Keep hanbok beautiful

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Keep hanbok beautiful

The author is the cultural news editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.


Despite the unprecedentedly hot summer, it is not hard to find people trying on hanbok, Korean traditional dress, around the Samcheong-dong and Bukchon areas in central Seoul. While I appreciate the charm of hanbok, the rental outfits leave me puzzled.

Just two years ago, I did not find them so strange. In my May 9, 2016 column for the JoongAng Ilbo, I celebrated how the hanbok experience was spreading among foreign tourists and Koreans alike on social media. I was also supportive of appropriate modifications to the traditional outfits. But lately, I think they crossed the line.

Only a few days ago, I was shocked to see a foreign man wearing Ikseongwan, the king’s gown, together with an unidentifiable military uniform similar to Kwaja, instead of the royal Gonryongpo. Foreign women were dressed in skirts that had ribbons in the back and tops made out of lace.

In the competition for lower prices, hanbok rental shops use mass-produced hanbok that are made in China and offer rentals without providing any knowledge about the traditional costume.

It is true that a proper hanbok may not be cost-efficient. The cheaply made rental outfits made with nylon and polyester are said to be very warm, but a sheer silk jacket and a linen skirt that Koreans wore during the summer make the outfit both beautiful and cool. But the price of the material and cost of maintenance are very high.

The government needs to get involved in cultural projects that the market does not execute properly, but with incentives rather than regulations. One way to help would be if the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Cultural Heritage Administration set guidelines for what materials and shapes should be used for hanbok and offer government certification and subsidies to rental shops that follow the guidelines.

Seeing people experience hanbok brings vitality to the palaces and makes downtown Seoul more beautiful, as long as a certain quality standard is maintained. Helping quality rental shops would be more effective than any kind of other national campaign. The strangely modified and cheaply made hanbok being offered should be removed to stop them from ruining the image of the traditional costume and the scenery downtown.

We have already witnessed the quaint antique streets of Insa-dong turn into streets filled with unidentifiable, cheap souvenir shops because of belated administrated efforts. Let’s prevent the Gyeongbok Palace area from experiencing the same.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 35
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