SPECIAL REPORT

Korean culture makes comeback

Korean culture enjoys comeback, thanks to government efforts and social media

Ms Kwon Mi Ru, 36, is mad about the hanbok, the traditional Korean dress.

The frequent traveller wears them even when she goes on holiday to places such as Spain, Mongolia and Nepal, her colourful and voluminous outfits drawing curious stares everywhere.

To date, the part-time career consultant has 60 such outfits - a hanbok for every occasion, be it for work, going out with her husband, meeting friends or overseas trips.

"The hanbok is very close to my heart. It is charming and makes me feel beautiful," said Ms Kwon.

She is among a growing group of South Koreans who are embracing their national dress in a cultural revival fuelled by a social media craze and government efforts to boost the country's cultural identity and promote everything "han", or Korean. This includes hansik (Korean food) and hanji (Korean paper).

Traditional festivals around the country are drawing thousands of attendees, from the Hanbok Day held in Seoul to hanji festivals held in the ancient city of Jeonju in the North Jeolla province and Wonju city in Gangwon province.

Both South Koreans and tourists alike are rediscovering the country's historical roots, signing up for hanji-making classes, learning traditional Korean painting, watching old-style theatre and going for temple stays.

PHILOSOPHY BEHIND FASHION

The hanbok is a fashion statement. Young people rent hanbok just for the fun of it, but I hope they will come to realise the philosophy behind the outfit and how a better quality hanbok will make them look and feel very different. 

HANBOK DESIGNER KIM YOUNG JIN 

Visits to Seoul's four main royal palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine, dedicated to the kings and queens of the Chosun dynasty, have also hit a new record.

More than five million people visited these attractions in the first six months of this year, up 21.5 per cent year on year, according to official figures. Six in 10 are locals.

Even traditional Korean architecture has received renewed attention in recent years, with more hanok (traditional Korean houses) being refurbished for modern living or turned into hotels.

 

Mr Choi Jung Chul, president of the government-linked agency Korea Craft and Design Federation which promotes traditional arts, crafts and clothing, believes that beopgochangshin - meaning creating new things by building on the old - is the way to appeal to today's youth.

"Crafts should be able to creatively reflect consistent change and innovation while keeping to Korea's unique tradition and spirit," he told The Straits Times.

Once worn only during festivals in modern times, such as Seollal (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Thanksgiving Day), and on important occasions like weddings, the hanbok has found its way into modern-day wardrobes.

The hanbok typically consists of a cropped jacket with wide sleeves, or jeogori, which the women wear with a wraparound skirt (chima) and the men wear over baggy pants (paji).

SOCIAL MEDIA CRAZE


Kwon Mi Ru is among the first in South Korea to include the hanbok in her daily wardrobe. PHOTO: KIM JINHA 

An Instagram craze took off in 2013 when South Koreans and tourists alike posted photos of themselves wearing the hanbok at historical locations.

A search for the hashtag #hanbok in Korean and English on Instagram yielded over 560,000 results and the number is still growing.

Last September, online retail giant Gmarket reported a 244 per cent jump in modernised hanbok sales over the same period in 2014. The hanbok is especially popular with women in their 20s, it noted.

Shops that rent out hanbok have begun popping up in Seoul and Jeonju, in response to growing demand.

Central Seoul alone is home to about 30 such shops.

One of them is Oneday Hanbok, whose owner, Mr Lee Sang Jun, 26, set up the business in July 2014.

He started with 50 pieces of hanbok, a collection that has since grown tenfold. A hanbok, including accessories like hairpieces and clutch bags, can be rented for as little as 13,000 won (S$15) for four hours.

Riding on the hanbok wave, the tourism office in Seoul offers visitors tips on where to rent a hanbok and how best to enjoy the city's history. For instance, visitors to royal palaces get free entry if they are wearing a hanbok - a reason cited for the increase in visitors.

Seventeen-year-old Oh Sang Hee and four schoolmates - each of them clad in a hanbok - were spotted by this reporter at the main Gyeongbok Palace. They each paid 13,000 won to rent their outfits for four hours.

The high school student told The Straits Times it was the first time she was wearing the traditional dress, although she had learnt hanbok etiquette previously.

She said she liked the hanbok and would save up to buy her own.

Ready-to-wear hanboks cost a few hundred thousand won, while those that are tailor-made can cost a few million won.

"It is really nice to see that (interest in) our traditional hanbok has been revived because of this trend," Ms Oh said.

Hanbok designers, such as Ms Kim Young Jin and Ms Hwang Lee Sle, have contributed to the revival by coming up with designs that are more appealing to young people.

Borrowing elements from the hanbok, they came up with ready- to-wear designs that feature high-waisted wraparound skirts or jackets with the hanbok collar. They also switched from silk to more wash-friendly fabrics like cotton and linen.

"The hanbok is a fashion statement," said Ms Kim, whose label Tchai Kim has inspired many cheap copies in the rental market.

"Young people rent hanbok just for the fun of it, but I hope they will come to realise the philosophy behind the outfit and how a better-quality hanbok will make them look and feel very different."

EVOLUTION OF THE ATTIRE

The origin of the hanbok can be traced as far back as the Goguryeo Kingdom (37BC to AD668). Wall murals from that era show both men and women wearing long and wide-sleeved jeogori.

Historians believe that the earliest hanbok was influenced by nomadic tribes in western China.

The outfit was described as free- flowing, with the women's full skirt designed for comfort and freedom of movement.

Traditional festivals around the country are drawing thousands of attendees, from the Hanbok Day held in Seoul to hanji festivals held in the ancient city of Jeonju in the North Jeolla province and Wonju city in Gangwon province. Both Koreans and tourists alike are rediscovering the country's historical roots, signing up for hanji-making classes, learning traditional Korean painting, watching old-style theatre and going for temple stays.

After the Mongol invasions during the Goryeo kingdom (918-1392), the jeogori was shortened, its sleeves narrowed and a bow added in front.

By the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), women were wearing the jeogori tighter and higher above the waist.

The skirt, however, remained voluminous through the centuries, as it was designed to hide the woman's body in a patriarchal and conservative society, said hanbok designer Kim Min Jeong, who has her own label, Hanbok Lynn.

The hanbok started losing its appeal after the 1950-53 Korean War as more people chose Western-style clothing during a time of rapid modernisation and Western influence.

Hanbok designers worked hard to keep the traditional dress alive over the next few decades, but it was only after 2010 that the outfit became popular again.

That was when European high fashion powerhouses, including Dior and Chanel, took notice and launched hanbok-inspired collections on the runway.

Given the current social media craze, youngsters who have worn the hanbok are also starting to reflect on tradition.

Sang Hee said: "I didn't think too much about the hanbok before, but wearing it to the palace, I realise it is really beautiful. I will think more deeply about the hanbok from now on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'A return to their roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe