You visit Seoul & decide to tour one of Seoul’s amazing palaces. As you wander the historic site, you notice other visitors in some beautiful, abnormal clothing: hanbok. Literally meaning “Korean clothing,” hanbok has made a resurgence in Korean culture. Lately, modern adaptations of traditional hanbok have become increasingly popular which hanbok rental shops have made hanbok accessible to the masses, including foreigners. Today, hanbok has become culturally acceptable for foreigners to wear while visiting historic sites. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to tangibly experience Korean history — and trust me, the experience is so worthwhile.
So what is Korean hanbok really?
Despite the ambiguous translation, hanbok typically refers to the clothing style of the late 1800s in the Joseon dynasty. Hanboks have changed throughout the centuries but have always remained quite loose-fitting. This style allows for modesty according to Confucian standards. The loose-fitting nature also allows comfortable movement.
Today, hanboks have two pieces. Both men and women wear top called jeogori, similar to a jacket. For men, the jeogori reaches well past the waist, usually approaching the knee. For women, the jeogori is usually cropped above the waist. The second piece varies by gender. Men traditionally wear pants called baji that fit loose in the leg but tighter around the ankle. Women traditionally wear a large, bell-like skirt called a chima.
Though these two basic pieces remain the same, hanbok have immense variation in color and pattern. Historically, the colors and patterns aligned with particular symbols or social statuses. Brighter colors or muted colors distinguished people by class or marital status. Patterns symbolized the hopes or significance of the wearer. For example, a dragon emblem signified royalty of king or queen. Today, people wear hanboks of all colors and patterns based on personal preference rather than social convention.
What is hanbok like to wear?
In one word: astonishing.
In more words: wearing hanbok gives a uniquely direct connection to traditional Korean culture. The clothing has such intrinsic beauty. As soon as I finished dressing in the chima and jeogori, I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale. For four hours in my rented hanbok, I felt like Korean royalty. Growing up watching Disney movies, I always wondered what being a princess felt like. Wearing a hanbok satisfied this lifelong wondering.
Besides, the loose-fitting nature of hanbok made the dress incredibly comfortable. All the layers underneath the chima and jeogori kept me warm even on the chilly November day. The women at the rental place even braided my hair in a traditional style. They added flower pins and a matching ribbon. The whole ensemble makes you feel extra significant, dignified, and graceful.
Is hanbok worth trying?
Absolutely. Wearing the traditional clothing of another culture often brings questions about cultural appropriation and appropriateness. Not so with hanbok. Most hanbok-wearers are Korean but no one will stop a foreigner from donning the garb. Historic sites actually encourage visitors to wear hanbok by offering free admission to those in traditional clothing.
So rent a hanbok and visit the palace for free — that’s exactly what I did. Besides, a palace offers the most fitting background for social-media-worthy photos of hanbok. Take a friend or two or three to take pictures of each other and share the experience.
Beyond Instagram-worthy photos, wandering a historic site in historic clothing created the most powerful connection. You can literally touch Korean history in a unique and meaningful way. History truly can come to life. Understanding the past puts the present in a new perspective. The long skirts so popular with Korean girls? The loose sweatpants so many Korean guys wear? They suddenly seem hanbok-inspired.
Korea has an incredibly rich, robustly preserved, and easily accessible history. Wearing hanbok gives you a meaningful gaze into this history. So really, trying hanbok seems like a top 10 for any visit to Korea.
A fellow hanbok-inspired daydreamer
P.P.S. Still hooked on historic sites? Find out the full scoop in this blog post about Seoul’s palaces.