Hanbok – traditional Korean dress

Simply meaning 'Korean clothes', 'hanbok' was introduced in the late 19th century by Koreans as a term to help differentiate their everyday dress from a recent influx of western-style clothing. A century later, western clothing had overtaken hanbok as the main style of dress worn by Koreans. In turn, hanbok became regarded as more of a ceremonial dress reserved for traditional holiday celebrations and events, such as first birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Hanbok, in the public's eye, had become less approachable and more formal.

Male and female hanbok ensemble
Female bridal hanbok ensembles, Lee Young-Hee, 1991, South Korea. Museum no. FE.430:1 to 3-1992 and FE.431:1 to 5-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, recent efforts to revive hanbok as clothes to wear on any ordinary day have begun to find some success. The Korean government has been active in supporting and promoting hanbok, designating October 21st as Hanbok Day and officially recognising hanbok saengwal – the practice of making, wearing and enjoying hanbok – as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. A new generation of fashion designers have emerged that are reinventing hanbok for new audiences. Through their collaborations with K-pop groups and K-dramas, these modern designers have brought new life to hanbok and added international interest as Korean culture continues to proliferate on a global stage.

A modern hanbok ensemble, Kim Young Jin, 2013, South Korea. Museum no. FE.18:1 to 10-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

History and influence

The history of hanbok goes hand in hand with the history of human civilisation on the Korean peninsula. Hanbok does not describe a certain design or shape of clothes, but serves as an umbrella term that encompasses thousands of years of Korean clothing. As such, hanbok design has shifted across the ages, with fluctuating sleeve lengths and widths, silhouettes, and dress folds, among other evolving design details.

During the Three Kingdom period (57 BC – 668 AD), hanbok consisted of an upper garment called a jeogori (a jacket-like top that wrapped closed at the front), and lower garments named baji (trousers, usually worn by men) and chima (long skirt, usually worn by women). This period saw variations in how the jeogori was fastened, from using belts to alternating the order in which the fabric was wrapped. However, the 6th century also saw the beginning of the left-to-right frontal fold, which later became a staple design feature in all later hanbok. Records also show that both men and women wore baji and chima, which were often both long and spacious. Long outer coats known as durumagi also appeared during this period, which continued to be worn for more than a thousand years.

Painting depicting a hunting scene with men wearing hanbok
Painting depicting a hunting scene with men wearing hanbok, from the Tomb of the Dancers of Goguryeo, about 5th century, Korea. Image: Korean Cultural Centre

Throughout its history, hanbok design has been influenced by various competing regional powers. In 668 AD, Silla, one of the three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula, enlisted the help of the Chinese Tang Empire to overthrow the other two kingdoms Goguryeo and Baekje to create Unified Silla (668 – 935 AD). This new kingdom continued its close ties with the Tang Dynasty and consequently shares similar hanbok design features. This style of hanbok continued to be worn during the Goryeo Dynasty (918 – 1392 AD), but after 30 years of Mongolian invasions, Goryeo was forced to pay tribute to the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty from 1259 to 1356, leading to Mongolian influences in hanbok that particularly affected the uniforms of court officials.

Despite these external pressures, hanbok continued to evolve in a uniquely Korean way, slowly morphing into a version during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) that we are most familiar with today.

Core design elements

There are a number of core design elements that have remained consistent for all hanbok across gender and social status:

  • Hanbok consists of a top piece and a bottom piece.
  • Hanbok is cut and sewn flat.
  • Hanbok tops are wrapped and tied together with a one-looped bow called a goreum.
Close-up of a purple goreum on a jeogori, 'Modern Girl' hanbok ensemble, Kim Young Jin, 2009 collection, South Korea. Museum no. FE.17-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Most modern hanboks are still created in the same way they have always been made. Unlike much of western clothing where draping and fitting on a three-dimensional mannequin is crucial for creating a garment, all hanbok is cut and sewn on a flat surface. This helps to reduce the amount of fabric going to waste, with any leftover pieces being used to create saekdong (coloured stripes) for decorating sleeves or jogakbo a style of patchwork traditionally used to create domestic wrapping cloths (known as bojagi). Saekdong roughly translates as 'putting colours one after another' and dates back to the Goguryeo period (37 BC – 688 AD). The harmony created by the multicoloured fabric was thought to wish the wearer a long and happy life and was often used in the sleeves of children's or bridal jeogori.

Jogakbo, on the other hand, was created entirely from scrap pieces of fabric that were meticulously pieced together to create a larger piece of fabric. It is assumed that jogakbo were created by women as a domestic pastime owing to the incredibly detailed and time-consuming nature of the task and the fact that none exist from the royal court. Many of the jogakbo remaining today also lack much wear and tear, testifying to their use only on special occasions.

