Hanboks: Tradition or Dress-Up?

by Alex Quayle A hanbok is a traditional Korean dress worn during special holidays like Chuseok and Lunar New Year. As a foreigner teaching at a South Korean school during these holidays, my school’s owners informed me that I would be wearing one of these special dresses to celebrate with my students. Admittedly, I did have some hesitation as a foreigner wearing this traditional Korean dress as I was well aware of how problematic it can be to appropriate another culture’s traditions.

I wanted to respect the people and culture I was living in, especially considering how often white people are found guilty of disrespecting a different culture’s traditions — Logan Paul is a recent example. However, with all of this in mind, I think it’s fair of me to say that there is a difference between appropriation and appreciation. I ultimately (and happily) wore the hanbok with my students per my boss’s request, and the memories will not soon be forgotten. These special events will go down as some of the best days in my life. Nevertheless, I believe it’s worth unpacking all the concerns I had on these days as this is a conversation that doesn’t happen enough.

To give some background on all of this, I had the amazing opportunity to teach in South Korea for 14 months. I won’t say living there was necessarily easy, but honestly, it wasn’t difficult for me either. I had wanted to go to South Korea since I was a junior in high school, and considering the debt I acquired during college, it was a great option to handle my student loan debt.

After earning my BA I was finally qualified enough to be selected by a hagwon — a private academy —  in Sanbon, a city just outside of Seoul. While I was there I celebrated two major holidays with my students and coworkers: Chuseok and Lunar New Year. These holidays were special to experience on their own, but what made the experience even more memorable was the fact that I got to wear a traditional hanbok for each event.

I have thankfully remained in contact with many friends and coworkers from South Korea, meaning I had the opportunity to interview a few of them and get their thoughts on cultural appropriation. Given that many foreigners wear a hanbok at least once while in South Korea, I remember sensing a kind of pride from Koreans when foreigners showed an interest in wearing and learning about hanboks. After discussing the matter with a few friends, I think that feeling wasn’t far off.

For this article I knew it’d be essential to get the voice of some Koreans on the page, as their opinion is really what matters in this regard. Below are their thoughts, and I hope opening up this conversation can help more of us understand what it is to truly respect a culture while still participating in it.

As Christy Jang, a 28-year-old South Korean explained to me, “I love when foreigners wear hanboks!”

I told Christy that I was writing about Korean culture appropriation, and we discussed how many foreigners, especially teachers, wear hanboks during their stay. I asked her if she personally had a problem with this. She, and a few others that I interviewed, agreed that foreigners wearing the traditional dress doesn’t bother them. She then went on to further explain, “Watching foreigners wear hanboks, it makes us feel proud of our own country, and we also feel like Korea is growing up as a part of the world. Also, it feels good that many people around the world want to know more about Korea. I am happy to watch them experience Korean culture.”

When I asked her why she thinks some people might not like foreigners wearing a hanbok, she had some interesting insight: “Some people may think that foreigners shouldn’t wear it when they don’t exactly know about Korean customs and culture.” I think that is exactly where the problem lies too.

Not spending the time to learn about a culture shows a huge lack of respect and appreciation for their history. If you wear a hanbok to only show it off on Instagram — or worse, to mock or patronize Korean culture instead of taking the opportunity to feel closer and more knowledgeable about the people and country you’re visiting — then I think you’ve crossed the line into appropriation. For instance, there is a longstanding tradition for women when wearing a hanbok, particularly what their hairstyle symbolizes.

If you’re unwed, your hair should be braided, and if you are married, your hair should be done up into a bun. Hair was highly valued and was a source of pride and status for many Korean women decades ago, so they rarely cut their hair. Details such as this are important to learn, as it shows an understanding of the traditions and in turn allows your experience to be more appreciated.

