Korean Sociological Image #45: Modernizing Traditional Korean Clothes


For all my love of Korean culture, I’ve never really understood the appeal of modern hanbok (한복).

Primarily, because of their impracticality: after performing the ancestor worship rites known as cha-ryae (차례) in mine at my parents-in-laws’ house on various Korean holidays for instance, I find it very difficult to eat the traditional breakfasts that follow with such baggy sleeves getting in the way, especially at the low tables that most Koreans use. It also has no pockets, no zipper, and can get uncomfortably hot very easily, especially during Chuseok (추석) when the weather can still be quite warm. And my wife has similar problems with hers too, adding that women also seem to find their slightly more elaborate version more uncomfortable than men do theirs.

For those reasons, I fully expected the Wikipedia article on hanbok to mention that despite popular perceptions, only the small elite known as the yangban (양반) ever really wore them historically, who were notorious for being resolutely opposed to performing anything that smacked of physical labor. Was Koreans’ pride in their “national dress” a little misplaced then, and just another invented tradition like the kilt in Scotland?

Alas, it doesn’t say, although it does seem reasonable to suppose that practical considerations were undoubtedly more important for the bulk of the population. But what the article does demonstrate though, is that the hanbok has as rich and varied a history as, say, the Western suit (it was naive of me to be surprised at that), and the frequent changes in the various forms and usages of the garment over time indicate that its role as a signifier of class, status, and occupation was much more complicated than I first thought.

Still, I can’t think of a more unflattering garment for women.

No, I’m not so uncouth as to think that women can only be attractive in clothes that are form-fitting and/or show some skin. But then from the neck down, the hanbok is almost like a burqa in that it’s impossible to tell if there’s a man or woman under it, so I certainly can’t imagine anyone ever describing as a woman as sexy in it. Beautiful, yes. Pretty, cute, charming, handsome—sure, you name it. But sexy? Judge for yourselves at Flickr, or from the hanbok sections of recent Miss Korea pageants:

Of course, possibly I’m being too harsh, and by all means feel free to disagree with me: these two bloggers here and here certainly do for instance. (Update: in turn, I disagree with this blogger’s response that being “traditional” means that the clothes shouldn’t be sexy, and that only “a non-Korean male writer” would think they could be both. I’d also point out that they were once considered everyday clothes, with many different purposes. So why should how they now “honor [one’s] tradition and culture” be the only criteria we evaluate them on?). But regardless, hopefully now at least you can understand why I did a double-take when I saw the following new designs last week:


Unfortunately, the only information about them are in clumsily-written advertorials from the company that makes them (see here, here, here, and here), but at least they do explain a little about the logic to the new designs. Here’s my rough translation of the first of them, which incidentally also has the best quality version of the image on the left(!):

아찔한 초미니 한복 / Giddy Ultra-miniskirt Hanbok 2010-07-07 12:09

한국의 아름다움을 오롯이 담고 있는 우리의 옷, 한복. 복을 부르고 화를 쫒는다는 뜻을 담고 있는 한복은, 인생의 중요한 순간마다 반드시 갖춰 입어야 하는 우리 생활의 일부이자 소중한 문화유산이다.

The hanbok is the item of clothing that completely and harmoniously shows Korea’s beauty. It has the meaning of bringing good luck and dispelling anger, and at every important event in your life you should wear this vital part of our cultural inheritance.

한복을 아름답게 입기 위해서는 속적삼과 속치마는 물론이고 긴 치마와 저고리까지 제대로 갖춰야 하지만, 시대가 변하고 젊은 층의 안목도 새로워지면서 한복은 어느새 고리타분하고 촌스러운 옷으로 전락하는 듯 했다. 그러나 명품 한복 브랜드들을 위시해 전통한복을 계승하고 퓨전한복과 한복 드레스를 내놓으며 젊은 층은 물론이고 나아가 세계인의 시선까지 사로잡는 상품을 개발함으로서, 한복은 다시금 아름다운 우리의 옷으로 발돋움하고 있다.

In order to beautifully wear the hanbok, of course you need to the undershirt, petticoat, long skirt, and top and to properly wear them, but as times change the hanbok is become old-fashioned and rustic in young people’s eyes.  However, the hanbok is currently taking a big step in becoming all Koreans’ beautiful clothing again by the entrance on the market of a new brand which has developed a fusion style of traditional hanbok and long skirts that will appeal to everyone from the young generation to globalized people.


