Sandra Byrd: A woman draped in a beautiful sari evokes thoughts of India. A Stetson hat, big silver belt buckles, and spurred boots speak of Texas. But what comes to mind when you hear the word hanbok, the traditional garments so interwoven into Korean culture and history the very name means Korean clothes?
Hanboks—which can be traced to 57 BC—are beautiful, highly structured garments traditionally worn for celebrations, holidays, and other important occasions. Perhaps you’ve seen them in Korean movies or the increasingly popular K-dramas? KBS World explains, “The women’s hanbok is comprised of a wraparound skirt and a jacket. It is often called chima-jeogori, chima being the Korean word for ‘skirt’ and jeogori the word for ‘jacket.’ The men’s hanbok consists of a short jacket and pants, called baji, that are roomy and bound at the ankles.”
Although in times past, different hanbok materials, colors, and patterns were allowed only to the upper social classes, today, anyone is allowed to wear whatever hanboks suit them. Often, the very best hemp, cotton, satin, muslin, and most beautifully, silk, are the fabrics of choice.
Because hanboks symbolize a person’s heritage, they remain essential in the lives of many Korean Americans. For example, celebrity chef David Chang, proprietor of Momofuku, has a lovely photo of his baby in a hanbok on his Instagram feed (@davidchang). Likewise, the respected Korean American chef Esther Choi of Mokbar—along with her grandmother, mother, and sister—wears a hanbok for much of the film Her Name Is Chef. Ms. Choi says, “My story has everything to do with my family and heritage.”
Democratic Representative Marilyn Strickland of Washington wore a traditional Korean hanbok for her swearing-in ceremony. She said, “As a woman of both Korean American and African American descent, it was deeply personal to wear my hanbok, which not only symbolizes my heritage and honors my mother, but also serves as a larger testament to the crucial importance of diversity in our nation, state, and the People’s House.” Strickland finished by saying she knew her mother would be watching the ceremony on TV and, “I wanted her to see me wearing that, to honor my history and to honor her.”
Everyday Korean American
Wearing hanboks is not limited, of course, to celebrities. Hanboks are a beautiful means for many people to stay connected with and honor their heritage. Grace Kang, a Korean American teacher shares, “Before I married my Korean husband, my future mother-in-law asked her sister-in-law, who owned a hanbok store, to make a hanbok for me. I remember the excitement of picking out the colors and style at the hanbok store. When I opened the hanbok box for the first time, it was perfectly ironed and neatly packaged. I cherish the memory of trying it on for the first time, knowing that this was mine. I’ll always remember being the new bride wearing my hanbok as I was welcomed into my husband’s family.”
Grace Jung, a Korean American engineer, says that it is important to her to be married in a hanbok, and when she has children, they, too, will celebrate that milestone in a hanbok. “Additionally, my family believed it was important to keep Jesus at the center of my first birthday celebration,” Grace says, “which is why he appears in the tapestry behind me, in my hanbok, for the official portrait celebrating the milestone.”
Author Tina Cho prioritizes keeping cultural traditions alive. Tina was born in South Korea, adopted by an American family, and met her Korean husband in Iowa before returning with him to Korea. “My mother-in-law bought our daughter’s first hanbok to wear at her first birthday party, and when my son was born, my sister-in-law gave us a hanbok for his first birthday.”
Now a new mom, Grace Kang says she will pass down her wedding hanbok to her daughter, Gia. “Although she was born in Seoul,” Grace says, “after we move back to the States, I know that it’ll be more difficult for Gia to experience Korean culture as deeply as I had the opportunity to while living in Korea.
“The hanbok I wore at my wedding holds many memories and stories. I wore the hanbok in front of my family and friends to show my commitment to my husband. It’s what I wore to greet and thank everyone for coming to our special day. And every year after our wedding, I wear it when I bow to my in-laws to show them love and respect during the lunar New Year holidays. It was so special when I put our daughter, Gia, in a hanbok made just for her to bow to her grandparents during the holiday.”
These women’s sentiments confirm what Samuel Songhoon Lee says in his book, Hanbok: Timeless Fashion Tradition. “Hanbok is often considered the quintessential cultural heritage of Koreans and the most visible form confirming their national identity and roots.”
True, it seems, for the Korean diaspora as well as for South Koreans.
Learn more about Sandra Byrd by visiting her official website, www.sandrabyrd.com/.
A Special Thanks to Sandra Byrd and Tyndale House Publishers for the original article and images.