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The Korean Hanbok

Beautiful Hanbok: Pride of the Korean People

Koreans use "bot"e as a general term for clothing. Traditional clothing and adornments, on the other hand, are called "hanbok"-an abbreviation of the term Han-guk pokshik (Korean attire).

Along with language, religion and cultural patterns such as dance, food, housing and aesthetics, apparel plays a vital role in the preservation and expression of cultural identity. In multiethnic nations such as China and America, styles of traditional attire are diverse. 

However, in countries such as Korea, which are occupied by a single ethnic group, traditional dress is synonymous with national dress. For this reason, the hanbok forms a highly effective expression of Korea identity. Thus, changes in hanbok design from the past to the present parallel the nation's historical development. Moreover, hanbok's form, materials and designs provide a glimpse into the Korean lifestyle, while its colors indicate the values and world view of the Korean people.

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Development of Hanbok

Hanbok is apparel of the Caftan type-a style of attire which is primarily found in Asia. During the Ko Choson era, Tan-gun popularized shaving of the head and the wearing of hats.

During the Three Kingdoms period, which began with the founding of Koguryo, hanbok consisted of a two-piece "unisex" outfit. The upper garments of this period opened in front and came down below the waist. They were held shut with a belt. The lower garments were also tied off above the feet. Notably, the opening flap of the upper garments seems to have been placed on a leftward diagonal from the upper right-in contrast with the left to right flaps on the chogori worn today. This change in the direction of the opening flap occurred after the mid-Koryo period. Among Western apparel, a right-side flap is used for male attire, while a left-side flap is used for female attire. Thus, the unisex style popular in the modern period can be said to have originated in East Asia, whereas the differentiation between male and female attire is thought to have originated in the West. Ancient Koreans produced upper and lower garments which were beautiful yet pracitically suited to the active lifestyle of nomadic hunters.

During the Shilla period, Korean society diversified while contacts with neighboring countries increased. At this time, Koreans began to introduce the international fashions of China's Tang Dynasty. Examples include sleeveless shirts for women, long scarves, decorative hairpins, male headdress and coats with roung lapels. Elaborate silk clothing and ornaments were other elements of the refined clothing fashions of the period.

During the KoryCo period, the long upper garments of the previous period gave way to waist-length attire. As a result, waist belts were replaced by coat tie-strings. As one of the unique features of Korean clothing, the coat string was initially a short, thin cord but eventually developed into the style seen today, i.e., a long, dangling piece of cloth that hangs down below the knees. Around this time, Tang Dynasty's fashions became less influential. As Korean society turned to the values of frugality and simplicity, the calm, tranquil beauty of agriculture life found expression in the period's famous blue celadon and white clothing. Korean clothing underwent further refinement as cotton was introduced into Korea from Yuan China. In addition, clothing regulations were introduced from abroad and a system of official uniforms was established for the palace.

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The beginning of the Choson period saw the development of a Confucian society. At this time, the use of cotton became wide-spread. In addition, the period saw the development of a unique script, known as Han-gul, and the publication of numerous scholarly compilations. At the same time, there were diverse developments in the system of ritual attire. Confucianism, as the central ideology and faith of East Asia, was actively pursued at this time, along with its system of ritual dress. Ritual clothing represented the visible manifestation of intangible Confucian virtues such as benevolence, propriety, wisdom and trust. Since clothing served as a medium for the visible expression of a rite, it was deemed a very significant form of expression. Hence, Choson apparel, in addition to its role in delineating social status, represented a strict conformity to Confucian codes of ritual attire. In particular, a standardized system of clothing for the various rites of passages was established in accordance with numerous ritual manuals. Special attire was worn for the rites of manhood, marriage, mourning and memorial services. Even today, these clothes can be seen at weddings and funerals, and in particularly conservative areas, the special clothing for memorial services is still worn. The traditional dress of Confucian scholars can be seen in the paintings of the famous Choson folk painter, Shin Yun-bok. In these paintings, the outer robes are long, yet never touch the ground. Inside the robes, multiple layers of undergarments can be seen. With wide sleeves hanging down, the grave-looking scholar sports a broad-rimmed, horse-hair hat.

The late-Choson period saw great social changes as the common people came to resent the feudalistic system. The period was also marked by significant changes in values and aesthetics. At this time, female entertainers took the lead in the new developments in women's attire. Men's fashions, on the other hand, were primarily influenced by members of overseas missions, political reformers, overseas students and missionaries. Folk art depictions of women during this era show them wearing white belts, snug chogori that show the contour of the breast, and numerous undergarments exaggerating the volume of the dress. The erotic beauty of the garments has little precedent in traditional Confucian culture.

The opening of Korea to the West intensified the pace of change in apparel. Most notably, clothing during this period became much simpler. During the coup d'etat of 1884 and the Kabo Reform (1894), clothing specifications for various ceremonies were combined to form a single ritual attire. The awkward, wide sleeves became narrower and male top-knots were cut off. Among woman's attire, undergarments as well as concealing vestments such as the ssugaech'ima (shawl), chang-ot (hood) and noul (veil) gave way to a more practical, short coat.

The disappearance of traditional attire during the process of modernization has been explained in relationship to economic development. Nations which have industrialized and developed economically have given up their traditional clothing, as part of their everday dress, at a more rapid rate than economically backward nations. In Korea, the hanbok began to disappear as everyday dress in the 1960s and came to be used only during rituals. As for traditional ritual attire, only marriage and mourning clothing have survived. Traditional hanbok are now only seen on special traditional events such as folk festivals, shamanic kut, historical dramas or reenactments of palace rituals.

In short, the hanbok has undergone many changes but has generally consisted of elements still evident in hanbok today, i.e. pants, outer coat, skirt, and soon. Among the hanbok's different forms, ritual clothing has traditionally taken precedence. During its development, the hanbok acquired some elements from neighboring nations, while changing to suit the particular needs of the times.

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