Korean Costume

Jooyoung Shin


Wearing hanbok, or Korean costume, for ceremonial and other special occasions today, the people of Korea carry forward a tradition begun over two thousand years ago.

History of Korea

Korea's history begins when the earliest nation, Gojoseon, was established in 2333 BC--more than 4,300 years ago. During the first century BC, Gojoseon was divided into three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. This Three Kingdoms period lasted for about 700 years. In 654 AD, Silla unified these three kingdoms and lost the northern part of territory. Meanwhile, a new dynasty began to form at the old territory of Goguryeo and Balhae was founded by Dajoyeong (AD 699-719). Balhae lasted for less than 300 years. In 918, Wang Geon unified the peninsula into Goryeo, from which Korea gets its name. The Goryeo dynasty was toppled in 1392, by Yi Seong-Gye, the founder of the Joseon dynasty. Yi's Joseon dynasty lasted until 1910.

Map of Korea

These maps show Koreas territorial changes for each period. Todays territorial margins were drawn during the Joseon dynasty. Since the Korean War in 1950, the peninsula has been divided into North and South Korea.


History of Hanbok

       It is hard to pinpoint the date Korean people began to wear constructed clothing. However, based on various relics, such as hemp threads and various shapes and sizes of needles made of animal bones found in the Neolithic Age, it is possible to assume that people knew how to weave and make tailored clothes from as far back as that period.

       The basic style of Korean costume, consisting of jacket and pants, originated from the Scythian costume during the Bronze Age. The Scythians were the first horse-riding nomadic tribe to inhabit the Steppe from the 6th to the 3rd centuries BC. It is assumed that the Korean peninsula was under the rule of a Scythian culture that spread across northern Europe and Asia before it was brought under Chinese rule, around 108 BC. The Scythian culture was based on its nomadic characteristics, in particular the environmental conditions of a horse riding people that were completely different to those of agricultural people. A widely diffused group, the Scythians ranged across a variety of neighboring cultures.


1. The Important Periods in the History of Hanbok:

Goguryeo (37 BC-668 AD)

l  Among the three kingdoms, the Goguryeo provided a great deal of evidence relating to the origins of the costume. Recently, after Korea formed the Treaty of Amity with China in 1992, a good deal of cultural evidence from Goguryeo became available to scholars of various fields. Among the most valuable were tombs and mural paintings that provided a great amount of new information about costume.

l  The Goguryeo kingdoms mural paintings, which date from the third to the sixth centuries AD, show clearly the early forms of Korean dress. Figures in the paintings wear the dress style common among the mounted nomads of Northern Asia. Both men and women of Goguryeo wore jackets(yu, 襦, jeogori) and pants(go, 袴, baji) irrespective of rank. Women wore pleated skirts(sang, 裳, or gun, 裙, chima) over the pants. The typical jacket went down to the hipline and was tied around the waist with a band.

l  What we think of as contemporary patterns are really nothing new. It can be said that the frequent appearance of polka dot patterns and stripes on clothes indicate their popularity in the late 5th Century.

l  The figures from the Goguryeo and Japanese mural paintings illustrate not similarities in the dress of the two countries, from the 5th to 7th Centuries.


Baekje (18 BC-660 AD) and Silla (57 BC-654 AD)

l  The dress system of the three kingdoms is basically similar. People of the Baekje and Silla also wore the jacket and pants as principal garments. In Yangjikgongdo, a Baekje envoy wears a jade green long jacket trimmed with purple strips at the neck, cuffs, and hem. What is unusual about this jacket is the closure: left-over-right, rather than right-over-left.

l  The Silla envoy depicted in this Chinese mural painting from the tomb of 李賢(654~684), the sixth son of Gojong(高宗) of the Tang dynasty, clearly shows similarities of dress styles of these kingdoms. He is wearing jowugwan (a conical hat decorated with a feather on each side), a wide-sleeved jacket trimmed with red strips at the neck and hem, pants, and leather boots. His clothes illustrate the characteristic Silla-style jacket and pants, distinct from those of the Tang dynasty and other neighboring countries.

l  Various types of headdresses were worn during the Three Kingdoms period. Examples include gold diadems, crowns, and conical hats, caps decorated with feathers, womens head cloths, etc.


