Hanbok plays an integral role in Korean culture. It is worn at key moments in a person’s life as well as being donned for traditional occasions like weddings, festivals, holidays, and birthdays. There is even a Hanbok Day which was established by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in 1996. Hanboks are meticulously handcrafted. This is why they cost millions of won and tend to be handed down from generation to generation. Since the 1990s there has been a growing interest in Hanbok amongst the younger generation in Korea with numerous Korean dramas, K-pop idols, and groups fueling the revival. This has led the way for Korean designers who have innovated the traditional hanbok by mixing it with western influences. These modern hanboks can be worn in a variety of ways and don’t stick to the conventional ways of wearing hanbok.
Global Interest in Korean Culture
There has been a rise in global interest in Korean culture. The reason for this is the rise in Korean entertainment content such as Korean dramas and K-pop. More people around the world are interested in Korean culture like never before. Korean dramas and K-pop have made an effort in using their influence to shine a light on the beauties of Korean culture. Korean historical dramas such as Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, Mr. Sunshine, and Kingdom showed just how beautiful Korean culture can be through traditional clothes worn during that time period. Many designers were able to capitalize on the global interest by modernizing the traditional hanbok.
What are Modern Hanboks?
To understand modern hanboks you first have to understand traditional hanboks. A traditional hanbok has a front top called Jeogori (Jacket) and a high wasted skirt called Chima. For Korean men, the Chima is replaced by oversized pants called Baji. The hanbok is typically in vibrant colors and is not comfortable to wear. In addition, they are very expensive and difficult to clean. Modern Hanboks on the other hand are much easier to wear. However, it is able to keep the elegant beauty of traditional hanbok. It is not as color, bulky, and expensive. It has been made by designers for daily use. Therefore, modern hanboks can now be worn on a night out to a concert, parties, and even meeting friends.
Promotion of Hanbok by the Korean Government
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism not only created Hanbok Day where Koreans are encouraged to wear hanbok but also helped establish the Hanbok Advancement Center to promote Hanbok and look for ways to promote Hanbok on a global scale. They brought in world-famous designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Carolina Herrera, Dries Van Noten, and Jean-Paul Gaultier to present their own interpretations of hanbok during their visit to South Korea.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism also encourages international tourists to wear and take photos in hanboks at heritage sites across Korea. For example, the entrance fee to the Korean palaces is free of charge if you wear a traditional Korean hanbok which can be rented by the hour.
The Korean government even awarded Blizzard the developer of the popular online game Overwatch the Hanbok Love certificate for the modern Hanbok skin of D.Va (one of their characters). The Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Tourism thanked Blizzard for promoting South Korean culture to the Overwatch community of over 40 million players worldwide.
Modern Hanbok Designers
The first modern hanbok designer was Lee Young-hee who showed it off at Paris Fashion Week in 1993/1994. It showed a modern version of the hanbok but without the Jeogori. Therefore, the models were all exposing their bare shoulders. This caused a bit of controversy in South Korea. The reason was that exposing one’s shoulders in Korea is considered to be too sexual. It is still a bit of a cultural taboo in 2021. Therefore, what Lee Young-hee did at Paris Fashion Week back in 1993 was a huge bold step.
Fashion designer Kim Young-jin created her signature modern hanbok brand Tchai Kim in 2010 which was praised for bringing the traditional hanbok into the 21st century. The key feature was the cheollik one-piece dress. The cheollik was originally a garment for men but she was able to turn it into a one-piece dress. When combined with a wrap skirt, you get that modern hanbok look.
Leesle Hwang is the creator of the modern hanbok brand Leesle. These modern handbooks were easy to wash and affordable at under $200 apiece. Her brand exploded when Jimin of BTS wore one of her modern hanbok at the 2018 Melon Music Awards in Seoul.
Leesle is not the only brand to get a boost through the help of K-pop idols. Kim Danha the creator of modern hanbok brand Danha Seoul got massive attention thanks to the fact that Jennie from BLACKPINK wore her jacket in one of their music videos. Danha Seoul focuses a lot on sustainability. 30 to 50% of its fabrics are recycled polyester or organic cotton.
Modern Hanboks Showcased by Kpop Stars
BLACKPINK is by far the most influential Kpop group in the fashion industry. They are ambassadors to some of the top luxury brands in the world. They took modern hanbok to another level when all the members wore one in their hit music video “How You Like That”. It was able to get over 86 million views on Youtube in the first 24 hours of its release. Jennie in particular got most of the attention due to her pink jacket which was designed by Kim Danha. It was reported that her brand’s website got 4,000 visitors a day after the music video was released on YouTube. They even wore the same hanbok for their live stage performance on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show. This introduced even more people to the Korean traditional costume.
Modern Hanboks are here to stay
These days, modern hanbok styles can be found in various stores across Korea due to the fact that collections are now adding them to their fashion line. Therefore the modern hanbok is here to stay and continues to grow thanks to Korean Hallyu and social media. In addition, Korean fashion designers are looking for new ways to modernize Hanbok for everyday use. Add this to the fact that the Korean government is encouraging foreigners to wear Hanbok goes to show that the Hanbok is an outfit for everyone, regardless of nationality. It is only a matter of time before modern Hanoks are an ordinary presence in Korea’s streetwear scene.