Hanbok? What do you think about it?

Hello. This is AKIA Talking now writing from Korea. Today, I’ll talk about something not necessarily in my wheelhouse. It is fashion. It is Halloween after all.

Hanbok? If you are reading this, you must have seen some “Hanboks” on a Korean drama.

What is “Hanbok”?

Well it is a general term for pre-modern age Traditional Korean dress ware. This includes the outfits you see in the royal household and those worn by peasants. If you see any mainstream historical period piece Korean drama, you may get an idea of what I am talking about.

Some interesting examples of Hanbok being used as a main topic in Korean dramas include  Jang Ok-Jung(2013) and Come! Jang Bo-Ri (2014).

What are your impressions about the Hanboks you see in those shows?
Are they beautiful?
Do you want to try one out?

The status Hanboks have in Korean society is rather interesting. For those so called “pillars of social morality and tradition", it is a travesty that Hanboks have no practical role in people’s lives. They are right for the “no” part but not the “travesty” part.

For the most part, Hanbok is dead as a practical daily wear. It has been dead for more than 2 decades. It is so dead that all the flesh is gone and you can only see clean bone at the moment. Its blank eye sockets are starring right at you and you can see a worm crawling out of a socket.

There have been “Frankenstein” attempts to in modernizing Hanbok which are called “Improved Hanbok”. The results are less of a  Mary Shelley’s monster and more of a “I, Frankenstein” (2014). I mean Aaron Eckhart staring in that movie as the monster looks smoking hot as a monster. As with that movie, it did not matter as “Improved Hanbok” did not catch on with mainstream Korean society. So no crazy scientist screaming…
“Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!” (from Frankenstein (1931))

For the most part, Hanbok is a costume in the vein of the princess costume on the character actor playing “snow white” in Disney land. In my case, I haven’t worked at an amusement park and haven’t worn Hanbok since junior high school I think. Or maybe it was middle school.

In any case, it was before we had old school modems.

So when do Koreans wear Hanboks? While I am generalizing, this can be divided into 3 periods in one’s life. The first is when you are a little kid and your parents try to put you into cute outfits for special occasions. So, this would be your first hanbok.

The second time would be when you get married. You get a nice hanbok for that occasion which you mostly wear once or so to take pictures and during the reception. This is your second hanbok. You would most likely get the most out of this second hanbok as you tend to suit up of holidays or family occasions as you are the newlyweds. You need to look pretty and cute.

How long this period last depends on how traditional your family or in-laws are. Among the newlywed couples, the wives tend to wear hanbok for longer periods since they are females. Once you pop out a kid or two, then you are less required to wear hanboks. This means that your no longer the cute newlyweds. You’re getting old and the second hanbok wearing period is ending.

The third period is when you are settling into middle age and either your children or nephew/nieces are getting married. Then, you tend to wear hanboks at family events such as weddings but this is more up to you. You are the boss! This is your third hanbok. I am not including the hanbok you wear into your grave here.

So, overall, you only end up wearing hanboks less than 15 times in your entire life.

Why is this? For the most part, it is because Hanbok is a primitive garment compared to anything that we wear now. The origins can be traced back several centuries without much change to its fundamental form. When I say primitive, I means in terms of the technology that makes up a garment and not necessarily the technology used to make a garment although that is also true.

Hanbok is basically attached to your body using a few bands of ribbons. There is no zippers, no straps, no laces. Even the buttons are more for decoration than any practical use. As a result, when wearing Hanbok, you feel like you are wearing a puffy potato sacks stitched together albeit with nice fabric preferably silk. The closest feeling I had was wearing either a graduation gown, a hospital gown, or a shower gown but without any of your modern garments underneath. Thus, can you imagine how ill-fitting and uncomfortable they are?

In  addition, the fabrics used in most modern Hanbok are silk variants which tend to look very bright and nice but are delicate which makes maintenance a pain and they do not flow with your movement well. I am talking from wearing men’s Hanboks but I do think this applies to women’s too.

So, why should anyone be surprised by the fact that  Hanbok is dead as a practical garment? Is any one saying that the British should be still wearing Victorian cloths or American’s should be wearing colony period cloths? The Japanese kimonos are a weird exception but the Japanese being an exception is nothing to be surprised about. They tend to be weird.

As a side note, Victorian cloths are more advanced than Hanboks. They at least has straps. I have seen some movies which use the bodice straps of Victorian female cloths as a comedic element in which a couple is getting it on~ and the man cannot get the straps of the female’s bodice undone. You know where the term “Bodice ripper" comes from. In case of Korean movies, the cloths come off by undoing a ribbon or two. So, its easy. The jokes then is centered around the problems with getting down the female’s hair which tend to be an elaborate operation.

If you compare hanbok with Japanese kimonos, I am not sure which one is more advanced. I do think that hanboks require better seamstressing than kimonos as they use far less fabric than their Japanese counterparts. Since kimonos use the wrap around approach, I feel it is closer to a Roman Toga which was two millennium ago.

Because of these situation, you barely see Hanbok on the streets of Korea. If you do, 9 out of 10 there is a wedding being held nearby. This did not change much with the introduction of the “improved Hanbok” which tried to include more advanced design elements such as buttons and straps. Some of the men’s “improved Hanbok” got belts. However, there is a limit to what one could do with the fundamental design esthetic of Hanbok. The women’s hanbok got the better deal with “improved Hanbok” as the bell shape skirt is more adaptable than the men’s hanbok which always look baggy. The only way for a men’s hanbok to look lean is to put on a almost trenchcoat like over coat on it which tends to be used a lot in historical Korean dramas.

As a result, the Hanbok industry is not very large in volume and is populated with small scale shops. The high end boutiques tend to use high quality silk and personally tailor their hanboks. These tend to go for above $500 a piece. Because of the primitive nature of hanboks, it is better to get it personally tailored than not. The medium level shops which also use decent quality silk and are personally tailored go around $300 a piece. Below that price, you get lower quality silk hanbok which may or may not be tailored around $200. At the low end, you get standardized size hanbok which use fabric other than silk usually produced out of china.

As mentioned previously, if you are not within the hanbok wearing periods of your life, you are not likely to every need a hanbok. If you are an American business suit type person, you will get more use out of buying a tuxedo. So, at this point, Koreans have to view Hanbok more as a costume in the vein of a Renaissance dress in America.

If you think about it, Americans may get more use out of Hanbok as a Halloween consume or cosplay outfit than Koreans. It seems odd that, even when Koreans cosplay, they are far likelier to cosplay as a Victorian princess variant than in Hanbok.

What about you, non-Korean? Would you go out in a Hanbok Halloween consume or cosplay outfit?
If so, how much would are you willing to pay for a starter outfit?
While searching the webs, there are several Hanbok making Korean sites that ship overseas. However, they do seem to be solely for overseas Koreans and the prices are custom tailored mid-range and above hanboks. This means $300 plus.
It is a rather steep price for someone not sure about hanboks. In addition, since you are not wearing it for the same purposes as Koreans, you need to buy accessories that make it more of a costume like wigs, hats, fans, and etc.

Leave comments about how much would are you willing to pay for a starter hanbok outfit?

Here are some links to that site. While you most likely not buy for them, there are some interesting designs for traditional and so called fushion hanbok designs. 



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