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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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."
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.