2. Hanbok of the Joseon period

The basic styles of Korean traditional dress appears to have been established at a very early date. Styles developed in the Three Kingdoms period remain essentially unchanged to the present day. Korean traditional dress may have incorporated elements from foreign sources (mostly from the Chinese), but the Koreans also created their own indigenous style during the Joseon period, which can clearly be seen in the beautiful shapes, colors, and fabrics found in traditional garments.

1) Mens Hanbok: A Representation of "dignity"

Korean men wore many layers of garments, including jackets, loose pants and coats, and various types of hats, all of which contributed to the wearers appearance of dignity and calmness. James Laver, the British historian of costume, writing in the Encyclopedia Britannica, noted that the effect of mens hanbok resembled the American pilgrims serious and severe appearance, while G. H. Jones, in Korea: The Land, People and Custom, written in 1907, made the comparison to "a full-rigged ship under sail."[1]

Mens Coats

During the Joseon period, men wore various kinds of coats. Noblemen, especially, were expected to wear a coat and hat all the time. The man's traditional hanbok, consisting of a jacket, pants, coat and hat, embodied Confucian concepts of dignity. Most coats were simple and monochromatic but some variety was added to the mens costume by using decorative hat strings and a waist cord with tassels.

l  Cheollik is a coat consisting of a bodice and pleated skirt sewn to the waist, with one or both of its sleeves detachable. It was worn beginning in the Goryeo period. Throughout the Joseon period, stylistic changes affected the shape of the cheollik. The proportion of the bodice to the skirt changed, as did the pleating method and the shapes of the collar and sleeves.

l  Simeui[2] is a Confucian scholars coat imported from the Sung dynasty of China during the Goryeo period. It is a white coat trimmed with black strips at the neck, cuffs, and hem. Simeui, usually worn with a black silk cap, or bokkeon, was a symbol of a noblemens dignity.[3] 

l  Dapho[4] is a sleeveless or short-sleeved coat with side slits worn from the late Goryeo to late Joseon periods. During this time, kings and officials wore it under their everyday costume or noblemen over their coats.

l  Jungchimak, daechangeui, and dopo are various types of mens everyday garments. These coats are very similar in terms of shape, except for some differences in collar shape, location of slits, and whether or not there is a back panel.

l  Durumagi is a coat worn by both men and women at the beginning in the late-nineteenth century. It replaced most of the wide-sleeved coats after the reformation of dress regulations in 1884. Regardless of their rank, all men were required to wear the black durumagi beginning in March of 1895.[5]

Foreign Officials wearing Hanbok

You may know of the tradition wherein presidents and prime ministers wear the traditional costume of the host country at APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meetings. In 2005, when Korea hosted APEC, the presidents and prime ministers of the 21 represented countries wore traditional durumagi for the summit. Because the traditional coat signifies dignity, it was perfect choice for the summit. The coats were made by the renowned hanbok designer Lee Young-hee and the 7 colors were extracted from natural dyes. Each coat cost over $3000. The President of Mexico was chosen for the best dresser of the day because he put his hands inside the sleeves, which was the proper way of wearing the coat in the Joseon period. The second place winner was the president of Chile. He walked with his hands behind his back in the Joseon noblemens way of walking.


Mens Hairstyle and Hats

l  Hats dominated mens clothing, as is shown in the genre paintings by Sin Yun-bok (1758-c.1820). Men always wore hats. The materials and colors used for a hat indicated the rank of the wearer.

l  The typical hairstyle for Joseon men was a topknot. Men wore a headband called a manggeon to prevent disheveling the topknot, and either an indoor cap, or a gat (broad-brimmed hat) over it when going outside.

l  Tanggeon was an inner cap worn by noblemen, either under the gat when going outside or by itself indoors.

l  Bokgeon was usually worn by unmarried men or Confucian scholars. Motifs in gold leaf were usually applied on the boys cap to display a wish for longevity, prosperity, and children.