한복 알리기와 보급에 주력해 온 명품 브랜드 <안근배 한복 대여> 역시 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복 등, 차별화된 디자인과 소재 개발로 고객들의 다양한 요구를 충족시키고 있다. 최근 2010/2011 신상품 70여개를 출시한 <안근배 한복 대여>는 높은 퀄리티의 전통 한복뿐만 아니라 파격적인 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복등을 선보이며 화제를 모으는 한편, 우리 고유의 멋을 계승하며 신세대 고객들의 입맛까지 사로잡았다는 평가를 받고 있다. 특히 <안근배 한복 대여>는 전통 한복의 아름다움은 그대로 살리면서도, 더운 여름철에 쾌적하게 한복을 입고 싶어 하는 고객의 구미에 맞는 상품을 전략적으로 출시해 눈길을 끌었다.

Angunbae Hanbok Rentals (AHR) is a company that has concentrated on supplying and letting people know about this new style of hanbok, and in addition to having one fusion type with and ultra-short miniskirt, is differentiating its designs and materials in order to satisfy the varied demands and requirements of customers. Recently, AHR has launched 70 new designs for the 2010/2011 season, and these have been attracting lots of attention not just for their high quality traditional forms but also their fusion with unconventional ultra-short miniskirts, and have been gaining a lot of praise for their coolness that satisfies customers’ modern tastes. In particular, AHR has been noticed for strategically providing customers with hanbok that, while showing off the garments’ traditional beauty, are also a comfortable choice for their summer tastes.

<안근배 한복 대여>는 초미니 한복뿐만 아니라 전통 한복과 한복 드레스 등 다양한 상품으로 인기몰이중이며, 업계 1위의 브랜드답게 전문화된 콜센터 운영과 홈페이지 운영으로 고객들을 만족시키고 있다. 특히 공식홈페이지 http://www.hanbokrent.kr에서는 7월 한 달 간 진행되는 신랑 신부 커플 한복 20% 할인 행사 안내와 다양한 신상품들을 확인할 수 있다.

AHR doesn’t just provide hanbok with ultra-short mini-skirts, but is also popular for its traditional hanbok and hanbok dresses and so on, and provides a wide variety of products to rent; as the top brand in the business, it operates a call center staffed by experts and a homepage to make sure to fully satisfy customers’ needs. And please note: any couples about to get married, visit www.hanbokrent.kr to get a 20% discount on couple hanbok and/or a variety of new products.

(Sources: left, right)

Is 300,000 won reasonable to rent the first ones? Regardless, see many more examples at the “Fusion” section of AHR’s website, and I’m all for changes to any popular item of clothing that make it more comfortable, cooler to wear in the summer, and a little sexier and more elegant too.

But this post wasn’t intended to be only about hanbok. In fact, the humble podaegi (포대기), or traditional Korean baby sling, may ultimately be much more interesting:


Quite simple to put on once you get the knack, it’s very easy to see why Korean mothers would use these while working in fields, or even just the kitchen (scroll down here a little for a picture). Hell, if I had to carry a baby for hours while doing manual labor, then I’d probably choose something that comfortable and tight too, and so I wasn’t surprised to hear from my father’s Nigerian colleagues that my wife’s was just like Nigerian ones, where, naturally enough, they’re called “wrappers,” and the act of wearing one “backing.” (Thanks to reader eccentricyoruba for the terms.)

Still, note that the shoulder straps are a recent adaptation carried over from Western baby harnesses, and there weren’t many versions with them available in 2006 when my first daughter was born; wearing a version like this without them then, my wife’s back got tired quickly, and she speculates that perhaps that would have been less of a problem had she been bending over in a field in it like her mother and grandmother did (she eventually got a Western-style baby harness). Also, as you can imagine they can get extremely hot in the summer, which is why these modern mesh types are now available (and I’m sure ones with shoulder-straps are available too):


Clearly then, podaegi manufacturers are also quite capable of adapting their products to modern tastes. But still, one big, possibly insurmountable problem with them remains.

Men usually refuse to wear them.

(Source: unknown)

At this point, I should probably mention that I don’t wear anything to carry either of my 2 daughters myself: when Alice was born in June 2006, I was working long hours and my wife became a housewife, so it was only natural that she carry her while I carried groceries and so on; when Elizabeth was born in August 2008, my wife carried her whereas I had Alice to either walk with me, chase after, and/or only briefly carry when crossing roads. Sometimes I wish I had used a Western style baby carrier though: both daughters refuse to sleep or be carried in my left arm, often crying until I put them in my right one, and I’m sure that I now have a slightly crooked spine as a result.

Still, of course I did wear my wife’s poedagi at home sometimes, especially when she was out and I had to put them to sleep in the way that they were used to. But in public? Never, for I think I’m safe in assuming that the vast majority of Koreans consider the podaegi as inappropriate on a men as a bra, and which is why you’ll only ever see pictures of them in podaegi if they’re posed in comical situations like the above.

Western-style harnesses however, you’ll see plenty of Korean men wearing them, which leads me to a question I’d like to throw open to readers: are podaegi then, in a sense an impediment to changing people’s beliefs that childcare is only a women’s job?

