Culture History

Do Koreans wear kimono? History of Hanbok in different times.

Parts of the text have been adopted in full or with modification for optimal reading experience from the following sources under the CC-BY-SA license. wikipedia.org/wiki/hanbok


Traditional dresses of Japan, China, and Korea

It’s one of those questions that would make your Korean friends, who are proud of their 5000-years of rich history and culture, go, “Oh, no you didn’t!” But to speak in defense of the foreign friends not familiar with Asian culture, kimono, Japanese word for “clothing,” is perceived as a household name for “traditional Asian clothing,” like Kleenex for facial tissue and Band-Aid for a bandage. Kimono just happens to be the most widely known term (i.e., first mover’s advantage!). To answer the question, Koreans have their own unique traditional clothes called hanbok 한복, known for its harmonious beauty of straight lines and subtle curves. If you have a rough image of hanbok, it’s probably through historical dramas (that’s right, they were not Korean kimono). However, through nearly 5,000 years of history, Korea had many countries and diverse cultures, some of them influenced by other cultures (even now, the 60’s fashion is drastically different from what’s trendy now, although fashion goes round in circles).

History of Hanbok

So, if you look at historical dramas that depict different times, you might be confused by the differences in the style (it’s nothing to be ashamed of even if you didn’t notice the differences because that means you were focusing on the story). Truth be told, it’s actually quite hard for Koreans to tell, too. As for the origin, it’s believed to have come from the ancient Scythian-Siberian culture of Northeast Asia, with its roots in one of the various costumes of nomadic people. There have been minor, sometimes major, changes throughout history, but basically they have common elements. The most important one is that it follows sangyuhago 상유하고 (“upper garment/jacket goes on top and pants/skirt goes to the bottom”) style, ideal for activities like horse riding and hunting.



RELATED : What is the ‘Three Kingdoms Period’?

7th century Tang Dynasty painting of envoys from the Three Kingdoms
illustrates the different styles of clothes worn by the people of each kingdom.

While there were more ancient kingdoms before this period, we’ll start from here due to the lack of historical records and relics from the ancient times. But more importantly the Three Kingdoms period is when the basic standardized style of hanbok was established. According to the historical paintings, relics, and records, the basic format for men was jeogori 저고리 (upper garment) and baji 바지 (trousers), and for women, it was jeogori and chima 치마 (skirt). They both put on durumagi/po 두루마기/(outer jacket/coat) on top. Also added were gwanmo 관모 (hat/headgear), dae (belt), and various accessories depending on the class and status.

야금모행 Yageummohaeng “A Secret Night Journey”
by Shin Yun-bok depicts the Joseon-era Hanbok

One unique aspect of hanbok was that it must include pants, which even women wore as innerwear. Another characteristic is that it’s worn in many layers, as many as 5-6 layers of tops and bottoms (Don’t worry! Lighter and more breathable materials were used for summer hanbok, and hanbok clothes have easy-to-put-on-and-take-off open-front style). Moreover, hanbok is categorized into formal and casual clothes, which are further divided into men and women, adults and children, and seasonal. During the Three Kingdoms Period, textile manufacturing techniques vastly improved, capable of producing various types of silk and woolen fabrics.

Maedeup 매듭 The traditional craft of decorative knotting.

Another important highlight of this era was class stratification, in which the clothes served as a means to represent different classes. The clothes of the privileged class were different from those of the ordinary people.

History of Hanbok in different times – GOGURYEO (37 BC ~ 668)

History of Hanbok in Three Kingdoms Period
Pictures of the scale models from the Lotte World Folk Museum

The Goguryeo 고구려 people were located in the cold northern part of the country and always had to stay alert for possible Chinese invasions. This is reflected in the clothes worn by the Goguryeo people. The basic structure of Goguryeo men’s clothes is separated into top and bottom, ideal for activities like shooting arrows, and the top jeogori had narrow sleeves, pants, and long-necked shoes that were suitable for horse riding. The woman’s jeogori was long enough to cover the hips that a belt had to be worn and a skirt was worn over the inner pants. Men also wore a hat, gwanmo. Both Goguryeo men and women wore po , an outer jacket/coat both for ceremonial occasions but also ordinary occasions. The male aristocrat wore a headgear called jeolpung 절풍, which was decorated with feathers, and earrings were worn, too. The female aristocrat wore long skirts and jeogori, which had a relaxed look with the sleeves stretched out. The lower-end of jeogori with embroidery on the high-end silk and a pleated skirt with various colors of cloth add to the overall refinement. Women wore skirts with a lot of pleats to mark their high status. The married commoner woman’s hair was neatly tied, and the man wore a black hood. A belt around the waist was common in the Three Kingdoms Period, usually knotted at the front. Most commoner women wore pleated skirts made of hemp cloth or animal skins. 