l  Jeongjagwan was one of the indoor hats worn with everyday garments. It consisted of double or triple layers and was made of horsehair. The example illustrates the typical double-layered hat called yicheunggwan.

l  Gat is a general term that refers to any hat with a brim, and usually means the noblemens heungnip. It is made of horsehair and bamboo and worn with everyday clothes. Sizes of crown and brim varied for mens hats, depending upon the period and prevailing practices.

l  Gatkkeun is a decorative hat string made of various materials such as jade, amethyst, coral, agate, lapis lazuli, tortoiseshell, or bamboo.

l  Chorip is a straw hat worn both by noblemen and ordinary men. The thickness of straw used for the hat indicated the rank of the wearer. Finer and thinner straws were used for making a noblemens chorip.

l  Mens unique hairstyles and hats attracted widespread attention among early foreign visitors to Korea in the late 19th Century. G. W. Gilmore, an American instructor at the Yukyounggongwon, the first modern public institute in Korea, called the country "the land of hats," in 1886. Captain Basil Hall of the British Navy, visiting the west coast of Korea in 1816, noted in his logbook that a Korean official who visited his ship was wearing a hat with a diameter of three feet (91cm).[6]

l  One Joseon philosopher, Yi Deok-mu(1741-93) criticized the gat for producing "an indolent and arrogant disposition."[7] Therefore, when the 1885 dress reform began, the size of hats was reduced and wide sleeves disappeared.


2) Womens Hanbok: A Representation of Modesty

The womens traditional costume reflected another Confucian ideal--that of modesty. Although people generally believed that modesty could be achieved by concealing the female form, hanbok was,  interestingly, concealing and revealing at the same time, as can be seen in many paintings. For example, the 18th Century painter Sin Yun-Bok painted one woman in a revealing short jacket that exposed the waistband of her skirt, and another covering herself with a cloak-shaped veil. From the 18th Century, the jacket became so short that a red inner strap could be seen sticking out under the woman's arm. Joseon Confucian scholars described such a look as wicked, but coquettish would be a more appropriate term.[8]

Womens jacket jeogori

l  Jeogori is a general term that refers to a short upper garment worn both by men and women. While men wore it as an undergarment, women wore it as an outdoor garment. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that the womens jacket underwent many more stylistic changes than the mens.

l  In the early Joseon period, the womens jacket was long enough to cover the waist. The length varied from 50cm to 80cm. During the mid-period, womens jackets became shorter than that of the early period. In the 18th Century, womens jackets became so short that their breasts were revealed between the jackets hem and the waistband of skirt.

l  The womens jacket grew shorter but more prominent, emphasized by decorative devices such as  colors applied at the neck, cuffs, and underarms, long breast-ties and sumptuous norigae.

Womens skirt chima

Chima referred to a wrap-skirt consisting of a number of panels sewn together and gathered at the waist. The current shape of the chima can be traced to the Joseon period, when it had both ceremonial and everyday uses.

l  Usually, young married women and girls wore a red skirt, while middle-aged and old women wore a blue skirt.

l  Women of the lower classes wore a short skirt called a duruchi.

l  There were several types of skirts: lined, unlined, quilted and padded.

l  Ceremonial skirts for upper class women were decorated with gold leaf or woven with gold thread.

l  In the late Joseon period, the skirts grew ever more voluminous. This voluminous skirt, created by wearing layers of undergarments, exemplified womens modesty. During this period, modesty and elegance were preferable to sumptuousness, and womanly virtue was equated with femininity.

l  Percival Lowell, who is credited with first using the term Land of the Morning Calm in reference to Korea, noted in 1885 that the effect of the Korean skirt was similar to that of the European crinoline.