Jogakbo wrapping cloth (bojagi), about 1940, South Korea. Museum no. FE.303-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fabric, material and colour

The four main textile fibres traditionally used in hanbok are silk, hemp, ramie (an extremely finely woven and delicate type of cloth), and cotton. Evidence of sericulture (silk farming) in Korea dates as far back as the neolithic period (10,000 – 4,500 BC), with silk production and fabric manufacturing regarded as a highly valued skill throughout Korean history – so much so that during the Joseon Dynasty the queen would feed silkworms herself in a ceremony called cheen-jam. Plants such as hemp (specifically, kenaf) and ramie would be split by hand into threads and twined together to create yarn for weaving. Along with cotton, these fabrics would be woven together on a baetil loom.

A painting depicting 'gil-ssam'
A painting depicting 'gil-ssam' (the process of creating textiles by processing silk, hemp, ramie, or cotton) and a baetil loom in use, by Kim Hong-do. Image: National Museum of Korea

Various types of weaves ranging from plain (also called 'tabby') to damasks, gauze and brocade were used to create textiles for hanbok. Some of the more complex textiles took a great deal of time and energy to create, which is why fabric with intricately woven patterns or made from highest quality silk were reserved for the royal family or others of high social rank. To create symbols and patterns, these fabrics were painted, block printed, tie-dyed, wax- or starch-resist dyed and decorated with extremely thin gold leaf (geumbak).

Wrapping cloth, 19th century, Korea, plain weave hemp with a polychrome painted design. Museum no. FE.156-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Conveying social identity through hanbok

Variations in hanbok from the Joseon Dynasty were used to signify an individual's gender, social class, marital status, and age – directly reflecting neo-Confucianist values prevalent at the time and its emphasis on maintaining social roles to achieve societal harmony. For example, the hanbok below, consisting of a white jacket and blue skirt, was considered suitable for a married woman to wear. Traditionally a woman of comfortable means would wear an undyed white ramie jacket, an indigo-dyed skirt of ramie, and under-garments also of undyed ramie.

Traditional hanbok for a married woman, 1980, Korea. Museum no. FE.55:1 to 4-1991. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unlike hanbok during the Three Kingdoms or even the Goryeo Dynasty when the gender divide of hanbok design was much less established, women's and men's hanbok of the Joseon period had distinct silhouettes recognisable from far away. Women's hanbok consisted mainly of the jeogori (jacket-like upper garment), which slowly shortened from 60 centimetres to only 20 centimetres by the early 20th century, and chima (skirt), with more voluminous skirts reserved for women of higher rank. It was frowned upon for women, according to neo-Confucian ideals, to show their skin or the shape of their bodies, which hanbok helped to prevent. However, the flowing curves especially prevalent in dangui (outer upper garments worn by court women), served to emphasise the beauty of hanbok instead.

Green silk dangui
Green silk dangui decorated with gold sticking, worn by Princess Deokhye (1912 – 89). Image: National Palace Museum of Korea
Postcard featuring Empress Sunjong (1894 – 1966) and her court ladies dressed in hanbok with voluminous chimas
Postcard featuring Empress Sunjong (1894 – 1966) and her court ladies dressed in hanbok with voluminous chimas, in 'Joseon-cho Gungjung-pungsok Yeongu' by Kim Yongsuk, published by Iljisa (1987)
Two working class Joseon women wearing less voluminous chimas
Two working class Joseon women wearing less voluminous chimas. Image: National Library of Scotland

Like women, men would also wear upper and bottom garments: jeogori and baji. They also always wore specific hats woven from horsehair in public, with their hair tied up and tucked into a topknot.

One of the earliest known photographs to feature Koreans
One of the earliest known photographs to feature Koreans, photographed by the Joseon diplomatic mission during their stop at the Old Russian Legation, 1863. Image: London Missionary Society collection, SOAS Library

Until a decree in 1895 prohibiting topknots (decreed as a part of Japan's looming imperialism), all men and women were forbidden from cutting their hair, as it was seen as a gift given by one's parents. Regardless of gender, unmarried children and adults would part their hair in the centre and braid it into a single plait, with boys adding a black ribbon and girls adding a red ribbon to the bottom of their braids. Once married, men would pull their hair to the top of their head and make a knot, called sangtu. Women would also pull their hair together but into a bun at the nape of their neck. Hairpins called binyeo would be used to fix these buns in place, their decoration denoting the socioeconomic status of the wearer. Women's headwear steadily grew more decorative as their lives were primarily led indoors.

