The Symbolism and Meaning Behind Hanboks

The Symbolism and Meaning Behind Hanboks

The hanbok (한복) is an iconic piece of Korean culture. Whether it's elaborately decorated or in a simple style, you can't deny how beautiful and important it is. Let's take a closer look at the symbolism and meaning behind hanboks.

The History of the Hanbok 

When you think of a hanbok, you probably picture something from a historical drama. But did you know that the hanbok has gone through several big changes?

 Mural of ladies in Goguryeo period with chariot and horsemen

Image Credits: Courtesy of [deleted] for r/korea via Reddit

Koreans have worn hanboks since at least the Three Kingdoms of Korea era (57 BCE-668 CE). Both men and women wore trousers, tops (jeogori, 저고리), and sashes called twii, with women wearing skirts (chima, 치마) over the pants. The jeogori originally opened on the left side, but it later switched to the right.

Models wearing green and red Silla-era hanboks

Image Credits: Gyeongju Foundation for Arts and Culture via

During the North-South States period (698-926), aristocrats' clothing changed due to the influence of the Chinese Tang dynasty. The round-collared dallyeong (단령) was adopted by court officials (as the gwanbok, 관복), royalty (as the dragon robe or gonryongpo, 곤룡포), and palace servants. Women later wore their skirts over the jeogori and had shoulder straps added.

A woman in a yellow banbi with a man in a black hanbok and another man in a blue and gold hanbok

Image Credits: MBC via Creatrip

More changes came in the Goryeo period (918-1392) following a treaty with the Mongol Empire. They included shorter chimas and the jeogori now being tied with the goreum on the right side (고름). Another Tang Dynasty outfit, the half-armed banbi (반비), also became popular during this time and earned the nickname "the Goryeo Style" or Goryeoyang. 

Poster for "The Secret Romantic Guesthouse" kdrama

Image Credits: SBS via Pinkvilla

However, the most recognizable hanbok styles come from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), with again the most changes happening to women's hanboks. The chima became bigger while the jeogori became shorter and tighter.

Four men wearing durumagi and gats in Joseon-era Korea

Image Credits: Courtesy of Hanbok Info

Men's hanboks didn't see such a drastic change, but their outerwear did. Instead of the flowy jungchimak which had splits on the sides and long sleeves, they were now required to wear the durumagi (두루마기) with tighter sleeves and no splits.

Korean immigrant family dressed in Western clothing

Image Credits: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Korean outfits would change yet again at the end of the 19th century, as more Koreans adopted Western clothing. As you'll see, however, the hanbok never completely went away.

What's In a Hanbok? 

Thanks to the influence of Confucianism, more rules developed over what different classes and genders could wear, but we'll get to that later. Now let's talk about what goes into a hanbok.

A man and woman in hanboks

Image Credits: Image via Hanbok Heroes

For both men and women, the top part of the hanbok is the jeogori. It includes the goreum strings and a white collar (dongjeong, 동정). Women's sleeves might have different-colored cuffs (kkeutdong, 끝동) at the end.

Woman wearing a pink chima over green jeogori

Image Credits: Image via Kristopher Ragnar P. on Pinterest

Women wore the chima over their jeogori. It included an underskirt, the sokchima; a waistband, the chima-malgi; and more goreum strings for fastening.

A man wearing purple baji under a blue jeogori

Image Credits: Image via Sabrina Young on Pinterest

Men wore baji (바지), which were roomier than modern trousers. Similar to the chima, the baji came with waistbands called baji-malgi.

A man wearing a pink jokki over navy baji and white jeogori

Image Credits: Image via huhart302

Over the jeogori and chima/baji, Koreans wore po (포), which spanned many pieces of clothing. We mentioned the durumagi and banbi earlier. There was also the dapho (답호), worn by officials, and the jokki (조끼, above).

A woman wearing a pink jang-ot

Image Credits: tvN via plainenglish2 for r/KDRAMA via Reddit

For women, there was the jang-ot (장옷. It was worn on the head or shoulders to hide their faces when they left the house.

