The Korean Hanbok

Two young women wearing hanbok Changdeokgun Oct 2015
Hanbok-clad women, Chandeokgun Palace, October 2015

Research or Procrastination?

Novel 2 is starting to take shape. I have narrowed down the location, Korea again, and the era, the Joseon dynasty[1], most specifically the first half of the 17th century.

I have even written 5 pages of the first draft, the one where I’m supposed to discover the actual story. No idea where it’s going.

My main character will be a woman, this much I know, and she will of course wear the hanbok. So, I’m researching hanbok styles and this has led me to think about other traditional dresses of Asia that are still worn today on special occasions: lush saris, colourful kimonos and classy cheongsams (qipao).

Period dramas, whether on the big or small screen, bring these fabulous dresses into our lives. Think of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and the slow, simmering and sensual— moody—relationship that develops between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters in 1960s Hong Kong. Maggie wears no less than 21 cheongsams,beautifully chronicled by Foam of days blogger, Julia, in 2013. My favourite is the black (at times it looks like dark navy in the film) and white floral cheongsam Julia calls dress # 15.

Maggie Cheung In the Mood for Love Cheongsam #15
Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love

Cheongsams, it must be acknowledged, dates back only to the 1920s whereas the other dress styles have a much longer history.

The various pieces of the hanbok for women are described in this card:

Womens-Hanbok

A short video shows how to don the wrap-around skirt, the chima, and tie the ribbon of the jeogori and can be found here.

I wasn’t able to uncover much concerning undergarments (!) but I have seen simple white bloomers worn under, and at times in lieu of, petticoat.

Woman with a Red Hat Shin Yun bok 2
Woman in a Red Hat by Shin Yun-bok

This painting also shows how the skirt can be kilted up mid-body so it doesn’t trail in the dust. More on the painter of Woman in a Red Hat below.

On first seeing a woman wearing a hanbok, many people’s’ first impression is that the dress makes the female figure look shapeless, bloated and unflattering. Some hanbok variations  have chimas with wide bands tied around the breasts rather than on top. Supremely classy actress Lee Young-ae wears one such hanbok in this picture:

Lee Young-ae in hanbok
Lee Young-ae

In addition to painting Woman in a Red Hat, eighteenth century painter Shin Yun-bok, also known as Hyewon, gave the world the iconic Portrait of a Beauty.

Portrait of a Beauty Kansong Art Museum
Portrait of a Beauty by Shin Yun-bok

Here again the chima is tied around the breasts rather than above. How mysterious our Beauty looks as she ties her otgoreum! Arguably Korea’s equivalent to The Mona Lisa.

There is yet another, saucier way to tie a chima: below the breasts. Many a painter of bawdy books circulating in Joseon era Korea served up that particular version to the men who bought their one-of-a-kind offerings!

One of the fundamental differences between hanbok and sari on the one hand, and kimono and cheongsam on the other, is the extent to which they restrict the wearer’s movements. A woman wearing a kimono takes small steps and, in the context of traditional Japanese architecture, with low tables and no chair, sits with her knees folded under her.

Cheongsams are definitely not designed for sitting on the floor but they nevertheless impose restrictions to movement whether sitting on a chair or a sofa (or a bed!) – legs close together or crossed – and when walking – measured steps, never racing.

Maggie Cheung In the Mood for Love Cheongsam #14 showing full length
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love

A woman wearing a hanbok is freer to walk at a brisk pace. When she sits on the floor or on the ground, it is in the more relaxed cross-legged position.

Sitting in a hanbok

A variation on the cross-legged position is the cross squat as in this photo:

fusion hanbok cross squat sit photo(20)

It is often a position of power, such as when the female head of a household discusses family matters with her husband.

I confess not knowing much about the sari but a quick search shows that women can ride astride a horse in a sari. The same goes for the hanbok. Here again, the painting is by Shin Yun-bok and the women are riding on mules rather than horses, I believe.

Shin Yun Bok Painting Women on Mules
By Shin Yun-bok

South Korean President Park Geun-hye wears her country’s traditional hanbok for all formal occasions.

Park Geun-hye Hanbok Diplomacy
Park Geun-hye and “Hanbok Diplomacy”

Elements of the hanbok have inspired fashion in Korea and abroad recently, such as in this 2011 example from designer Carolina Herrera:

Hanbok-inspired Fashion Carolina Herrera 2011
Dress by Carolina Herrera

A particularly stunning hanbok-inspired dress was worn by Jeon Ji-hyun’s character, Cheon Song-yi, in a pivotal red-carpet scene in the final episode of television series My Love from Another Star.

Cheon Song-yi (Jeon Ji-hyun) in hanbok-inspired gown front view
Front view – Jeon Ji-hyun (Gianna Jun)
Cheon Song-yi (Jeon Ji-hyun) in hanbok-inspired gown
Back view – Jeon Ji-hyun (Gianna Jun)

Classic, yet so simple.

Ooops! No time left to work on the actual novel today.

Research … sigh.

[1] The Joseon dynasty kings ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910

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