PhotoPhoto Essay
Harvesting HanboksHanbok, the spirit of Korea
Lee Yang-jung Reporter  |
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승인 2006.05.01  00:00:00
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SCIENTISTS PREDICT that if global warming persists at the present rate, by the time the next generation comes along, the seasons will disappear altogether. In Jan. 2005, the Korea Meteorological Administration announced that Seoul's springs and summers are getting longer while winters are getting shorter. Some scientists predict that in a few decades, winter will be an event in the past. Without the four seasons specifying when to plant the seeds or harvest crops, the traditions of agricultural life will be long forgotten. With science and technology informing farmers when it is planting season, time for growing and when to harvest, you can't expect people to farm using a plows and oxen anymore. By not preserving the traditional ways, we are losing a part of our culture. Culture shapes our values, what we think, what we eat, and what we wear; it shapes who we are. Culture helps us find our identity in this fast paced and highly globalized world.

  Likewise, losing our traditional dress would be a great loss to the Korean people. Today, not many people wear hanbok daily, just as not many usually farm using traditional methods. There are, however, people who keep the spirit of hanbok alive: the makers, designers and distributors of hanbok. Their methods of making the dress may differ, and the difference in price is like that of night and day, but all of these "farmers" agree that hanbok are the best crop they have harvested in the land of tradition and they will keep up with the efforts that help define us as Koreans.

Spring Forward

  In spring, all things under the sun begin to grow and flourish. The making of a hanbok is like spring. Farmers take much care to prepare the land to sow the crops. Similarly, the most important thing about making hanbok is the devotion that is put into its creation. From designing the dress to packaging it, heartfelt intensity is put into each hanbok making it unique.

  Although at present most hanbok are made in the modern way, through machinery, it still takes great care to make one worth paying since most hanbok are expensive these days. "Today people like unique pieces; they like the notion of owning a 'one and only' traditional dress," explains Lee Yoo-jin, the hanbok designer of Lee Yoo-jin Hanbok. He explains his designs in terms of jang-in jungshin, the spirit of Korean craftsmen. "In modern terms, jang-in jungshin doesn't necessarily mean that a person does everything painstakingly by hand, but rather it is a concept of returning to the past and reinventing and creating pieces for the future."

  In a very different world from that of designer Lee's quiet boutique in Hyehwa-dong, Lee Myoung-woon of Sang Shin Joo Dan in the active Dongdaemun Market states the same idea. "My mother and aunt, who started the business, did everything by hand the traditional way. You can't do business by making everything by hand these days, but we take very much care in every step starting from making and dyeing the cloth to the final touches like adding embroidery and patches to skirts," emphasizes the second generation hanbok tailor.

Summer Growth

  Summer is the season for crops to ripen. In the summer, plants stretch outward and mature, just as the hanbok has in present days. Today, there are two types of hanbok, the traditional hanbok and saenghwal or casual hanbok.

  Most traditional hanbok these days are sold as a part of honsoo (dowry). "The bridal hanbok was traditionally green on the top and red on the bottom, but these days, brides want their hanbok to be practical so we refrain from using strong colors that appear unfashionable. Usually the top is beige, light pink or off-white," explains Lee Myoung-woon. Designer Lee Yoo-jin agrees : "The trend of hanbok these days is practicality. However, if practicality is considered to be more important than the traditions of hanbok, we may lose its true meaning. Therefore, practicality needs to be derived from reinventing the designs from hanbok archives. The hanbok needs to become modern wear through innovative designs but it also needs to maintain its traditional characteristics at the same time."

  Hanbok that stresses function are the modern saenghwal hanbok. This modernized hanbok was first introduced during the early 20th century when Western clothes first came to Korea, but it wasn't until the 1990s that saenghwal hanbok was popularized. "Our company, Dosilnai, was established under the motto that Koreans should wear Korean clothes and our goal is to make simple and practical hanbok that allow people to have easy access to Korean garments," states Kang Eun-jin, head of the public relations deparment of Dolsilnai, producers of saenghwal hanbok. "Our critics say that the saenghwal hanbok is destroying the traditions of hanbok. We think that it is not only important to follow our traditions but to establish traditions as well. Dolsilnai holds fast to what is Korean whether it is the silhouette of the garment or the pattern, and we think that is enough to express the heritage of hanbok. Tradition has no meaning when it is dead, and it needs to be reinvented and modified to find its place in modern society." The members of Dolsilnai, including Kang, practice what they preached: they were all wearing saenghwal hanbok.