History of Hanbok in different times – BAEKJE (18 BC ~ 660)

History of Hanbok in Three Kingdoms Period

It’s not easy to know the style of Baekje’s 백제 costume in detail because there aren’t many artifacts or records related to Baekje’s costume, but according to the accounts found in the Book of Liang, a Chinese historical text, it’s assumed to be almost the same as Goguryeo’s. One unique aspect is that Baekje distinguished the ranks of government posts with their official hat, belt, and colors. Gwanmo was decorated with silver for high-rank officials, with purple, red, and blue garments that were separately used according to their ranks. The king wore a purple coat with wide sleeves, wide blue silk pants, a leather belt around his waist, black leather shoes, and a cone-shaped black silk headgear adorned with gold accessories on the sides. The queen wore a similar headgear, a jeogori (upper garment), and a chima (skirt), and a durumagi (outer coat) or a short-sleeved shirt on top of it. The royal family embellished the cloth with gold thread or gold foil and decorated it with high-quality ornaments, enhancing the royal authority. The commoners were not allowed to wear red clothes and used the blue inner bark of kudzu or hemp for cloth.

History of Hanbok in different times – SILLA (57 BC ~ 935)

Silla’s 신라 clothing was similar to Goguryeo and Baekje until the unification of the Three Kingdoms. After the unification, the culture became more mature and luxurious (Silla was known as the “Golden Kingdom”). Also, the clothes of the Tang Dynasty came in and brought about many changes in style. Silla established a detailed class of status to establish the authority of the ruling class as the country became stronger. At that time, besides silk, woven hemp cloth rose to popularity, and the quality of the cloth was an indication of one’s class. Belts, shoes, and even combs were different according to class. Both men and women wore jeogori (upper garment), baji/chima (pants/skirt), and po (outer coat).

The king and the royal family wore a gold crown gwanmo which was a symbol of absolute power. On top of a splendid durumagi, a gold belt full of ornaments, which was originally created for practical purposes, (such as carrying personal items, tools, and weapons)  became a fashion accessory and were worn as such. The queen was sumptuously adorned with earrings and a necklace made of curved jades which show Silla’s top-notch quality of workmanship and sophistication. The upper class mainly wore wide sleeves, wide pants, and the common people wore narrow sleeves and narrow pants.  

Unified Silla was greatly influenced by the Tang Dynasty, and a new style of clothing that didn’t exist previously during the Three Kingdoms Period was introduced. Ceremonial dresses such as hwalot 활옷, wonsam 원삼, and dangeui 당의 are such examples. Also, short-sleeved upper garment banbi 반비 was introduced. Also, the government adopted the Tang Dynasty’s uniform system for officials. Until the Three Kingdoms Period, each had its own official uniforms. During the reign of Queen Jindeok 진덕여왕 of Silla, Kim Chun-chu 김춘추 visited the Tang Dynasty of China as an envoy to meet with the Emperor Taizong of Tang and brought the official uniform system, including bokdu 복두 headgear and danryeong 단령, circular-collar robe, and made it the official uniforms of all government officials. After that, from Goryeo to Joseon Dynasty, Chinese-style ceremonial robes were adopted and worn as a government uniform. According to Gyeonggukdaejeon 경국대전, a collection of codes of rules for the government, different colors were used according to one’s rank. As a result of the cultural exchange with the Tang Dynasty, a new unique clothing style based on the traditional style was developed.

History of Hanbok in different times – GORYEO (918 ~ 1392)

The clothes of Goryeo 고려 were inherited from the Silla Dynasty while absorbing and developing the styles of the Chinese Dynasties. The farmers and merchants wore white ramie and hemp clothing. Goryeo adopted the royal and official uniform system from the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasty (they put on a black hood and a white coat when off duty). The Mongols invaded Goryeo in 1231, and Goryeo later lost part of its territory to the Mongols who exploited, and interfered in domestic affairs (but Goryeo was not conquered nor did lose political independence), including forcing to embrace Mongolian customs, including their clothing style. As a result, they are still found in the form of Korean tradition. 

Clockwise: Goryeo commoner family, Confucian scholar’s clothes, Queen’s ceremonial clothes, King’s ceremonial clothes, otgoreum, jokduri.

