore primary colors mainly for seasonal festivals and ceremonial occasions such as weddings, members of the privileged classes wore them anytime. The ruling class preferred primary colors because they were flattering to the wearer. Of the five cardinal colors, yellow symbolized the emperor and empress and red, the king and queen. The color of a woman's ceremonial dress was determined by the class and position of her spouse.
Complementarily characterizes the combinations of primary colors used in the hanbok Green against red and yellow against blue, for example, are attractive because of their bright eye-catching contrast. In ceremonies and rituals, garments of such colors attract attention to the wearers the major participants in the events. Primary colors were also believed to expel evil spirits. Conversely, the colorfulness signified auspiciousness. Saek-tong, a rainbow-like combination of colors, was favored for wedding gowns, festival clothes, children's clothes and also for the ritual costumes of shamans. Saektong chogori, saektong turumagi (coat) and coats of the five cardinal colors were also quite popular.
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Primary color schemes are also frequently found in embroidery. For example, wave and rock patterns on ceremonial gowns and on pouches were embroidered with layers of different colors to accentuate the colorfulness of the primary colors. Harmonious combinations of primary colors can also be seen in women's ornaments and accessories.
One attribute of the hanbok is that it conceals almost all of the wearer's body. In the Confucian society of the Choson Dynasty, which considered the greatest virtue for men to be integrity and for women, chastity, social values were reflected in clothing. Men refrained from being seen outside without the proper attire, including a hat, and women hid their faces with overcoats when they went out beyond the confines of their houses.
Women put on layers of clothing because of the Confucian edict that "females should never reveal their flesh to other people." Under their skirts, women wore baggy pants over three pairs of increasingly smaller pants and a loin cloth. The layers of undergarments resulted in a voluminous lower body with a curvaceous silhouette. Because a woman wore a tight-fitting blouse under her chogori her overall appearance was of a figure with a narrow, tight upper body and a flaring, voluminous lower body. To make her skirt even more voluminous and also to support her waist, an upper-class woman would wear two kinds of underskirts when she dressed for formal occasions.
Concealing most of the body under layers of garments, the hanbok subtlety highlights the beauty and grace of the female figure, titillating the viewer's imagination about what it hides.
The rigid concealment of the hanbok notwithstanding, women of the lower class during the Choson period evinced an ambivalence regarding the exposure of their breasts or undergarments. Depending on the movement of the wearer, the wind, or the use of transparent fabrics, undergarments may be seen beneath the outer wear. This type of subtle exposure of the body is quite sensual.
An example of bold exposure is the baring of one's breasts. Given the excessive preference for male heirs in the Choson society, it is understandable that giving birth to a son was a great source of pride for a woman. A woman would proudly bare her breasts to nurse her child, deliberately provoking the envy of other women. In this sense, the direct exposure of the body can be understood as a Status symbol.
After the mid-Choson period, hanbok fashions became more revealing, at least in terms of revealing the wearer's undergarments. The sight of bloomers showing below a hiked-up skirt, as depicted in genre paintings of the time, must have been quite shocking to those who adhered to the strict dress code of old. This provocative show of one's undergarments is believed to have been an exhibitionistic gesture. This type of exhibitionism is described in detail in Ch'unhyang-jon, the popular romantic Story of a kisaeng's daughter and the son of a government official. As Ch'unhyang rides the swing on a late spring day, "her red skirt billowed and her white silk bloomers flapped loosely in the southeasterly wind." The writer must have titillated readers of this period with his reference to undergarments, which were considered unmentionable at the time.
Photographs taken in the closing years of the Choson Kingdom, indicate that the showing of one's bloomers was a fashion trend in vogue at that time. These changes in fashion were obviously the result of changing social values and ethics. They were also part of the process by which some undergarments developed into clothes for outer wear.
Meanwhile, movement contributes to the aesthetics of the hanbok. It is seen in the tie of the chogori, hair ribbons, tassels attached to pendants and other personal ornaments that undulate rhythmically and hairpins that flutter ever so subtlety.
The tasseled belt strings of the man's coat move in a natural rhythm as the wearer moves. The long hat string, one of the few luxuries the modest gentlemen-scholars of Choson indulged in, swing and sway as do the pendants adorning the gentleman's folding fan. Pendulous to the movement of the fan, the fan pendants evoked visions of wind with every movement of the fan.
In the Sword Dance, the bouncing of the plumes of the dancer's hat and the flapping of the military robe she puts on over her skirt and chogori magnify the dancer's movements and make the dance exciting. The long, white scarf the dancer wields in the Nun's Dance and the Salp'uri Dance effectively conveys a feeling of fluctuation.
The fluttering ties of a woman's chogori and the hanging ribbons of the skirt ties were as integral to the everyday dress of the Choson period as were the ribbons worn in the hair and pendants worn on the chest The maedup (ornamental knots) and tassels of the pendants are in keeping with the line and motion of the chogori and skirt of the hanbok. Pendulous tassels were very popular at the time and were used to decorate a great number of items such as perfume pouches, small ornamental knives and bags.
Fluttering pins were also popular as evidenced by the their use in bridal crowns and various other headgear and hair decorations. They consisted of pretty ornaments attached to the end of thin wires so that they would flutter at the slightest movement of the wearer.
The fluttering and swaying of the ornamental pins and tassels are yet another form of undulating line, a visual expression of an aesthetic search for the natural beauty of movement.
Beauty of Symbolism
The hanbok is replete with symbolism, in its colors, patterns and ornaments, a quality that is still evident in taday's hanbok. At wedding ceremonies, for example, a groom's mother always wears blue or a similar color and the bride's mother always wears pink or a similar color.
In a traditional hanbok, the purple collar of a woman's chogori symbolized a husband and the blue cuffs, a son. If a woman could wear a chogori embellished with a purple collar and blue cuffs in her old age, she was regarded as truly blessed. The combination of green chogori and red skirt was reserved for brides. An unmarried woman wore a yellow chogori and a red skirt for seasonal festivals.
Patterns on the fabric of a hanbok were not only decorations but also expressions of the wearer's wishes. Peonies embroidered on a bridal gown were indicative of a wish for wealth and honor. The lotus flower, symbolizing nobility, was a popular motif for embroidered folding screens to be used in a woman's room in summer. Bats and pomegranates symbolized many children. As axes represented sons, a pregnant woman would wear an axeshaped pendant in a wish to give birth to a son. The use of decorations featuring dragons, phoenixes, cranes and tigers were the reserve of the privileged classes because they symbolized royalty and civil and military officials of high rank.
More common and straightforward expressions of wishes were the use of Chinese characters or motifs designed on the basis of the characters. For example, the character pok, meaning "good fortune," and su, meaning "longevity," were used extensively in the hope of having good fortune and a long life.
It is no exaggeration to say that there were almost no patterns used in the hanbok that were meaningless. Also, ornaments had not only the function of complementing clothes but also practical and supplicatory functions. For instance, perfume containers, needle cases and small knives were ornamental and functional, whereas tiger claws, which were believed to keep evil spirits away from the wearer, and auspicious bat decorations were ornamental and supplicatory.
The diverse aesthetic elements of the hanbok embody the Korean sense of beauty. The shape and flowing lines of the hanbok are derived from the Korean preference for natural beauty and the need to be in harmony with nature. The harmony of black and white and the combinations of primary colors, the blank spaces, and the use of symbolism grew out of the process of expressing the personal character and desires of the wearer and seem to be the result of sensible reasoning and controlled sentiments. The aesthetic framework of the hanbok is based on the Korean preference for naturalness, a desire for supernatural protection and blessings, and a Confucian-inspired dress code.