The Many Layers of Hanbok: Chima Jeogori
There is nothing as iconic as traditional hanbok—it is quintessentially Korean. Your favorite idols wear it, it’s the hallmark of every historical drama, and it’s a must-wear when visiting temples in Korea. Hanbok (한복) is actually an umbrella term for all traditional forms of Korean dress—“han” meaning “Korean” and “bok” meaning clothes—but nowadays it commonly references the style during the Joseon period. Though not worn day to day as they once were, hanbok is still the dress for festivals, traditional holidays, and ceremonies, and is a wardrobe necessity for the modern Korean.
Looking at hanbok can tell us a lot about life in early Korea. Hanbok was more than just fashion—it was representative of an individual’s age, class, and even relationship status. Everything from color to length was indicative of one’s place in society. There is a lot of history and tradition that isn’t well known despite the popularity of hanbok today. This is the first of a multi-part series that will give you a crash course into the world and beauty of traditional Korean clothing.
Today, we will be focusing on women’s hanbok or “chima jeogori” (치마 저고리), which references the two main components of the traditional garment. The “chima,” meaning skirt, wraps around high on the chest with a wide waistband. The long and full silhouette of the chima gave women greater freedom of movement with the illusion of floating on air, all while accommodating the multitude of layers that were common for the time. The length of the chima was dependent on social status: those from the upper class wore floor-length chimas, while the lower class wore shorter, calf-length chimas that allowed them greater mobility for daily tasks and chores. Fabrics were also symbolic of class status. Upper-class women used ramie, silk, or satin, and often had embroidered and pattern fabrics while women of lower class had plain cotton or hemp skirts. Age and marital status were represented primarily by color. Young unmarried women typically adorned red chima, while married and middle-aged women wore blue, and elderly women wore gray.
The “jeogori” is the jacket that covers the chima, though you may not have noticed it! From the Goryeo to Joseon dynasties—and even continuing throughout modern times—the jeogori has gone from hip-length to above the chest. By the 19th century, the jeogori was so short that a white sash was added to maintain modesty in the face of changing fashion. One hypothesis behind this change is that it was a result of economic strain; but, seeing as chimas became more voluminous at the same time, it may have just been the trend of the time. As with chimas, jeogoris also signified social status through their design. The more ornate or high-quality the fabric, the higher the wearer’s class. White was typical for commoners, as was cotton and hemp fabrics. Women’s marital status was displayed by yellow or green jeogoris for unmarried and married women, respectively.
As hanbok has faded out of common wear, it has been kept alive by modern interpretations by contemporary and haute couture brands, even internationally. Nowadays, colors are used freely and do not have the same meanings as they once did. Colors once reserved for young girls or the elderly are now commonly worn by women of all ages. Lengths have also changed over the years—there are even mini-skirt chimas and short-sleeve jeogoris.
In 1996, the Korean government designated October 21 as “Hanbok Day.” This day is popular among young women who dress in hanbok and participate in the hanbok fashion shows and exhibitions held at Gyeongbokgung Palace. These events, coupled with idols popularizing the style, encourage young people to continue this important element of historical Korean culture. Organizations like the Hanbok Advancement Center aim to encourage and spread knowledge about hanbok to keep the tradition alive. Below is a video created by the Hanbok Advancement Center demonstrating how to wear a female hanbok:
As certain traditional elements are replaced by modern ones, there is the concern that hanbok will be left behind. However, the rich history behind this tradition and the passion of its supporters are not easy to overlook. As we continue this series, we will cover male hanbok, traditional wedding wear, hairstyles, embroidery, and hanbok accessories in hopes to add to the support of this beautiful feature of Korean history.