Yes, of course popular perceptions of clothes and senses of appropriate fashions are constantly changing, and of course there are also a myriad of reasons completely unrelated to clothing that explain why Korea has the highest number of housewives in the OECD. But recall that throughout our daily lives,  we are in fact constantly bombarded with subtle messages that reinforce the notion that parenting is women’s job, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that this may also have an impact.

Alternatively, look at it this way: if you were a woman expecting a baby soon, which style would you buy if you wanted your male partner to take equal responsibility for carrying the baby after it arrived?^^

Update: See FeetManSeoul (or The Marmot’s Hole) for a post about upcoming fashion shows featuring Jung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom:

…is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.

ung Jun Hong and Lee Young Hee, the latter of whom is considered the greatest living hanbok designer. And her stuff is smoking, every season. It’s one of the classiest shows of the season, consistently. She really does hanboks like they should be done — who knew hanbok style was still evolving, and evolving quite stylishly? The former, designer Jung, has a more modern take on the hanboks and always has some of the most colorful shows out there.

Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 1: Their Neo-Confucian Heritage

Dasepo Naughty Girls 2006(Screen capture from the movie Dasepo Naughty Girls/다세포소녀. Source: martin francisco)

“Koreans are conformist because of their Confucian heritage…yada yada yada”

Even though I’ve chosen to live in Korea a long time, like most expats I often find it to be a frustrating and exasperating place sometimes. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and indeed this love-hate relationship may even be part of its charm—certainly my adopted hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, never aroused such strong emotions in me. On the other hand, it does lead to so many one-liners about the place, endlessly repeated by fresh rotations of expats.

But are they always wrong? Don’t some have a grain of truth? To answer, let me examine one that I and probably most readers have made at some point in our stay here, but which I personally wouldn’t have been able to justify before I did my research for this post. And certainly won’t ever be making again.

What I have in mind is your gut reaction to watching the following commercial, about three years old:

(Update, July 2012: Unfortunately, the video has been taken down, and I didn’t save a spare copy back in 2008. Hopefully, the screenshots will still give you the gist of it!)

According to Marmot’s Hole commentator mins0306, to whom I’m very grateful for finding the video, the message the commercial wanted to convey was “What she selects will become a trend. And since she selected a Prugio apartment, Prugio apartments will also become a trend.” Instead, it has inadvertently become of a symbol of Korean people’s conformism, particularly of women’s attitudes to fashion.

But before writing this post, had I been pressed for why so many Korean women seem to so blindly follow the latest trends, be they mini-skirts in winter or getting double-eyelid surgery, I would have mumbled something about Confucianism and the education system discouraging individuality. That is still technically correct, but—let’s face it—most of us blame so much here on Confucianism, but actually know little more about it than what we read in Lonely Planet Korea in the week before we came. But how,exactly, is it to blame? Why?

On the surface, it may not even have anything to do with Confucianism at all. Consider this statement from the 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” by Taeyon Kim (details and abstract here):

“For 500 years, Korea adopted Neo-Confucianism as its official ideology and strove to create a Neo-Confucian state by following its precepts as closely as possible. Neo-Confucians believed the body was sacred. Since it was bequeathed by one’s parents, in accordance with filial piety, the body had to be respected and remain unaltered…The Korean aversion to manipulation of the body seems to have been a long-standing cultural principle – only whole-heartedly abandoned in the last few years of proliferating plastic surgeries and various other manipulations of the body. Why has what appears to have been such a strong cultural value been so suddenly and completely abandoned?” (p. 98)

Like I said, I didn’t know that Joseon Dynasty Korea adopted “Neo-Confucianism” rather than merely “Confucianism” its state ideology either; from now on, I’ll make sure to blame all Korean ills on that instead. But now that she mentions it, yes, I do recall that Confucianism…oops, Neo-Confucianism I mean…did not condone alteration and adornment of the body, which is why it was so dishonourable for men to have their ponytails cut off.

How then, can Korea still be described as “more Confucian than China” when: Korean women adorn fashion and accessories to the point of what Michael Hurt describes as “fetishization;” female friends of mine wear excessive make-up to work upon fear of being fired if they don’t; others think nothing of wearing it to the gym; and Korea leads the world in the number of plastic surgeries made per capita? The notion now sounds absurd.

But Kim goes on to argue that the prescribed Neo-Confucian role of women’s bodies is essentially the same today as it was in the Joseon Dynasty, albeit adapted to and/or warped by democratization and capitalism. I don’t entirely agree with everything she says, but more in degree than in substance, and she certainly does make a decent stab at solving that paradox above.


Because her two-part argument is very long, and I actually have a lot of my own thoughts and ideas to add to her arguments about postwar Korea, I’ve taken the wise (but unusual for me!) decision to split my original 3500 word post on her journal article into two. In the remainder of this first one then, I’ll outline what Kim says about how Neo-Confucianism viewed women’s bodies and their roles, and in the next one I’ll discuss how these adapted and changed to, but ultimately survived, the 20th Century (source, right: natebeaty).