Fall Harvest

  Fall is the season of harvest. It is then when people give thanks for the year gone by and feast on their success. The harvest of the hanbok is its success on the international stage. The growth in international prestige exists in two main aspects. The first facet is fusion hanbok, which is a hanbok used as a motif in Western-style clothes, the latter is traditional hanbok in all its glory. The latter was shown by Lee Young-ae, a top Korean actress, at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, when she wore a traditional hanbok designed by Lee Young-hee, representative of Maison de Lee Young-hee. She is a world renowned hanbok designer who opened a boutique in New York City this April, selling her pieces to world famous designers like Giorgio Armani and Miuccia Prada. "Foreigners realize the beauty of the hanbok that we Koreans fail to see. Koreans have come to discover the appeal of Korean dress through the eyes of foreigners," she told JoongAng-Ilbo in an interview. Her trademark designs are Western-style clothes borrowing their style from the hanbok: dresses that look like a hanbok skirt without the top, coats in the form of durumagi (traditional Korean top coat) and boleros bearing traditional Korean embroidery. Lee has brought prestige to the hanbok by introducing it to the international arena.

  Another Lee, Lee You-jin gained fame when his hanbok was worn at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Finance Ministers' Meeting in September, 2005. This Lee is very different from Lee Young-hee. While she fuses traditional attire with Western-style garments, he goes back to the past to recreate historical hanbok. Lee stresses that, "Traditional clothes need to stay true to their legacy. Redefining the hanbok in a more comfortable and Western-style is a positive method in making hanbok known to the world, but the designers should keep in mind that there are indispensable part of hanbok like the dongjung (white collar strip) and goreum (ribbon for top). Hanbok cannot and should not become western clothing."

Winter Preparations

  In winter, preparations for the future and the next spring begin. People rest and find time to look over their misgivings. The hanbok is preparing for the future by keeping up with its traditions and catching up to the fast pace of a globalized society. The exhibition held in the Seoul Museum of Art, "Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok," sums up the trend in showing hanbok worn in movies and soap operas. In one wing is the highly popular fusion hanbok of the soap opera Gung (Palace) and in the next rests the handmade masterpieces of Koo Hye-ja the assistant of the current Human Cultural Asset for chimsun or traditional needlework. Standing under a pink man's garment that she is particularly attached to, the 65 year old traditional hanbok maker voices her outlook for the future of hanbok. "Interest and concern for hanbok has increased in the past decade. People in general have become more aware of their traditions and they are finally realizing the beauty of our traditional garment. The hanbok not only appeals to Koreans but to foreigners as well. The beauty of hanbok is universal which is why I think there is really no need to "modernize' it. Our heritage and the present should go hand in hand, but destroying the natural beauty of hanbok for the sake of modernity is wrong." Her love of Korean traditions was evident as she expressed the concerns of today's fusion hanbok. 

  Despite Koo's concerns, one of the most popular displays in the "Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok" exhibition was that of fusion hanbok of Gung. "Fusion is a great method for introducing the hanbok, but what the Korean people must keep in mind is that the fusion hanbok stresses what is oriental, not what is Korean," warns Kang of Dolsilnai. She continues stating, "Modern fusion and saenghwal hanbok are doing what the makers of traditional hanbok couldn't do: commercialization. Brands of hanbok that are functional, easily accessible to the middle class and that still pertain to our heritage, like Dolsilnai, are essential for the future of hanbok."

  Today, hanbok are making a comeback as Korean culture is held in high esteem in foreign lands. "Hanbok is making excellent progress in overseas markets as a design and the beauty of hanbok itself is being lauded. Saenghwal hanbok is introducing a hanbok into daily life," explains Lee Yoo-jin, "But designers and manufacturers must not forget that the meaning of the hanbok is in the garment itself. The desires of prosperity and joy, and the efforts that our ancestors put into the hanbok through colors, patterns and embroidery must be succeeded." Lee Myoung-woon expresses the same concerns : "Many traditions of the hanbok have been lost through out the years. I am very sad to see these legacies die. The hanbok stresses elegance and in order to conserve the good tastes of our ancestors we must learn to guard our heritage."

  In order to plant seeds in spring, the fall harvest must be preserved, both to stock up food for the winter and to provide the seeds for spring. More important is the land, because without the land there would be nothing to farm on. Only by conserving our heritage can we keep our identity in today's world. As author G.K. Chesteron voiced, "Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, but that the dead are living." Give life to hanbok; make it a crop worth harvesting.

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The hanbok that actress Lee Young-ae wore at the Venice Film Festival

Designer Lee Yoo-jin, concentrates on making a 'one and only' hanbok

"The art of chimsun, traditional Korean needlework, is a philosophy," cultural asset, Koo Hye-ja states.

Hanbok tailor, Lee Myoung-hoon, carefully wraps up the hanbok going into the ham, a chest given to the family of the bride before the wedding

Simple and practical saenghwal hanbok catch the eyes of pedestrians

Traditional, practical, beautiful

Dongdaemun allows customers to buy hanbok for a cheap price

Lee Young-hee's wedding dress takes its motif from hanbok

Lee Yoo-jin's pieces reinvent the designs of the hanbok archives

Foreigners fall for the beauty of hanbok

Old meets new at the "Korean Wave, Wearing Hanbok"