A woman wearing wonsam and wedding hanbok

Image Credits: Park Jung Woon via Smithsonian Magazine

There were also certain outfits (hwarot, 활옷) that women only wore during special occasions like major ceremonies. One of the pieces was the wonsam (원삼), an overcoat that lower-class women were later allowed to wear at their weddings.

Babies in hanboks

Image Credits: Image via The Korean in Me

The children also had their own hanboks. The kkachi durumagi (까치 두루마기) was worn on Seollal over the jeogori but under the jeonbok (전복), a long vest. It also came with hats: the hogeon or bokgeon for boys 1-5 years old, and the gulle or jobawi worn by girls of the same age. The outfit is now worn by children on their first birthday (dol/doljanchi, 돌/돌잔치).

Six women in hanboks

Image Credits: Image via Korean JoongAng Daily

Oh, and did you know that October 21 is Hanbok Day? There are special activities and events held in several countries, including fashion shows and photoshoots. It's the perfect day to try a hanbok for yourself!

Palettes and Patterns: Hanbok Designs Explained 

On the surface, hanboks might just be traditional clothing. But each outfit tells a story, as shown by the color, pattern, and even fabric. Koreans followed the obangsaek (오방색), a theory that assigned meanings to each color.

Groom in blue hanbok and bride in red in front of date display

Image Credits: Brett Denman via Flickr

Warm colors represented male energy, while cool colors represented female. (It's reversed for weddings, where the groom wears blue and the bride wears red.) Bright colors were also worn by children, compared to middle-aged adults who wore muted shades.

Two peasants in white hanboks resting under a tree

Image Credits: Image via HELLOKPOP

The lower classes were only allowed to wear white clothing or minboks. They could, however, wear light pink, light green, charcoal, and grey on special occasions. White was also the color of mourning for all classes.

Six noblewomen wearing Korean hanboks in pastel colors

Image Credits: tvN via Best Life Qatar

Royalty, nobility, and court officials could wear brighter colors. Unlike the peasants' clothing, which was made of cotton, their hanboks were made from expensive fabrics like silk and ramie.

An older woman wearing gold and purple hanbok and younger woman wearing purple and pink hanbok

Image Credits: tvN via Annyeong Oppa

Only the royal family could wear gold and red. The colors got even more specific for the women's wonsams: yellow for the empress, red for the queen, purple/ purple-red for the princess, and green for the princess and court officials' wives.

Seven women modeling upper class women's hanboks

Image Credits: Image via GGHS Korean Club

Young girls yet to be married wore a yellow jeogori and red chima, while married women wore a green jeogori and red chima. The navy chima was worn by the mother of one or more sons.

Korean Grim Reapers in black hanboks and hats

Image Credits: MBC via Despair in the Afternoon

Black was worn by only a few people, namely court officials and scholars. According to legend, it was supposedly worn by Grim Reapers (Joseung Saja, 저승 사자) as well.

Four models in imperial hanboks with modern designer

Image Credits: Mark Edward Harris via Character Media

A hanbok's embroidery could also tell someone's status. Cranes, tigers, phoenixes, and dragons only appeared on clothing worn by court officials, the emperor/empress, and king/queen. The princess and royal concubines wore hanboks with floral designs. And all royal family members wore hanboks with gold leaf embroidery (geumbak, 금박).

Closeup of gold embroidery of red bridal hanbok

Image Credits: Image via Weddings All over the World

A bride's hanbok was embroidered with various symbols: pomegranates and bats for fertility, peonies for wealth and honor, and lotuses for nobility. 

Gisaeng with black sash, pink jeogori, and navy chima

Image Credits: SBS via Kocowa+

Finally, gisaengs' hanboks had a wide band around the chest, were usually made from colorful fabrics, and had striking accessories. Unbound by rules, these women were real trendsetters, from their hair to their makeup and clothing, and their hanboks were just one reason why!

Hanbok Headgear and Accessories 

No outfit would be complete without some extra bling. Like the hanboks themselves, the accompanying accessories varied depending on the gender, age, and class of the wearer.