Men wearing their hair in accordance with their marital status
(Left to right) Men wearing their hair in accordance with their marital status, 1914, Yeongju, Gyeongbuk Province, Korea. Image: National Museum of Korea; Married women demonstrating the various ways they could fashion their hair, 1914, Yeongju, Gyeongbuk Province, Korea. Image: National Museum of Korea
Binyeo, ceremonial hairpin, Lee Young Hee, 1992, Korea. Museum no. FE.431:10-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the later Joseon Dynasty, the neo-Confucian preference for the austere led most Koreans to wear simple white hanboks without decoration. White was seen to symbolise both purity and resilience, and, in reflecting folk traditions and beliefs, brought the wearer into a conversation with the surrounding land and sky. Several foreigners visiting the peninsula in the late 19th century noted this tendency amongst Koreans to wear white which only reinforced the name Koreans had long called themselves: the "white-clad people". Wearing white clothing became even more popular as a symbol of resistance during the period of Japanese colonisation (1910 – 45).

Koreans wearing white hanbok
Koreans wearing white hanbok, 1906/07, Korea. Image: National Folk Museum of Korea

Various hanbok design elements were used to codify rank and status within the royal court. Dragon imagery was reserved only for the King and his heir – the dragons on their court dress having five and four toes respectively. Phoenixes were reserved for queens while the robes of princesses and the king's other royal consorts featured flowers. These dragons or phoenixes were depicted in circular badges (round shapes represented the sky and therefore, the power held by the monarchy). Meanwhile, the rank of court officials was represented through square badges depicting animals such as tigers, deer, geese, and cranes (square shapes represented the earth and therefore, the officials carrying out their human duties). Different colours were also reserved for specific positions within the court. Unlike the general populous who enjoyed wearing white, those inside the palace walls often wore exquisitely dyed and embroidered garments in vibrant colours such as red, blue, green, and black that immediately signalled the wearer's position within the court.

Reenactment of a court ceremony with performers wearing uniforms with colours that specify their role and rank within the court
Reenactment of a court ceremony with performers wearing uniforms with colours that specify their role and rank within the court, 2011, South Korea. Image: National Museum of Korea

Though neo-Confucian ideas dictated that everyday dress should be austere and unadorned, events such as marriage ceremonies were examples where commoners were officially allowed to celebrate as extravagantly as they wished. By the later Joseon Dynasty, intricately decorated garments modelled after court dress, and often made of precious silk, had been adopted by the public as ceremonial wedding clothes – a tradition that continues today.

Photograph of bride and groom wearing a modern interpretation of court dress in a 'pyebaek ceremony', which celebrates the union of a newlywed couple
Photograph of bride and groom wearing a modern interpretation of court dress in a 'pyebaek ceremony', which celebrates the union of a newlywed couple. Image courtesy of Tae-Jong Kim and Hyemi Hong

Hanbok today

Although Joseon-era styles continued to influence hanbok in the 20th century, new hanbok designers such as Lee Young-hee, Young Jin (Tchai) Kim, Park Seon-ok (Guiroe) and Danha Kim (Danha) have revived this centuries old way of dress. Breaking down the neo-Confucian gender, social rank, and status divide, many of these new hanboks emphasise the aesthetic qualities of hanbok, such as its colours, shapes, and lines. As the popularity of Korean pop culture grows around the world, hanbok has inspired everyone from K-pop fans who have discovered hanbok for the first time on YouTube to Karl Lagerfeld designing the 2015/16 Chanel Cruise collection. Hanbok's addition into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2021 attests to its establishment within global cultural knowledge. Although hanbok was named after the people and land it was originally worn in, it can no longer be solely defined by the identity or geography of its wearers who today, come from all corners of the world.

(Left to Right:) Cheollik dress, Young Jin Kim, white linen wrapping dress, and white cotton wrapping skirt with blue floral pattern, 2014, Seoul, South Korea. Museum no. FE.14-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Pret-a-porter collection 2014, Young Jin Kim, Purple satin wrap dress, with black cotton lace under-jacket, black tulle underskirt and purple vest, 2014, South Korea. Museum no. FE.15-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2022 Hanbok Wave fashion event

The 2022 Hanbok Wave fashion event, hosted by the Korea Craft and Design Foundation, showcased the collections of 10 contemporary hanbok designers: C-ZANN E, Geumuijae, GUIROE, Haemi by saimdang, Hanbok Studio Hyeon, HAPPLY, Heyum Hanbok, Lee Young-Ae Traditional Clothes, LIV Damyeon, MORINORI, and at the Korean Cultural Centre in London.

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Hanbok Wave (The Hallyu Collaborative Content Planning and Development Project) is a project promoted by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Craft and Design Foundation.

This article was written by Jenny (Jon Young) Kim, Exhibition Research Assistant for Hallyu! The Korean Wave

Header image:

'Modern Girl' hanbok ensemble, Kim Young Jin, 2009 collection, South Korea. Museum no. FE.17-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London