The hanbok literally means Korean clothing. But when we say hanbok, we very specifically mean the traditional clothing worn for over 1600 years. It is a very distinctive style of clothing that is immediately recognizable as Korean. And it has a long and colorful history.
In my book Prophecy, set in the Three Kingdoms period of ancient Korea (approximately 37 BCE to 668 CE), the hanboks that would be worn during that period would look a bit different from what we’ve come to expect.
During the Three Kingdoms period, what eventually evolved into the traditional hanbok first started off as a longer jacket (jeogori) and skirt (chima) combination tied with a long sash. But even in ancient times, the skirt was tied above the chest, which allowed for the billowy look of the skirt.
But as with all things in fashion, the long sleeves and long jackets that the nobles and royals favored were just not practical enough for the citizens. So the look evolved into shorter jackets and narrower sleeves.
The photo above depicts a hanbok from the 16th century and the hanbok on the right shows one from the 18th century. Another major change that occurred during the evolution of the hanbok is that the jeogori (jacket) no longer needed a long sash to be tied closed. Instead, it is tied closed in the front with a bow that has become a quintessential part of the traditional hanbok look.
Coupled with norigae (ornamental good luck charms that women would hang from their jeogori or chima), and elegant hair accessories, the hanbok is the perfect representation of the heritage of Korea.
The one thing that is true about the hanbok in all of its iterations is that color is an important part of Korean culture. There is a pivotal scene in Prophecy where the main character sees the court ladies jumping from the cliff into the river below. Their colorful hanboks swirling about them like falling flowers. This is based on the historical legend of Nakhwa-am Rock, or the Rock of the Falling Flowers, a high rocky outcrop on the top of a cliff that overlooks the Baengma River. In 660 CE, the kingdom of Shilla allied with Tang China to invade the kingdom of Baekje. When the capital’s fortress fell, 3,000 court ladies leapt from Nakhwa-am Rock rather than surrender to the Shilla and Tang. This image has haunted me for years and it is why it had to be a part of Prophecy.
Hanboks are a tradition of Korea that I hope will always be treasured. Nowadays, most Koreans don’t wear a hanbok except for special occasions. I admit that the last time I wore a hanbok was at my wedding.
But the wonderful part about fashion is that it is subject to so much interpretation. Korea has seen the modernization of the traditional hanbok by some of their famous designers like Lee Young Hee. And some of these modern hanbok designs are so incredibly beautiful that I think I might be ready to wear a hanbok again. I think I should fly to Korea to do this. Yes, that’s a great idea! Anybody want to make a trip with me? I bet we’d look fabulous in hanboks!
Check out Ellen’s awesome book trailer for Prophecy!