Influenced by Mongolian costumes, the length of jeogori became shorter and the sleeves narrower, and otgoreum 옷고름 (garment strap ribbon) replaced the waist strap. It was also a Mongolian custom for a bride to wear on her head jokduri 족두리 (bridal crown) at a wedding. The Mongolian style was popular among the upper classes, while the commoners adhered to traditional costumes. Due to the active human and cultural exchanges between Goryeo and Yuan Dynasty, Mongolian customs were introduced to Goryeo, but Goryeo customs were also introduced to the Yuan Dynasty. Among the customs of Goryeo, clothing, shoes, and hats were popular, and the style was referred to as goryeoyang 고려양 (a nascent form of Hallyu 한류, the Korean Wave?). During the 31st reign of King Gongmin 공민왕, the Yuan Dynasty collapsed and the Ming Dynasty of the Han tribe reigned over China. As a result, the Mongolian style gradually disappeared.

History of Hanbok in different times – JOSEON (1392 ~ 1897)

Hanbok of the Joseon Dynasty is closest to the image of hanbok that we have now, because chronologically it was the most recent Dynasty, with most data and records remaining. As a result, there are more Joseon Dynasty-era historical dramas than any other periods, adding to the familiarity. During this time, Confucianism was the governing philosophy, and hierarchical order was clearly shown through clothing.

In the early Joseon Dynasty, seuran 스란 skirts (a decorative wrapping skirt with gold leaf patterns), which were almost similar to those of the Ming Dynasty, were popular but only the people with high social status could wear them. Since the mid-Joseon period, the back length on the men and women’s clothes were generally long, coming down to the waist, but became shorter over time.

From left: A woman wearing a short, tight-fitting jeogori (jacket) and a plump chima (skirt) / A man in durumagi (traditional topcoat), A man in male hanbok consisting of jeogori (jacket) and baji (trousers), A woman wearing a jacket featuring the gorgeous-looking jogakbo (Korean traditional patchwork).

In the 18th century, jeogori was so short that it hardly covered the chest that the belt had to be worn high. The skirts were long and plentiful throughout the Joseon Dynasty, but they were especially long and wide in the 17th and 18th centuries, leading to a bell-shaped silhouette.In the 19th century, the area around the knees and ankles was expanded to make the overall look a triangular shape, and it’s still widely used today. 

After the mid-Joseon period, the Confucian ideology was further strengthened and more restrictions were put on women’s clothes. Women used a kind of long hood called jangot 장옷 or a pair of skirts called sseugaechima 쓰개치마 to cover their faces when they went out. The commoners wore a jeogori/chima/durumagi combination, the basic style that came down from the Three Kingdoms Period.

Left: jangot / Right: sseugaechima
From paintings by Shin Yun-bok

The jeogori was long and relaxed, but after the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, the hahusangbak 하후상박 (slip top and puffy bottom) style, with a small, short jeogori, a puffy chima, appeared. In 1887, Regent Heungseon Daewongun 흥선대원군, who was kidnapped by the Qing Dynasty, returned from Manchuria wearing magua, which was the jacket of the Qing Dynasty, and this became magoja 마고자, which was worn over jeogori and had buttons. Since the 1880s vests with pockets (influenced by the Western suits) became popular as it compensated for the shortcomings of hanbok which lacked them. As Western culture began to flood in, changes were brought about in clothing. People wore both hanbok and suits. Women’s clothing also changed, and wearing seamless one-piece skirts called tongchima 통치마 and white jeogori was the beginning of the modernized hanbok. As society changed, there was a movement to abolish wearing jangeui and sseugaechima, which women had to put on to cover their faces when they went out.

From left: Painting by Kim Hong-do illustrating the different clothes
worn by different classes. / Painting by Chae Yong-shin / Heungseon Daewongun wearing magoja

After the Korean War, hanbok and suits coexisted, but hanbok gradually lost its place due to rapid economic development and the influx of Western-style culture through the 1960s and 1970s. Hanbok has become special clothing worn only during the holidays, but it is hard to see it even during the holidays today. However, with the Korean Wave, foreign tourists are showing a greater interest in hanbok, combined with the efforts of the younger generation to revive and improve the traditional clothes, the future of hanbok doesn’t look too gleam.

Check out beautiful hanbok products on Amazon

Korean Clothes Hanbok Story (Korean Edition)

Although written in Korean, it’s a fantastic resource for those wanting to study the history of hanbok in greater detail because it’s cartoon-style, filled with beautiful and accurate drawings.

Hanbok: Timeless Fashion Tradition (Korea Essentials)

On the other hand, this book, written in English, is report/analysis covering origins, history, and the unique characteristics of hanbok and its contemporary standing. Highly recommended for those wanting to study in depth.

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