An elegant evolution: Hanbok’s modernization

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An elegant evolution: Hanbok’s modernization


The word “traditional” is often viewed as antithetical to modern, and thus viewed as primitive or backward. Traditional culture is always challenged to co-exist with modern lifestyles.
Reforming hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing, is an issue that has sparked debate in Korean society for some time. The style of hanbok most often seen today is that of the Joseon dynasty, where women wear a chogori, or short upper garment over a long, wide skirt and men wear a longer chogori ― sometimes with a magoja or short coat, with wide pants that are tied tight around the ankles.
Although the Joseon-era hanbok is often worn during weddings or national holidays, they are acknowledged by many Koreans to be inconvenient and uncomfortable for everyday wear. Following this line of thought, radical political groups in Korea during the late 1980s started pushing for people to wear hanbok that are modified to be more comfortable in everyday situations, instead of westernized clothes. Thus, many designers and shops started selling modernized hanbok, or gyeryang hanbok, made to fit current fashion trends while being comfortable to wear.
In 1996, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism started an ambitious project to promote the popularization of hanbok. The ministry proclaimed the first Saturday of each month to be “Hanbok Day,” on which all ministry employees were encouraged to wear hanbok. They also organized many exhibitions in which hanbok were bought and sold. However, the interest in popularizing modified hanbok faded away during the late 1990s.
Park Hee-soo, the curator for the exhibition “Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok” ― held in the Seoul Museum of Art’s Gyeonghuigung annex ― who also writes newspaper columns on hanbok, stated, “The gyeryang hanbok of the 1990s failed to evolve into ‘fashion.’ Rather, the modified hanbok of those days were more like comfortable uniforms lacking the craftsmanship and grace of traditional hanbok.”
The interest these days, especially in the media, has been shown not only in modifying hanbok to make it more comfortable and accessible, but also to revive the traditional costume to include an artisan’s spirit during the production process. Koo Hye-ja, the assistant of Korea’s 89th intangible cultural asset Jung Jung-wan (and named to inherit the title) made the hanbok in the 2003 Korean blockbuster “Untold Scandal.” She comments, “The success of the costumes in ‘Scandal’ is a good example of how people want to see hanbok that take time and effort to make, in which attention is paid to maintaining the original elegance of hanbok.” Ms. Koo adds that she took special consideration in making the undergarments of the costumes. “To retain the elegance of hanbok, one needs to pay attention to detail. Without proper undergarments, the traditional shape of hanbok can easily be ruined,” she said.
The hanbok designer Kim Young-seok also thinks attention to detail is a key component in the success of the current, couture-style hanbok trend in the media. “I believe the modified hanbok from the past should also include a certain level of fashion-consciousness. However, the functional aspect of hanbok should be experimented with as well.” Mr. Kim’s detail-oriented aspect, or what the designer humorously calls “obsessive,” is evident in his hobby of collecting Korean antique pillows, cushions, fans, ornamental hairpins, tables, tea cups and jewelry boxes.
When asked about the future of hanbok with the international setting in mind, especially Asia and the Korean wave, both designers said that preserving the traditional lines of hanbok while experimenting with the functional, as well as the fashionable, side of the garment is important.
The issue of hanbok is no longer a black-and-white, traditional vs. modern tug-of-war. It is evolving into a realm that has a place in the fashion and culture of modern life.
While opening the “Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok” exhibition, Ms. Park said that the recent international attention given to hanbok is a result of perfect timing in terms of the Korean hanbok market producing authentic-looking hanbok that are “fashionably modernized” in the midst of the Korean wave.

by Cho Jae-eun

The “Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok” exhibition runs through April 25 and is held in Seoul Museum of Art’s Gyeonghuigung annex in northern Seoul. The entrance fee is 8,000 won for adults and 6,000 won for children. For more information call (02) 724-2770 or visit
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