Furthermore, in South Korea it’s extremely easy to learn about their traditions and culture as most Koreans are very happy and eager to tell you about their home country. A friend of mine, Ha Jun Suh, or Moses as he likes to go by, is a 25-year-old South Korean and the son of my school’s owner. I asked him the same questions as Christy: Do you like it when foreigners wear hanboks? He told me, “I do like it when foreigners wear Hanboks … I feel like I am introducing a part of Korean culture. We all like to share our own culture, like teaching how to eat certain Korean foods in the Korean way. So, why not teach foreigners how to dress like traditional Koreans? Also, I feel proud when foreigners wear Hanboks. I feel proud of our ancestors who made Hanboks and proud of our beautiful Hanboks.” Because Koreans are so proud of their traditions, it’s not a surprise that they love sharing it with others. They are excited that foreigners are showing an interest in their history and culture. However, I can’t help but feel that there are some Koreans who are hesitant to share these traditions with foreigners — and with good reason.

Considering some of the behavior I witnessed from time to time while in South Korea, I really wouldn’t be surprised if a few Koreans felt negatively towards foreigners wearing a hanbok. However, for the most part, Koreans are very forgiving, and I think their optimistic attitude gives many foreigners the benefit of the doubt when trouble arises. Of course, I am not South Korean, so I won’t say that the conclusions I’ve drawn are the ultimate, unwavering truth. There are already enough problems of white people trying to speak for other cultures (the uproar over one foreigner posting a photo in a hanbok comes to mind), and I want to stress that I am simply sharing my observations, rather than speaking on all of Korea’s behalf.

For my last interview, I spoke with my former Korean supervisor, Seulki Cho or as I call her, Monica. Monica is 35 years old and helped me learn even more about Korean culture while I was living there. She always answered my many questions and gave me great, personal insight — the kind of stuff you don’t find from reading travel blogs. I asked her the same questions as Moses and Christy. She was a bit more hesitant when it came to foreigners wearing a hanbok.

When I asked her why she feels a bit put off when foreigners wear hanboks beyond certain holidays, she explained, “It’s because we wear it on special days — I don’t know why people try to wear it even if they’re not comfortable.”

Typically, the people wearing hanboks outside of the traditional holidays are visiting only for a short while. In the touristy areas of cities such as Seoul and Busan, there are many hanbok rental shops that charge a reasonable amount to put on and walk around the city in a hanbok. I think this is what Monica is referencing, and it’s understandable that, at the very least, she finds it a bit strange that tourists would want to go through the process of putting on and wearing a hanbok.

As she stated, hanboks are not the most comfortable style, especially for women as you have to bind your chest. Furthermore, as Monica pointed out, they are worn on special days, not really for gallivanting around the cramped streets of a Seoul neighbourhood. The hanboks often get stepped on and dirtied from walking along the streets. I can’t help but wonder how much appreciation can really be shown to this tradition if you throw it on for a couple hours, take the pictures you want, and then you’re done.

Of course, I don’t want to over-generalize the many people passing through South Korea who are genuinely interested in the culture and traditions. I believe there are more foreigners who appreciate the culture than not, and most Koreans seem overjoyed when they see foreigners wearing hanboks. I hope that that feeling isn’t ever tainted by cultural appropriation or disrespect. The thing I loved most about Korea was the overwhelming warmness and kindness from all the residents I came to know.

I think overall it’s important that we refrain from projecting the problems we have with cultural appropriation onto Koreans and their traditions when many of them seem to feel generally OK, if not enthusiastic, about foreigners wearing hanboks. However, I think it’s imperative that we also not take advantage of their generosity, and we should reciprocate their excitement by taking the time to learn about the history of their culture and traditions before trying to snag that perfect hanbok shot just for social media. I believe we shouldn’t feel afraid to experience and enjoy a different culture than ours, but respect should always be at the forefront of our minds, and we need to be willing to listen if the people of said culture have a problem with the way we participate in or use their traditions.

I want to reiterate that all of this is just my experience and opinion, but I would love to know what you think: Where do you draw the line on cultural appropriation?