Specialized Womens Garments for outdoor use 

As it did for men, Confucian philosophy governed the rules for what women wore in the Joseon period. Confucian law, so-called nae-we-beop, not only prevented men and women from being in the same space together from the time they were 7 years old, but also forced women to conceal their faces from men. Therefore womens outdoor activities were more restricted and when they did go out they had to cover their faces. As a result, various kinds of veils and headdresses for women were created.

l  Jangot was one of the face-covering headdresses. The basic shape was similar to an overcoat, or durumagi.

l  Sseugaechima was another version of the headdresses worn by Joseon women to cover their faces and heads. Its basic shape was identical to the womens skirt, except the length was about 30cm shorter and the width narrower than the skirt.

l  Neowul was a veil the Joseon women wore to cover their faces when going outside. Made of trasparent silk, it was placed over the hat. The color of the neowul varied according to the wearers rank. Queen and princess wore purple veils and court ladies wore black.

l  Jeonmo was an outdoor hat usually worn by gisaeng. Bamboo was used to make the hat's frame, with paper applied over the frame. Jeonmo was usually decorated with various motifs, including auspicious signs, flowers, and butterflies.

l  On the other hand, the lower class women were not required to wear these kinds of headdresses.  

Womens hairstyles

l  Married women wore their hair in eonzeun meori style, created by placing braided hair around the head with chignon. Unmarried women wore a long braid.

l  Ceremonial hairstyles included keunmeori, eoyeomeori, daesu, cheopjimeori and saeangmeori (meori means head or hair in Korean).

l  In the early and mid Joseon period, a womans hairstyle was not as voluminous as in the late period. After the 18th Century, hairstyles also grew more pronounced in response to the size of the skirts, and there was widespread use of extravagant hairpieces called gache.

l  Most women depicted in 18th Century genre paintings by Sin Yun-Bok and Kim Hong-Do must have added a great number of hairpieces to their head. In Sins painting, one woman is arranging her almost 1m long braid.

l  In the 18th Century, both King Youngjo and King Jeongjo made attempts to curb these extravagant styles, with little effect. However, with the increasing use of chignon after 1829, during King Sunjos reign, hairstyles became less exuberant, and skirts, too, began to shrink in size. Although the exact relationship is not clear, there was clearly some connection between extravagant hairstyles and voluminous skirts.

l  Hair ornaments (binyeo and dwikkoji) also became more sumptuous to match the new hairstyles.

Womens accessories: Norigae

l  Norigae was the most characteristic and significant ornament worn by Joseon women. It is tied at the breast-tie of a jacket, the waistband of a skirt, or the sash of a ceremonial robe. The origins of the norigae have been traced to the Goryeo dynasty. Xu Jing, who visited Goryeo, wrote in Seonwhabongsa Goryeodokyung ("Picture Book of the Xuanhe Emperors Envoy to Korea," published in 1124), that women wore golden bells and perfume pouches at their waist.[9]

l  Norigae consists of five parts: ttidon (a clip used to hang the norigae to the clothes); the central object; maedeup (a knot that holds the central object); sul (a long tassel); and kkeunmok, a cord that connects all of these parts.

l  Various materials were used to make norigae. Silver, gilded silver, and white brass were most commonly used for the central objects. Other precious jewels, such as coral, amber, green jade and pearls, were also used. The materials used and the number of central objects determined the name of norigae. Norigae with one pendant is called danjaknorigae, while samjaknorigae denotes three (dan means a single and sam three). 

l  This ornament was worn not only for decorative purposes to accentuate the beauty of the hanbok, but also for the symbolic purpose of representing the wishes of the Joseon women, such as longevity, or many sons and wealth. Bats, for example, symbolized fecundity, and an eggplant stood for a son. Tigers claws were another popular pendant noble women wore, because it was believed that they would ward off misfortune or disaster from a family. An ornamental knife was a symbol of a womens chastity.


Korean dress thus developed over time on a foundation laid in the Three Kingdoms period, via Unified Silla and Goryeo, when the basic hanbok style evolved, to the establishment of what became formative Korean styles of clothing in the Joseon period. The traditional hanbok style achieved its definitive form, free from any foreign influences, during the 18th Century. The style that ultimately evolved could be said to project a certain dignity in mens costume and modesty in womens, but both these Confucian concepts were sublimated in the aesthetics of traditional dress.


<The Use of Hanbok Today>

l  Today, hanbok has changed from everyday wear to ceremonial costume.

l  Korean people wear hanbok for special occasions, such as wedding ceremonies, and for the first birthday party.