Neo-Confucian Women’s Bodies as Mere Vessels

Before reading the following, bear in mind that only Joseon Dynasty elites—possibly as little as 1% of the population—would have subscribed to the Neo-Confucianism edicts described (Kim does acknowledge this). But the vast majority of Korean women worked on their farms, and were integral economic parts of the household; indeed, I’ve won arguments with older male students of mine on this point, who thought that “Korean tradition” justified them in literally forbidding their daughters-in-law from working after marriage. I concede though, that they would have remained an ideal.

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.” (p.99, italics in original)

For learners of Korean, this “ki” appears to be “기,” which has a hanja character on p.38 of my Korean vocabularly ‘bible’ that, in addition to “spirit,” also means “air,” “atmosphere,” and “energy.” And for everyone, I admit, at the moment it sounds very similar to a mere family name or bloodline, but those are quite vague concepts at best, whereas ki does sound like a well-thought out—albeit sexist and fundamentally flawed—philosophical concept. Elaborating on it further:

“The force of ki constituted one’s sense of the body and self more than the corporeal body. It followed that the family body, within which flows the same ki,was considered the essential self more than one’s own physical body. The emphasis on non-distinction between self and others produced a sense of self that was non-individuated and fluid, with no boundaries to determine a distinction between one’s family and one’s self.” (p.99)

Hence the Hoju System/호주제, a family registry system, rather than one of individual birth certificates like in Western countries, that was not abolished until as late as this year. Under it, upon marriage, women would be transferred from one family’s certificate to her husband’s family, almost like property. In practice, female divorcees suffered greatly from it because:

  • Given that it was often required for job applications, it meant that applicants’ marital status was readily apparent to employers. I’ve read, but am not sure how applicable it is now given the high divorce rate, that female divorcees were often discriminated against by employers as a result, ironically at a time when most would have needed employment more than ever.
  • Custody of children was overwhelmingly awarded to fathers; after all, the women were no longer part of the ki/family.
  • For those women married to fathers that abandoned their families, divorcing them would mean years of adminstrative problems with children in schools and so forth, as it meant that they were no longer their legal guardians. In Japan, with a similar system, these issues came up with ex-prime minister Koizumi after he divorced in 1982.

Promising to abolish this system was one reason I supported the election of Roh Mu-hyon back in 2002, and while he did prove to be quite a lame duck president, and least this promise was fulfilled. To continue (source, right: theturninggate):

“Neo-Confucian techniques of self-cultivation of the mind and body only applied to men. Women in the Neo-Confucian view were incapable of achieving sagehood and therefore had neither the need nor the ability to strive for transcendence of the self and body. While men produced their selves through the mind (study of the classics) and body (maintenance of the family body through ancestor worship), women were occupied with maintaining and reproducing the family body through the corporeal bodies of the family.” (p. 100)

Koreans are by no means alone in having philosophical or religious beliefs justifying an inferior status of women, but this particular one could lead to some very strange-sounding results. For instance, Kim explains that one study of a villagers in 1990 found that they thought women were inferior to men because they did not carry the ki that men did, meaning that “women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life.

It also meant that beauty and wealth were secondary to possession of the physical traits required to bear sons, and gave rise Korean Folk Villageto an elaborate system of prenatal education known as taegyo/태교 which, rather than the notion of women and child’s health that the word brings to mind today, back then was more the idea of women as bodies rather than subjects or individuals, because “their conduct and thoughts were for the sake of the other abiding in their bodies, and they were valued mostly for the children and labour that their bodies could produce.” Hence, women “were regarded as subjectless bodies.” (pp. 100-101), the consequences, in sum, being that (source, right: InSapphoWeTrust):

“While [men] aimed to transcend the body, women could never do so – their bodies were too valuable. A man’s mind and ki were considered more valuable than his corporeal limbs while a woman was most valued for her body and its reproductive labour. As a result, efforts were made to maintain sole control over women’s bodies, subjecting them to a protection and concealment that practically rendered their bodies invisible.” (p.101)

Indeed, while the hanbok is much more comfortable to wear and walk around in than a kimono (or so I’ve heard), it’s not exactly a celebration of the female form. Also, this protection and concealment literally meant that elite women’s homes became prisons, as they weren’t allowed to leave: those “traditional see-saws,” for instance, were actually so popular because they allowed elite women rare glimpses of life outside of the walls of their courtyards, and I remember reading somewhere of a woman escaping from her village to Busan during the Korean War, despite all the death and destruction around her actually having an exciting time, as it was the first time she’d left her house in decades!

Next week: Part 2, which will continue the discussion into the postwar period.