Hair Hierarchy: Women’s hairstyles during the Joseon Dynasty and what it means

If you’ve been watching the sageuk (사극) “Jang Ok-Jung, Living in Love” (장옥정, 사랑에 살다), you’ll probably notice how, along with the twists and turns in this famous femme fatale’s life are accompanying twists and turns on her…hair. 

She started out with an innocent-looking and oh-so-lovely plaited-braid, or daenggi meori (댕기 머리). It was tied back with a wide ribbon called daenggi (댕기) while the side of her head was decorated with a beautiful hairpin called dwikkoji (뒤꽂이). 

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A pretty piece of ornament called the baetssi daenggi (배씨 댕기) would be perched on top her parted hair at times, too.  

This kind of hairstyle symbolized her status as a maiden, or an unmarried woman. Interestingly, this is actually an old style that was popular even from the pre-Silla period. This hairstyle continued to be popular among girls throughout the Joseon period. 

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And then, when Jang Ok Jung became a court lady, she began to wear her hair, still in a variation of unmarried women’s style, but with her hair piled higher on her head. 

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Married women were not allowed to have the daenggi meori (댕기 머리) hairstyle. Instead, they prettiifed themselves with a hairstyle called Jjok meori (쪽 머리). In this kind of hairstyle, the hair is shaped into a chignon that is worn at the back. 

Of course, Jang Ok Jung was not officially married. But I suppose (correct me if I’m wrong) that as concubine, she is  in a sense, connected to the King. Hence, the hairstyle. 

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Colorful hair ornaments still abound to accentuate the face, such as the aforementioned baetssi daenggi (배씨 댕기) for married women, cheopji (첩지) for married women and court ladies, and the jam (잠), which is a kind of hairpin that is intricately and exquisitely made for royalty.

Others would wear a simpler hairpin called the binyeo (비녀), such as what the lead court lady in charge of palace garments wears throughout the drama.

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Jang Ok-Jung’s mom also wore the binyeo (비녀) in her chignon. But hers is very simple, as befitting of her status as a slave during the Joseon period. 

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Jang Ok-Jung’s most lavish hairstyle thus far, it seems (I’m only up to Episode 17), was during her official appointment as concubine.  She sported the tteoguji (떠구지), a kind of wooden decorative hair frame. This is quite a heavy, potentially neck-breaking hairstyle since the tteoguji (떠구지) is worn along with a wig, which makes it quite expensive, too. Thus, you can imagine what this hairstyle tells about the wearer’s status. 

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As you can see, Jang Ok Jung’s status was reflected not only in the clothes she wore but in the hairstyles she sported. Often, aside from keeping the hair in place, hair served as a visible indicator of one’s position in society, age, occupation, marital status, and wealth (or lack of it). And we can see this in how Jang Ok Jung’s hair evolved in the TV drama.

When we watch sageuk, we can’t help but admire Joseon women’s hairstyles and ornaments. They’re beautiful, yes, but behind those beautiful hairstyles are messages about a woman’s social class and background. Even in hair, there is a hierarchy.

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3 comments on “Hair Hierarchy: Women’s hairstyles during the Joseon Dynasty and what it means

  1. Pingback: Hair Hierarchy: Women’s hairstyles during the Joseon Dynasty and what it means | The Korea Blog

  2. Pingback: Hair Hierarchy: Women’s hairstyles during the Joseon Dynasty and what it means | Hi! K-POP

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