1. The First Birthday Outfit

l  The first birthday marked the period when a baby passed the potential health crises of early age, especially in the past, when the infant mortality was very high. Reaching this important milestone was and still is a cause for special celebration.

The food and clothes for the first birthday party embodied the familys wishes for the child. For example, the rice cake, called susugyeongdan, symbolizes health and longevity. The first birthday outfit was worn to invoke not only health and longevity, but also prosperity and power.

l  The painting on your left is called Pyeongsaengdobyeong, which means a painting that describes the important events of ones life. Here the baby boy is wearing a multicolored striped jacket, red vest, pants, and decorative hat, or gulre, and is surrounded by his parents, nanny, and other family members. On his waist he is wearing a waist cord with 12 pouches (symbols of 12 months) filled with five kinds of grains, which symbolize longevity, success, and a happy life for the baby.

l  Princess Deokhye, an only daughter of King Gojong, 1912~1989, is wearing hwagwan, dangui, and skirt. Her jacket was decorated with roundels embroidered with 壽 characters, and her skirt featured a decorative flounce with gold leaf.

Dolsang and Dol-jap-i

l  On the table for the first birthday party, called Dolsang, various kinds of rice cakes, noodles, rice grains, and fruits were prepared. These also represent the family’s wishes for the baby’s long and healthy life. Along with these foods, various symbolic objects were placed on the table, such as thread, symbolizing longevity and health, bow and arrows for braveness and proficiency in martial arts, money for wealth and prosperity, and a book and brushes for academic excellence.

l  These objects are prepared for the interesting event of the first birthday party called dol-jap-i which is still done today. This is the best part of the party. All the guests including baby’s parents watch what their child picks out of the objects. This is always much interest and expectation because they believe that what the baby picks will predict his or her future. If a baby chooses money or rice grains, this means he or she will be rich; if he or she chooses noodles or threads he or she will live long. If he or she selects the bow, she/he will become a military official; if he or she chooses the book and brush, she/he will have a great literary reputation. This dol-jap-i provides amusement for the party but it also is evidence of our ancestors’ wisdom and will to establish how to educate a child according to his or her aptitude and disposition.

l  In this photo, a baby boy wears hogeon, a hood-shaped headdress with tiger face, for protection against the evil spirit. People believe that the tiger face would deliver the animals brave nature to their child. The gold leaf characters on the hat and clothes represent auspicious signs such as longevity壽, prosperity 富貴, and the wish for many sons 多男子 to continue the family line.

l  Today, girls usually wear the same outfit as that of princess Deokhye, except for the hwagwan. Jobawi, originally a winter cap, has replaced hwagwan for the first birthday headdress.

l  Saekdong jeogori (Multicolored-striped jacket) is worn by children for holidays, over a womans ceremonial robe, and as a shamans costume. It exhibits how Joseon women utilized remnants of fabrics.


2. Traditional wedding: Honrye

Joseon people considered marriage to be the most important ceremony among all others because a husband and wife formed the root of life. Marriage is the first step to fulfilling the important duties of life, such as worshiping ancestors, performing religious services, and carrying on the family line.

The painting on your left depicts the bridegroom on his way to brides home to pick her up. Called chingyoung, this is one of six traditional wedding procedures.

Traditional Wedding Ceremony proceeds with Jeonanrye.

l  For Jeonanrye, the bridegroom places wild goose on the table and bows twice. Wild goose symbolized love of a husband and wife since once females and males are mated, they never part.

l  Gyobaerye is held in the wedding hall. The bride bows to her groom twice and then he to her once.

l  Hapgeunrye: After a bridesmaid pours a drink into the glass, the bridegroom and bride drink from it, one after the other.

l  Pyebaek is a procedure wherein a bridegrooms family accepts the bride as their family member, acknowledging she has become their daughter-in-law. At the completion of the ceremony, the married couple bows to the bridegrooms family. If there are many members in his family, she has to bow as many times as needed. In the modern western style wedding ceremony, pyebaek is performed as the last procedure.

