Hanbok and the Korean Fashion Industry

To begin understanding the intersection of fashion and gender in South Korea, I read an essay from the book Re-Orienting Fashion about modern women wearing Korean traditional clothing. The article was an ethnography written by Rebecca Ruhlen studying the feminist movement in Korea and the relationship of Korean feminists to hanbok, a centuries old traditional Korean outfit. Ruhlen studied a group of women working to support survivors of sexual violence between 1998 and 1999. Traditional hanbok are made of silk and other luxury fabrics. The ch’ima, the long skirt of a hanbok, reaches from the chest, where it is gathered and tightly wrapped, to the floor, where the large amount of volume pools, creating an exaggerated silhouette. The jeogori is a short jacket that crosses in the front, falling to the bottom of the breasts. These two parts of the hanbok are usually in bright, contrasting colors. Unlike the traditional hanbok that are only appropriate for formal occasions, Ruhlen’s informants wear “lifestyle” hanbok, garments inspired by the traditional Korean dress but with a design to fit modernity. “Lifestyle” hanbok are usually in subdued, earthy colors, are made out of cotton or wool fabrics, and have longer jackets and shorter, less full skirts for the active lives of modern women. These “lifestyle” hanbok first become popular around the 1990s when they are mass-produced (119). During the economic crisis of 1997, Korea saw an upsurge of nationalism as the country tried to rebuild itself. Citizens during this time were encouraged to support domestic industry, including the production of hanbok. “Lifestyle” hanbok became more popular in this time for everyday use, as wearing it became a sign of nationalistic pride as well as unity amongst the Korean people and their struggle.

Ruhlen argues that hanbok is used to contest the spread of Western ideals, separating Korean modernity from the West. Ruhlen argues that Korean Feminist groups wear hanbok in public situations to try and connect with the minjung, the masses of Korean citizens, for “feminism in Korea, though—unlike democracy or labor movement—is widely considered to be a badly Western-derived ideology and not something indigenous or easily adapted to Korea,” (122). By wearing hanbok, the feminist groups can align their doctrine with the symbolic masses of Korean people, bridging the gap between a dissent of Western changes and the Korean ideology that is influenced by Confucianism, which values the obedience and submission of women. Ruhlen cites that female activists “deploy hanbok essentially as costumes in a public performance of political identity” solidifying these activists with nationalism (118). To further show how hanbok is seen as a way of resisting Western culture, Ruhlen features an image of a poster propagating the “proper Korean woman” in hanbok dress contrasted against the Westernized, overly sexual and indecent woman (128). The Westernized woman wears a form fitting dress with heavy makeup and has an upright, confident posture, while the woman in hanbok has a “natural beauty” and is bowing her head slightly with a “demure” posture (129). Sexuality and confidence is demonized along with Western beauty standards in this poster. While the feminist supporters in Korea wear hanbok, Ruhlen writes that sexuality and sexual freedom, even in a group supporting sexual violence survivors, is a highly contested topic that divides the group, especially between older and younger generations. Sexuality is also seen as an undesirable Western attribute, and the hanbok is associated in some ways with the “proper” submission of women. Ruhlen writes that Korean people often refer to sex workers and women who marry Western men as “Yankee whores” (129). Hanbok is a symbol that is used by the feminist women but can also be used as a way of continuing the oppression of women into gender specified roles.

Lee Young Hee fashion designer of hanbok in Korea is known as the “first Korean designer to have her work showcased in a major international fashion show, the 1993 Paris Pret-a-Porter Collection,” and her work is heavily influenced by traditional Korean hanbok (Ruhlen, 126). I’ve included the Lee Young Hee video, from 2015, to show that the traditional hanbok is still relevant in high fashion in Korea, and the video cites that Lee has been in the industry for over 40 years. Alongside of Lee’s reinventing of the traditional shapes and textiles of the hanbok are designers creating entirely new shapes for the hanbok to fit a modern “lifestyle.” An article from this month in Korea Times reviews the exhibit “Jeogori, and Stories about Materials,” which opens this year in the headquarters of the Arumjigi cultural foundation. The exhibit features newly adapted hanbok by the designers Jung Mi-sun of Nohke and Im Seon-oc of PartspARTs that are intended for modern day Korean people but are shown in a gallery like works of art. The modern as well as the traditional hanbok are viewed as artistic statements that promote pride in Korean culture.

The capital city Seoul has a long tradition of clothing manufacturing, the most famous Dongdaemun Market has been a clothing marketplace since 1905 and is cited as inventing the “fast fashion” industry. Dongdaemun is a unique market because the workshops and stores are located in the same valley. Dongdaemun is referred to as “fashion valley” and has over 35,000 stores with 20,000 workshops supplying these stores, the fashion industry in the valley employs over 150,000 people. Dongdaemun is known for cheap fashion and also has a history of underpaid factory workers. To compete with Namdaemun, which offered higher quality, expensive clothing, Dongdaemun opened for extended hours offering shopping options in almost every hour of the day, stores sometimes being open through the night. The fast turn over of fashions allows designers to experiment and have lots of freedom; over 10,000 fashion designers work in Dongdaemun. However now factory workers are aging out of the industry and there is an excess of fashion designers, because the countries rapid advancement has stifled the supply of low-cost labor in Seoul. This labor issues has made the prospects of keeping Dongdaemun a closed economic system very complicated. The market has reacted by both creating online markets to support exports of clothing as well as encouraging a tourist industry to support Dongdaemun, however the area still has “caverns of unoccupied space,” (Jin-joo, 2012).







“Dongdaemun Market, the Mecca of ‘Fast Fashion’” from Koreana Winter 2012, Lee Jin-joo reporter


Ruhlen, Rebecca N. Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. “Korean Alterations: Nationalism, Social Consciousness, and “Traditional” Clothing” published New York: 2003



Suh-young, Yun. “A fashionable twist on ‘jeogori’” October 9, 2016. Link:http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/art/2016/10/199_215685.html



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