Queen, Maiden, or Gisaeng?: How to choose your Hanbok in your next photo trip

Seoul (and the whole of Korea, for that matter) teems with places where you can try the Hanbok, Korea’s traditional attire. From the airport to tourist spots like palaces, traditional villages, and museums, the Hanbok experience is an ever present attraction which signals that you are, indeed, in Korea.

The Hanbok experience
Photo from english.visitkorea.or.kr

The allure of the Hanbok for us foreigners may be because of the elegant way our favorite actors in our favorite Korean TV dramas wear them.

the moon that embraces the sun

Scene from MBC’s top-rating TV drama “The Moon that Embraces the Sun”

The sight of the Queen walking regally at the palace, of Korean ladies sauntering at the market, or of a gisaeng dancing gracefully while the hem of her Hanbok rustles musically with each beat just makes us want to try the Hanbok for ourselves, at least once in our lives.

Not all Hanbok are created equal, though. During the Joseon period, one’s social status was made apparent through the kind of Hanbok one wore. And if you intend to relive your Hanbok fantasy down pat, accuracy is key. That is, would you want to appear as a queen, maiden or gisaeng in the next photo you’ll proudly post on Facebook (or any other social network you use)?

Hanbok comes in different styles for differenet people.
Photo from Korea.Net

So the next time you spot a Hanbok booth in Korea, keep these little nuggets of info in mind. Who knows, you can even dazzle your friends with your “extensive” knowledge of the Hanbok!

Hanbok for the common people

Materials used for making Hanbok ranged from hemp, ramie, cotton muslin, silk, and satin, depending on the weather.

Commoner’s Hanbok.
Photo from Caidenlee.blogspot.com

 But if you are a commoner, you wear white Hanbok on most days, with the only exceptions being festivals and special life events like weddings. White isn’t so bad, though, since it represents purity, integrity, and chastity.

Hanbok for the upper class

If you come from the yangban or upper class, or if you are a court figure, you wear brightly colored Hanbok in red, yellow, blue, and black, which represent the give traditional elements in Oriental Cosmology – fire, earth, water, metal and wood. You also wear an assortment of accessories. The hair is elaborately arranged and decorated, too.

Brightly colored Hanbok for yangban women.
Photo from MBC’s TV drama “Arang and the Magistrate”

You can also tell the period in which the Hanbok was popular. During the early Joseon period, the jeogori was hip-length in style and was fastened at the waist. The jeogori that we are familiar now, which is arm pit-length in style with front panels made longer for breast coverage, were popular during the late Joseon Dynasty. This is an interesting article on how the jeogori has changed over the passing of centuries.

Hanbok for royal family

Symbols on the hem of one’s Hanbok denoted the wearer’s rank. A queen’s clothing carried the phoenix symbol. Princesses and royal concubines’ clothes, meanwhile, were decorated with a floral pattern. And for the ultimate sign of luxury, only royalty were allowed to wear gold-colored clothing.

Photo from Eng.expo2012.kr

Specific attire worn by female royalty include the hwalot, the wonsam and the dangui, among others.

Photo from the KBS TV drama “The Princess’ Man”

If you want to wear something a princess would, then choose a hwalot, a ritual attire adorned with 10 symbols of noble plants and animals denoting luck, long-life and prosperity. Luxuriously embroidered using crimson thread, one can imagine how expensive a hwalot is. Common people, who cannot afford this clothing, resorted to wearing nok wonsam instead.

In addition, the hwalot was also an attire that noble classes wore as a bridal topcoat.

Photo from the SBS TV drama “Jang Ok Jung”

Ceremonial topcoat for royalty, court ladies with high rank, and yangban women was the wonsam. To differentiate a royalty’s wonsam from a court lady’s and a yangban woman’s, different colors were used for each class. Moreover, decorations around the chest, shoulders and the back further signified which class the wearer belongs to.

A gold-colored wonsam, of course, can only be worn by the empress. The red one is worn by the queen. The green one is worn by a princess (or by a woman from the commoner class, but only during her wedding ceremony).

Photo from the MBC TV drama “The Moon that Embraces the Sun”

For minor ceremonies, the queen, princess or the wife of a high ranking government official wore the dangui, the difference being the queen and the princess wore dangui that had a gold trim, whereas non-royalty wore plain dangui. Wives from the noble class, wore the dangui during major ceremonies.

Hanbok for gisaeng: Fashion-forward and free

Do you remember that scene in “Jang Ok-Jung: Live in Love” where gisaengs served as Jang Ok-Jung’s models during her fashion show? There is truth to this scene, as gisaengs were actually stylish trend-setters during their time. Because they were not constrained by rules and regulations, such as in clothing, they got pretty creative with their clothes, makeup and accessories.

Gisaeng as fashion icons.
Photo from the SBS TV drama “Jang Ok Jung”

A major difference in a gasaeng’s Hanbok, though, was the presence of a wide band around the chest.

Hwang Jin-Yi, an intellectual gisaeng.
Photo from the KBS TV drama “Hwang Jin Yi”

Gisaeng also wore eye-catching accessories such as jeonmo (hat) in Gu Family Book.

A gisaeng sporting a beautiful hat.
Photo from the MBC TV drama “Gu Family Book”

Modern Hanbok

Hanbok, at the present time, is only worn during special ceremonies like weddings, 60th birthday and funerals.

Hanbok has been altered through the ages according to foreign influences. Current times still point to the same trend. Nowadays, Hanbok is more modern, with silhouettes adapting to the changing times. It also seems to be more comfortable to wear as there are less parts to don.

Modernized Hanbok.
Photo from the MBC TV drama “Feast of the Gods”

But whatever Hanbok you choose to wear, the important thing is how happy you are with it and how beautiful it makes you feel. And preserving an experience like this in photos makes it all the more special. Queen, maiden or gisaeng, there’s a Hanbok especially made for you.

Where to try Hanbok (Just some, not all! ^^)

1. Seoul Global Culture & Tourism Center located on the 5th floor of the M Plaza in Myeongdong http://www.visitseoul.net/en/article/article.do?_method=view&m=0003001006003&p=06&art_id=55733&lang=en

2. Tourist Information Center (TIC), located in the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) Headquarters in Seoul http://visitkorea.or.kr/enu/FU/FU_EN_15.jsp?cid=1799300

3. Bukcon Maru


4. Myeonggajae Guesthouse


5. Seoul Namsan Gugakdang












2 comments on “Queen, Maiden, or Gisaeng?: How to choose your Hanbok in your next photo trip

  1. Hi! Just want to share some experience about Hanbok here. There is hanbok rental shop for outdoor hanbok experience. you can rent hanbok to take picture in such places like Bukchon Hanok village, Gyeongbokgung Palace. with reasonable rates. check out more at http://www.onedayhanbok.com

  2. Pingback: 31. South Korea: Kisaeng | My World Fridge Magnets

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