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A costume of culture

Korean citizen Bin Do-rim stands before his hanok house in Damyang  (Photo: Korea Magazine)


While some Koreans are slowly distancing themselves from ancient traditions, others are learning to take in as much as possible, reviving the best of Korea’s hanbok. Will others soon follow in their wake?

More and more expats are showing locals how it’s done. While young Koreans are eager to try out the latest trends in fashion, a small community of people are steadfast in their dedication to one of Korea’s most visible traditions: the hanbok. Korean traditional dress is making a comeback from the corners of Korea, and expats are some of hanbok’s greatest proponents.

Robert Koehler, the editor of Seoul magazine and writer of the popular Marmot’s Hole blog (www.rjkoehler.com), is one of the most prominent hanbok supporters in Seoul. Koehler is known to wear a gaeryang hanbok, or a modernized version, on a daily basis. “They’re comfortable, easy to maintain and look nice. I’m also naturally partial to traditional culture… I started wearing the hanbok around 1998, when modernized hanbok were first coming into fashion,” explains the 14-year resident of Korea.

Koehler first came here to teach English in Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. Though he arrived in Korea without much foreknowledge of what would await him, the American expat soon fell in love with the culture. “We think of ‘traditional’ as something stuck in the past, and by doing so, we sometimes keep it there, unfortunately. I think the modernized hanbok is an attempt to overcome this by reestablishing some historical continuity to the clothing.”

“Clothing, like most facets of culture, evolves. It’s no different from what took place with Western clothing — today’s clothing, for the most part, is a continuation of a fashion tradition that goes back centuries,” Koehler says.



That tradition, in particular, seems to be surviving more in the countryside. For Bin Do-rim, birth name Dirk Fuendling, it’s more fitting to wear a hanbok when going out in the small city of Damyang. Bin is a former interpreter for the German Embassy and former professor of Catholic University of Daegu. He first came to study at Seoul National University in 1974, after his curiosity about the little-known Asian country grew. The East Asian studies major returned a decade later, and he hasn’t left since.

After a while, city life began to wear on him, and Bin decided to move to the country house he’d been building during his 10 years at the Seoul-based embassy. Though his previous work as an official kept him in black suits, his new work as a translator and beeswax candle maker afforded him a new liberty. “I didn’t wear hanbok a lot while in Seoul, but since moving down to the countryside I started wearing it a lot more. Now it’s the opposite from before: there’s no real need for me to ever wear a suit and I haven’t worn a tie in about 10 years,” Bin laughs. He also wears the modernized gaeryang hanbok, for it’s comfort and convenience. “It looks good and, especially now that I’m a little older and my beer belly has come out, it’s very comfortable,” he jokes.

Bin still keeps around a range of hanbok, however, from the traditional outfit he received as a gift when he was naturalized as a Korean citizen, to a lighter summer version made of mosi, or ramie. As many residents in Damyang are also accustomed to wearing hanbok, Bin is able to fit right into the local scene, and has even received the occasional compliment of, “Very stylish!” Perhaps this attitude is filtering its way through the local population, as both Koehler and Bin have seen a small, but visible, increase in hanbok wearers. “You see more people wearing the hanbok than before, although as you know, it’s still a rarity,” Koehler says.

“When I first came to Korea in the 1970s and ‘80s, people would only wear hanbok on chuseok (the harvest holiday) or seollal (the Lunar New Year) to perform a bow to their elders. Outside of that, men would always wear black suits. Black or brown, one of the two, it was always fixed. But lately, in the countryside especially, people are wearing hanbok a little more,” Bin explains about the change.

“If you look at it in one way, Korean people have become more confident. Back in the ‘70s, Koreans didn’t have enough confidence, and there were a lot of complaints about the country and how this didn’t go right and such, and everyone was always looking to the US. But now, it’s not like that — confidence has really grown and Koreans now view Korea as successful. I think that one expression of that change is a return to pride in tradition.”
(Bin holds one of his handmade candles; Bin and his wife in their home, Photo: Korea Magazine)




* Adapted by KOREA MAGAZINE, October 2011

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