Bridegrooms and Brides Wedding Attire of past and today

The wedding day, the most blessed day both for bridegroom and bride, provided the only opportunity for them to display their best attire. Although the costumes worn for a wedding ceremony in Joseon, a hierarchical society, were not generally appropriate for the lower classes, it was allowed for bridegroom and bride, regardless of their rank, to wear the upper class attire for this special occasion.

Bridegrooms Attire

The bridegrooms attire was called samo-gwandae, and consisted of the samo (hat), dannyeong (officials robe), pumdae (belt indicating the wearers rank) and black boots. This attire was originally worn only by officials but for the wedding day bridegroom of any rank was allowed to wear the officials samo-gwandae. This not only showed his desire to look his best, but wearing it represented his dream and hope for the future.

Brides Attire

l  The bride wore the hwalot or wonsam on her wedding day. These two robes are very similar in shape but vary in color and decorative embroidery. Hwalot is a red robe brilliantly decorated with embroidery. It features long side openings and a front that is shorter than the back. The wide sleeves are decorated with multicolored stripes and white cloth, called hansam.

l  What is interesting about this brides robe are the motifs embroidered on it. Each motif carries a symbolic meaning. Most frequently used motifs were the Chinese characters that represent auspicious signs, such as 異姓之合 (meaning a tie between two families), 百福之源 (meaning wishes for happiness), and lotus blossom, peony, birds, wave pattern and oddly shaped stones. These motifs symbolized love between man and woman, prosperity, prolificacy, and longevity.

l  This green robe, called a wonsam, was lined with red silk and trimmed with navy blue borders. After wearing it for the wedding day, most women wore this robe for various ceremonies, and, finally, as a shroud.



Western fashion, as a symbol of westernization and modernization, became prevalent in everyday life, notwithstanding the traditional dress culture that had dominated Koreas clothing system for several centuries. As a result, people of Korea today wear western style clothes every day. It only took about one hundred years before western styles replaced the traditional hanbok. However, the hanbok has never disappeared from the Korean clothing system. Wearing hanbok is still associated with important rites of passage, like the first birthday party, marriage, and holidays such as a new years day and thanksgiving day. When wearing the hanbok, Korean people, without realizing it, continue to carry on their custom and tradition from the last century. The 21st Century world is becoming an arena of keen competition and conflict where not only many different cultures confront each other but also various life styles are becoming mixed. It will be an important task for those of us living through this century to understand our own tradition as well as to interpret and to develop it in today's context.



Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, Chang Sook Hwan, Traditional Korean Costume, Shin Jooyoung (trans), Global Oriental: London, 2005

문화관광부, 한국복식문화 2000년 조직위원회, Two Thousand Years of Korean Fashion, 미술문화: 서울, 2001

국사편찬위원회, 옷차림과 치장의 변천, 두산동아: 서울, 2006

유희경, 김문자, 한국복식문화사, 교문사: 서울, 2000




[1] Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, Chang Sook Hwan, Traditional Korean Costume, Global Oriental Ltd., 2005, p. 11.

[2] 문화관광부, 한국복식문화 2000년 조직위원회, 2000 Years of Korean Fashion, 미술문화, p. 72

[3] 국사편찬위원회, 옷차림과 치장의 변천, 두산동아, 2006, p. 182.

[4] 문화관광부, 한국복식문화 2000년 조직위원회, op.cit., p. 72.

[5] Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, Chang Sook Hwan, op.cit., p. 269-270.

[6] Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, Chang Sook Hwan, op.cit., p. 11

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young, Chang Sook Hwan, op.cit., p. 13.


Jooyoung Shin (Ph.D., Seoul National University, Korea) lectures on fashion design and dress aesthetics. Her specialties include the history of Korean and Western costumes. She was involved in the textile relocation project at the Ratti Antonio Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 2000 to 2001. Her translations for English publication include Traditional Korean Costume, by Lee Kyung Ja, Hong Na Young and Jang Sook Hwan (published by Global Oriental, London) for the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005. She has authored several articles for academic journals on the relationship between fashion and art, perspectives for viewing dress aesthetics, and oriental influence in western fashion.