With hues representative of the five elements of yin yang theory and soft angles that imitate the curvature of traditional Korean houses, the hanbok is a rich encapsulation of cultural treasures. A symbolic uniform of Korea, the hanbok is structurally quite simple: the jacket, jeogori, and the skirt, chima, make up the bell-shaped women’s ensemble, while men wear only the jeogori and pants, baji. As of recently, the hanbok’s designation as formalwear has begun to dwindle with the emergence of streetwear renditions and hanbok haute couture.
The variations on hanboks donned by young Koreans share common alterations that adapt the garments for everyday comfort and practicality. Deconstructed hanboks are reimagined into trench coats, jeogori are worn alone as button-downs, and the hanbok’s separate elements are stitched together to create uniform dresses. For warmer weather, sleeves are shortened or removed entirely. Hanboks have also begun to adopt more modern lengths. Despite the inarguable value of traditionally truthful clothing, the increasing demand for modern hanboks among younger Koreans has allowed for the versatility of its basic framework to be a vast source of inspiration for contemporary fashion.
When acclaimed designers use traditional wear from foreign cultures as inspiration for their collections, they risk tasteless interpretations of deeply sentimental clothing; these ornamentations of culture are often offensive and evidently lazy. What all designers strive for are cultural representations that reflect the artistry and respect the intricacy of the source material. Designer Carolina Herrera has achieved this on two separate occasions, the first of which being her Spring 2011 Ready-to-Wear Collection, where she intelligently altered the hanbok into the silhouettes of Western attire while staying true to the hanbok’s characteristic motifs. Herrera also adorned the female models with the gat, a traditional cylindrical hat with dramatic brims, once worn by Korea’s male aristocrats, making her collection all the more inventive. Six years later, Herrera collaborated with South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in again reimagining traditional Korean formalwear. In the collection’s three pieces, Herrera combined elements of suits, evening dresses and wedding dresses, interweaving them with the signature framework of the hanbok.
While designers like Herrera earned international attention for having paid homage to the hanbok, hardly enough buzz has been generated for Korean and Korean American designers who have recontextualized the hanbok entirely. Enter Dae Lim, founder of Sundae School, a cannabis-focused fashion label based in New York City. Through the line titled “Collection,” Lim unapologetically celebrates cannabis culture while breathing new life into the hanbok as streetwear-ready garments.
Instead of silk, pieces are crafted with denim, and Lim’s version of the jeogori includes a hidden "spliff" pocket. In describing his intentions in blending traditional silhouettes with Western tailoring, Lim detailed his desire to deconstruct dated stoner stereotypes while simultaneously uplifting Asian American voices. Sundae School’s collections are a product of youth-led disruptions of Korea's status quo, initiating a dialogue of what should and should not be taboo. In Korea, smoking marijuana is highly frowned upon. The harsh prison sentences and immense fines, along with the immutable social repercussions, of marijuana usage in Korea serve as a stark contrast to the gradual normalization of marijuana in the United States, particularly on the West coast. Lim’s simultaneous celebration of his Korean heritage and unabashed recreational drug use is an unusual, yet remarkable combination.
Seoul-based design group Dan-ha, an innovative leader in modernizing Korean formalwear, merges cultural preservation and sustainability. As a self-defined “slow fashion” label, Dan-ha is deliberate in creating pieces that signify admiration for Korean culture while mitigating the foundational flaws of the industry, which typically come at the expense of the environment. The Dan-ha hanbok is a complex reenvisioning of the archetypal hanbok. Using patented patterns of intricately embellished royal bojagi, wrapping cloths, the distinct waist skirts of Dan-ha hanboks are materialized. Blackpink, a K-pop girl group powerhouse, donned Dan-ha’s signature hanbok waist skirts during their performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Generating substantial buzz, the Dan-ha hanbok earned international recognition for its innovative design and sophisticated references to Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. The top worn by Blackpink vocalist Rosé interweaved royal bojagi with the Joseon Dynasty military uniform, chullik, adhering the refashioned jeogori to the waist skirt. Meanwhile, vocalist Jennie wore half of a customized pink jeogori as her jacket, with the other half wrapped around her waist as a skirt.
These variations of modern hanboks are artistic interpretations of garments that hold timeless elegance and cultural value. This renewed popularity of traditional clothing offers Koreans a fashionable opportunity to celebrate the garment’s rich history in a rare moment of cultural reclamation. With inventive designers drawing inspiration from the hanbok’s blueprint, modern hanboks continue to captivate younger audiences. As opposed to participating in the never-ending search for the “next big thing,” reestablishing the relevance of traditional clothing allows for a much-needed moment of introspective reflection and appreciation for the many dimensions of cultural heritage.