Let's start with the gat (갓). This hat was worn by men during the Joseon era and reflected their social status using different colors: black for scholars who'd passed the civil service exams, red for military officers, etc.

Kim Jwa-geun from Mr. Queen

Image Credits: tvN via GMA Entertainment

While the gat was the most common, men wore other hats. Two of the most recognizable were the jeongjagwan (관모), worn at home, and the samo (사모, above), worn outside the house.

Norigae on girls' chima in Mr. Sunshine

Image Credits: tvN via The Talking Cupboard

Remember the goreum? Women attached beaded ornaments called norigae (노리개) to these strings. The tassels acted as good luck charms and signs of their owner's status. They were also used to hold objects like mirrors, needles, and even tiny daggers (jangdos, 은장도), for self-defense! 

Two young girls in hanboks in Joseon-era Korea

Image Credits: parhessiastes via Flickr

Unmarried girls wore ribbons (daenggi,댕기) in their hair, which they wore in long braids until their wedding. When they became adults, they pinned up their hair and fastened it with long pins (binyeo, 비녀).

A Korean bride with traditional hanbok and hwagwan

Image Credits: Courtesy of WedEclectic

On their wedding day, the bride wore either a hwagwan (화관, above) or jokduri (족두리). Both are made of hard paper and cotton covered with black cloth, but the hwagwan is bigger and more elaborately decorated.

The three gisaengs from Sungkyunkwan Scandal wearing their hats

Image Credits: tvN via The Talking Cupboard

Gisaengs and noblewomen used to wear large wigs (gache, 가체) that were very heavy due to the amount of accessories pinned to them. Over top, they'd wear the umbrella-like jeonmo (전모). Gaches were actually banned in the 18th century in favor of the smaller and less decadent jokduris. 

Oh My Girl in modern hanboks

Image Credits: OH MY GIRL via Koreaboo

Of course, today's hanbok wearers aren't constrained by these rules. They can wear as few or as many accessories as they like. However, it's always better when the hanbok is allowed to shine by itself. The fewer accessories, the better.

Modern Hanboks: On the Streets, Red Carpet, and More 

Nowadays, most people wear traditional hanboks only on holidays or special occasions. However, you might see people wearing a more streamlined version called the daily hanbok (생활한복) or modernized hanbok (계량한복).

A woman and man in modern hanboks

Image Credits: Images via Etsy

These modern hanboks are part of the trendy street fashion, with youth and young adults incorporating it into their daily wardrobe. You can buy the outfits from brands like Coreano, Seori Narae, and Zijangsa.

A couple wearing modern green hanboks in a white minimalist room with potted fern

Image Credits: Seori Narae via Instagram

Hanboks made a splash when they appeared on the catwalk and in fashion photography back in 2015. They've also graced the red carpet, with celebrities or family members wearing it during awards ceremonies and premieres.

An older woman in a hanbok and a younger woman in a red low-cut dress

Image Credits: Christopher Polk via Teen Vogue

Several K-pop artists have worn hanboks in their music videos. VIXX showcased traditional Korea in "Shangri-La," while ONEUS mixed Western suits and Korean hanboks in "LUNA." (Their second traditional-concept music video after "Lit.")

Then there are the more modern hanboks that have appeared in BTS' "Idol," Agust D's "Daechwita," Blackpink's "How You Like That," Stray Kids' "Back Door," and most recently Seventeen's "Super."

BTS in black modern hanboks for "Idol" music video

Image Credits: Big Hit Music via Pannatic

Renting a hanbok is a popular activity for locals and tourists. You can find hanbok rental companies in many locations, including at traditional hanok villages. And you get free admission to Seoul's five great palaces if you wear a hanbok. We recommend trying it out - it's a fun way to experience Korean culture!

A white man and woman wearing blue and white hanboks

Image Credits: Image via You Could Travel

While hanboks are obviously part of the Korean identity, you learn more by digging deeper into the history and meaning behind its design. We hope you learned something new, Seoulmates, and have a greater appreciation of this important outfit. Keep these facts in mind the next time you wear a hanbok! 

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