In the modern world, the hanbok is undoubtedly an iconic and powerful fashion item. It is a thing of the past, yet a vessel ever so changed and modified that it no longer represents the original thing that inspired it. It is a mother to many things that are ever so lovely, that it doesn’t have to be what historians of ancient history think it is.
But then again, the hanbok itself has a beautiful history — a history as beautiful as the hanbok itself. And if you’ve already known this, you shouldn’t stop yourself from knowing more about it. Sure, it’s definitely a fashion item, but it’s also so much more than that, too. A lot of fashion trends come and go as bubbles that were blown by children do. But it’s a fashion item that represents its people, their lives, and the reason why your K-pop idols look so rad and dashing in both the stage and in historical dramas.
Most of what we think of as hanboks actually came from the early Joseon era. It was a time when the Three Kingdoms of Korea became one. This part is important, really. Because that time of great peace was great for money-making. And with money-making, there will always be more trade. And when people trade more often, you get to see a lot of things made from places that you may never dream to explore.
But hanboks were invented long before then. It’s just that we haven’t learned how to use time machines to check back into the past. We only know more about Joseon-era hanboks because of the artworks that survived.
What we know about hanboks from that time is that they had three parts. First was the jeogori, which was a jacket worn like shirts. It was long enough to actually cover both arms. And both men and women wore it. Then there was the chima, or the skirt. This one doesn’t need much explaining since it is what it is. And the same goes for the last one, which was the baji or men’s pants.
Fashion-wise, though, the Korean women kept changing how their attires looked so often. It’s partly because of Mongolians who brought fashionable clothes from Mongolia to their new homes in Korea. The loose and baggy jeogori ended up becoming tighter. On the other hand, the chima skirt grew higher up towards below the chest, but it still covered the ankles as it used to.
The design of the hanbok eventually turned into the thing that we see in Korean historical dramas. What once looked like a jeogori jacket became a jeogori long-sleeved shirt. The shirt went so high up in the body that some women abandoned the shirt altogether. They didn’t go topless, though. They used a specialized jacket instead. It was called the magoja and it was high enough that it only covered the chest. Everything from below was covered by their incredibly long chimas.
Meanwhile, men’s clothes barely changed. They still wore the same baggy jeogori jacket. Although they did change a few details here and there, they were still practically the same. It was like women’s clothes were the only ones that changed that time.
The fall of hanboks
Eventually, the use of hanboks fell out of favor among the Koreans. Or at least, it did among the South Koreans.
Way back relatively recently to the 20th century, Korea was in a state of turmoil. WWII happened. Japan conquered countries. And Korea became conquered for a period of time. But what really changed things was after the Allies recaptured Korea and divided it into the North and the South. Whereas the North ruled itself the way we know it now, the South took in a lot of US fashion and pop culture. People stopped wearing hanboks because jeans and shirts looked much cooler due to the new Western cultural influences that came in.
Nowadays, hanboks are used as formal Asian attires and props in South Korean historical dramas. You might as well even see some couples use it as a wedding attire. It can be difficult to find appropriate hanbok, but there are online hanbok stores like the Korean In Me, that are designed to be for English speakers and worldwide shoppers. And as for the latter, perhaps they aren’t as accurate as historians would like them to be. But they are still hanboks in the sense that they convey the same image and preserve the history of the hanbok within the minds, memories, and economy and ensure that the hanbok will continue to thrive as time goes on.