If your only exposure to Korean culture so far has been ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY, look very, very closely at the group dance scene towards the end of the Gangnam Style music video. There’s a female dancer in the background on the right wearing a reddish-pink hanbok, the Korean traditional costume. Hanbok translates literally as ‘Korean clothing.’
Some time ago, I took a trip to South Korea. The only thing that I knew I really wanted to buy in Korea was a hanbok. The traditional hanbok for women consists of a short shirt with long sleeves called a ‘jeoguri’ and a long skirt called a ‘chima’. There’s also a special petticoat-dress called a ‘sokchima’ that goes under the hanbok and helps give it shape.
These days, the traditional hanbok is usually worn at weddings, special birthdays, and traditional Korean festivals like the lunar new year. I bought my hanbok in a little shop near the sea in the port city of Busan, South Korea. The choice of shop was random. The small shop looked friendlier than other big, faceless shops.
In general, people have their hanbok tailor-made. They don’t try and buy it off the rack, like I did. Buying a hanbok when you don’t speak Korean is an interesting experience. Imagine trying to buy a wedding dress in a language that you don’t speak and you’ll kind of get the idea. It involved me pointing at a calendar and miming an aeroplane to convey the idea that I wasn’t going to be in the country long enough to have a hanbok made to measure.
Despite the language difficulties, I managed to buy a pink and red traditional Korean hanbok made of silk with beautiful embroidery of flowers on the ‘jeoguri’. The price was … well, let’s just say a hand-embroidered silk hanbok costs the same as the average white wedding dress. Despite the picture of a credit card on the shop door, the sales lady insisted I pay in cash. We may not speak the same language, but the sales lady sure speaks the language of commerce – probably scared that I was going to flee the country with a hanbok in a trail of bad debt! A short (and bank balance-decimating) trip to an ATM later and I was the proud owner of a Korean hanbok.
Shih Yen wears her hand-embroidered silk hanbok from South Korea (Photo by Paul Wheeler).
My hanbok was packed into a box with a pair of 버선 beosun (pronounced bo-sun) socks. These are traditional Korean socks that are worn with hanbok. Beosun socks are pointy at the end and usually white. My pair of beosun socks also had some hand embroidery on it. My beosun socks are too small for me. When I tried them on in the shop, I mimed to the sales lady that they were too small. In return, she mimed back forcibly pulling them on! I understand that beosun socks should be worn a bit tight, but I’m sorry lady, I have big feet! There are no photos of me wearing my beosun socks as I have never been able to get my feet into them no matter how forcibly I pull.
Shih Yen’s pair of too-small traditional Korean beosun socks with hand-embroidery.
The correct footwear when wearing hanbok are beosun socks with traditional Korean shoes. Like the beosun socks, traditional Korean shoes also curl up at the end. These shoes are called ‘flower shoes’ because they look like flower petals. Traditionally, these shoes were made of leather or silk. The modern version of these shoes have a low heel and have embroidery on it – generally of flowers. Because of the upturned toe, it is better to buy these shoes a size larger than your usual shoe size so that they fit comfortably. Because of the curled-up toe, these shoes can also make large feet look smaller. Good for people like me 🙂
Traditional Korean shoes