Korean Sociological Image #45: Modernizing Traditional Korean Clothes

James Turnbull's picture

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For all my love of Korean culture, I’ve never really understood the appeal of modern hanbok (한복).

Primarily, because of their impracticality: after performing the ancestor worship rites known as cha-ryae (차례) in mine at my parents-in-laws’ house on various Korean holidays for instance, I find it very difficult to eat the traditional breakfasts that follow with such baggy sleeves getting in the way, especially at the low tables that most Koreans use. It also has no pockets, no zipper, and can get uncomfortably hot very easily, especially during Chuseok (추석) when the weather can still be quite warm. And my wife has similar problems with hers too, adding that women also seem to find their slightly more elaborate version more uncomfortable than men do theirs.

For those reasons, I fully expected the Wikipedia article on hanbok to mention that despite popular perceptions, only the small elite known as the yangban (양반) ever really wore them historically, who were notorious for being resolutely opposed to performing anything that smacked of physical labor. Was Koreans’ pride in their “national dress” a little misplaced then, and just another invented tradition like the kilt in Scotland?

Alas, it doesn’t say, although it does seem reasonable to suppose that practical considerations were undoubtedly more important for the bulk of the population. But what the article does demonstrate though, is that the hanbok has as rich and varied a history as, say, the Western suit (it was naive of me to be surprised at that), and the frequent changes in the various forms and usages of the garment over time indicate that its role as a signifier of class, status, and occupation was much more complicated than I first thought.

Still, I can’t think of a more unflattering garment for women.

No, I’m not so unsophisticated as to think that women can only be attractive in clothes that are form-fitting and/or show some skin. But then from the neck down, the hanbok is almost like a burqa in that it’s impossible to tell if there’s a man or woman under it, and I certainly can’t imagine anyone ever describing as a woman as sexy in it, nor a woman feeling so in one. See for yourself at Flickr, or in the hanbok sections of recent Miss Korea pageants in the two videos below:

Of course, possibly I’m being too harsh, and by all means feel free to disagree with me: these two bloggers here and here certainly do for instance. But regardless, hopefully now at least you can understand why I did a double-take when I saw the following new hanbok designs last week:

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Unfortunately, the only information about them are in advertorials direct from the company that makes them (see here, here, here, and here) , and rather clumsily-written ones at that, but at least they do explain a little about the logic to the new designs. Here’s my rough translation of the first of them, which incidentally also has the best quality version of the image on the left(!):

아찔한 초미니 한복 / Giddy Ultra-miniskirt Hanbok 2010-07-07 12:09

한국의 아름다움을 오롯이 담고 있는 우리의 옷, 한복. 복을 부르고 화를 쫒는다는 뜻을 담고 있는 한복은, 인생의 중요한 순간마다 반드시 갖춰 입어야 하는 우리 생활의 일부이자 소중한 문화유산이다.

The hanbok is the item of clothing that completely and harmoniously shows Korea’s beauty. It has the meaning of bringing good luck and dispelling anger, and at every important event in your life you should wear this vital part of our cultural inheritance.

한복을 아름답게 입기 위해서는 속적삼과 속치마는 물론이고 긴 치마와 저고리까지 제대로 갖춰야 하지만, 시대가 변하고 젊은 층의 안목도 새로워지면서 한복은 어느새 고리타분하고 촌스러운 옷으로 전락하는 듯 했다. 그러나 명품 한복 브랜드들을 위시해 전통한복을 계승하고 퓨전한복과 한복 드레스를 내놓으며 젊은 층은 물론이고 나아가 세계인의 시선까지 사로잡는 상품을 개발함으로서, 한복은 다시금 아름다운 우리의 옷으로 발돋움하고 있다.

In order to beautifully wear the hanbok, of course you need to the undershirt, petticoat, long skirt, and top and to properly wear them, but as times change the hanbok is become old-fashioned and rustic in young people’s eyes.  However, the hanbok is currently taking a big step in becoming all Koreans’ beautiful clothing again by the entrance on the market of a new brand which has developed a fusion style of traditional hanbok and long skirts that will appeal to everyone from the young generation to globalized people.

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한복 알리기와 보급에 주력해 온 명품 브랜드 <안근배 한복 대여> 역시 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복 등, 차별화된 디자인과 소재 개발로 고객들의 다양한 요구를 충족시키고 있다. 최근 2010/2011 신상품 70여개를 출시한 <안근배 한복 대여>는 높은 퀄리티의 전통 한복뿐만 아니라 파격적인 초미니 한복 드레스와 퓨전 한복등을 선보이며 화제를 모으는 한편, 우리 고유의 멋을 계승하며 신세대 고객들의 입맛까지 사로잡았다는 평가를 받고 있다. 특히 <안근배 한복 대여>는 전통 한복의 아름다움은 그대로 살리면서도, 더운 여름철에 쾌적하게 한복을 입고 싶어 하는 고객의 구미에 맞는 상품을 전략적으로 출시해 눈길을 끌었다.

Angunbae Hanbok Rentals (AHR) is a company that has concentrated on supplying and letting people know about this new style of hanbok, and in addition to having one fusion type with and ultra-short miniskirt, is differentiating its designs and materials in order to satisfy the varied demands and requirements of customers. Recently, AHR has launched 70 new designs for the 2010/2011 season, and these have been attracting lots of attention not just for their high quality traditional forms but also their fusion with unconventional ultra-short miniskirts, and have been gaining a lot of praise for their coolness that satisfies customers’ modern tastes. In particular, AHR has been noticed for strategically providing customers with hanbok that, while showing off the garments’ traditional beauty, are also a comfortable choice for their summer tastes.

<안근배 한복 대여>는 초미니 한복뿐만 아니라 전통 한복과 한복 드레스 등 다양한 상품으로 인기몰이중이며, 업계 1위의 브랜드답게 전문화된 콜센터 운영과 홈페이지 운영으로 고객들을 만족시키고 있다. 특히 공식홈페이지 www.hanbokrent.kr에서는 7월 한 달 간 진행되는 신랑 신부 커플 한복 20% 할인 행사 안내와 다양한 신상품들을 확인할 수 있다.

AHR doesn’t just provide hanbok with ultra-short mini-skirts, but is also popular for its traditional hanbok and hanbok dresses and so on, and provides a wide variety of products to rent; as the top brand in the business, it operates a call center staffed by experts and a homepage to make sure to fully satisfy customers’ needs. And please note: any couples about to get married, visit www.hanbokrent.kr to get a 20% discount on couple hanbok and/or a variety of new products.

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Is 300,000 won reasonable to rent the first ones? Regardless, see many more examples at the “Fusion” section of AHR’s website, and I’m all for changes to any popular item of clothing that make it more comfortable, cooler to wear in the summer, and a little sexier and more elegant too.

But this post wasn’t intended to be only about hanbok. In fact, the humble podaegi (포대기), or traditional Korean baby sling, may ultimately be much more interesting:

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Quite simple to put on once you get the knack, it’s very easy to see why Korean mothers would use these while working in fields, or even just the kitchen (scroll down here a little for a picture). Hell, if I had to carry a baby for hours while doing manual labor, then I’d probably choose something that comfortable and tight too, and so I wasn’t surprised to hear from my father’s Nigerian colleagues that my wife’s was just like Nigerian ones, where they’re called (naturally enough) “wrappers”, and the act of wearing one “backing” (thanks to reader eccentricyoruba for the terms).

Still, note that the shoulder straps are a recent adaptation carried over from Western baby harnesses (no pun intended), and there weren’t many versions with them available in 2006 when my first daughter was born; wearing a version like this without them then, my wife’s back got tired quickly, and she speculates that perhaps that would have been less of a problem had she been bending over in a field in it like her mother and grandmother did (she eventually got a Western-style baby harness). Also, as you can imagine they can get extremely hot in the summer, which is why these modern mesh types are now available (and I’m sure ones with shoulder-straps are available too):

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Clearly then, podaegi manufacturers are also quite capable of adapting their products to modern tastes. But still, one big, possibly insurmountable problem with them remains.

Men refuse to wear them.

( Source: unknown )

At this point, I should probably mention that I don’t wear anything to carry either of my 2 daughters myself: when Alice was born in June 2006, I was working long hours and my wife became a housewife, so it was only natural that she carry her while I carried groceries and so on; when Elizabeth was born in August 2008, I had Alice to walk with me, chase after, and/or only briefly carry while crossing roads and so on, while my wife carried Elizabeth. Sometimes I wish I had used a Western style baby carrier though: both daughters refuse to sleep or be carried in my left arm, often crying until I put them in my right one, and I’m sure that I now have a slightly crooked spine as a result.

Of course I did wear my wife’s poedagi at home sometimes, especially when she was out and I had to put them to sleep in the way that they were used to. But in public? Never, for I think I’m safe in assuming that the vast majority of Koreans consider the podaegi as inappropriate on men as a bra, and which is why you’ll only ever see pictures of them in podaegi if they’re posed in comical situations like the above.

Western-style harnesses however, you’ll see plenty of Korean men wearing them, which leads me to a question I’d like to throw open to readers: are podaegi then, in a sense an impediment to changing people’s beliefs that childcare is only a women’s job?

Yes, of course popular perceptions of clothes and senses of appropriate fashions are constantly changing, and of course there are also a myriad of reasons why Korea has the highest number of housewives in the OECD that are compltely unrelated to clothing. But recall that throughout our daily lives,  we are in fact constantly bombarded with subtle messages that reinforce the notion that parenting is women’s job, so it  doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that this may also have an impact.

Alternatively, look at it this way: if you were a woman expecting a baby soon, which style would you buy if you wanted your male partner to take equal responsibility for carrying the baby after it arrived?^^

(Posted at The Grand Narrative)

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