Tradition Wears Modern Edge On and Off the Screen
Sexy yet classy: Without the jeogori (hanbok top), the skirt is reborn as a strapless dress, while retaining its elegant touch. A colorful creation by Paik Seol-heon, paired with decorative ``bok'' or fortune pouches. / Photo by Lee Hyo-won
By Lee Hyo-won
Classics are timeless _ and fluid. Like a stream of water trickling down twisting new paths, they are open to modern interpretation with changing times, though retaining their essence. And in such fashionable style explodes the ``renaissance'' of hanbok, as TV dramas and movies spotlight the Korean traditional dress' fresh makeover.
KBS TV series ``Hwang Jin Yi'' topped viewership when it aired last fall by celebrating the classic beauty of hanbok through the fictionalized story of the most illustrious 16th century gisaeng, or female entertainer and artist, of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Designer Kim Hye-soon produced original looks with hints of modernity, and sizzled up the rather lukewarm public's interest in hanbok.
``Hanbok is regarded as an uncomfortable garment worn only for weddings or traditional festivals. I wanted to recreate hanbok as attire that can be worn like a party dress, something people would be willing to wear despite the hassle,'' Kim told The Korea Times.
The designer stressed that the look of ``Hwang Jin Yi'' is not a ``fusion'' style (of East and West or old and new) but is thoroughly classic, and explained that a 600-year historical sketch of jeogori (hanbok top) reveals how it constantly evolves while retaining its roots.
For the drama, Kim recreated 18th and 19th century garments, but incorporated bold Art Deco-esque motifs and used mostly Western fabrics.
``In terms of style, gisaeng were not subject to rules and regulations, and were fashion leaders of their time,'' she said. ``I chose maehwa (apricot tree blossom) as the thematic pattern using strong colors to express Hwang's passion and artistry.
``It's exciting to see the rerun of the drama these days, though with much more leisure than when it first aired -- I was so nervous then, worried about whether the costumes were well-executed or not,'' she added. Viewers can watch the drama on KBS2 and KBS Prime.
The novel portrayal of hanbok can also be seen off screen. Lee Honey, crowned third runner-up in the 2007 Miss Universe pageant, also won the vote for Best National Costume. She showed off works by Kim and Lee Il-soon, another renowned hanbok expert.
Although Miss Koreas have won the award in the past, it is noteworthy that Lee sported the look of a sensual and playful gisaeng rather than the conventional regal fashion worn by her predecessors.
In the film ``Hwang Jin Yi,'' currently in the top 10 box office ranking since its release last month, designer Jung Ku-ho imaginatively recreates 16th century fashion with a 21st century edge.
Sharply contrasting with Kim's designs for the drama, the costumes in the film are completely devoid of classic crimson hues. Paired with smoky eyes and nude lips, actress Song Hye-kyo is ravishing in black lace hats, sheer jeogori (hanbok tops) and bejeweled wigs.
Though modernly chic and fabulously haute couture, Song seems more like a lost runway model wandering the streets of a Korean folk village than a fashionable gisaeng.
``Although the film's hanbok may receive positive reaction from fashion experts, the TV drama costumes by Kim Hye-soon probably have more mass appeal,'' explained Shin Kwang-ho, fashion news director of Vogue Korea, in an interview with The Korea Times.
``Even a grandmother living in the most remote village of Kangwon Province would find (Kim's hanbok) pretty. Jung's works are fantastic aesthetically, but not everyone could pull off a black hanbok,'' he said.
We can recall the Joseon sex comedy ``Forbidden Quest'' (2006), which shocked viewers with naughty jokes and for featuring a sexy black hanbok by designer Jeong Kyung-hui.
Particularly striking is last month's cover of Vogue Korea adorned by Song Hye-kyo -- a rare occasion for a Korean actress to grace the face of a major fashion magazine since Jun Ji-hyun posed for Elle Korea several years ago.
It was also the first time a ``dream team''-- internationally renowned photographer Paolo Roversi, make-up artist Stephane Marais and hair stylist Julien d'Ys -- created the modern gisaeng look for Korea's cover.
``Just like U.S. Vogue featured Kirsten Dunst wearing customized dresses by top designers on their cover for the release of Sophia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette,' Jung Ku-ho specially created works for Song Hye-kyo,'' said Shin.
``The genre of `destruction' stands among the latest fashion trends. Tradition collides with modernity, modernity crashes with the future, and again tradition conflicts with the future!'' he said.
``The hanbok has been swept away in this (destructionist) movement, it seems.''
``Think of the historical period pieces you've seen lately through TV and movies. `Fusion' was a big issue, and hanbok of indistinct epochs poured out like crazy,'' he said.
Popular 2006 MBS drama series ``Princess Hours'' tells the imaginative tale of the restored Korean monarchy in current times, and a mischievous teen princess (Yun Eun-hye) dazzled adorable ``fusion'' dresses by Bae Yeong-jin.
About the fashionable revolution of hanbok, designer Paik Seol-heon explained to The Korea Times that it is a ``destruction'' of elements, rather than of hanbok itself.
``Hidden undergarments are now openly revealed, taking on a sexy look while maintaining grace and elegance,'' she said. ``But it's important to balance the style by paying attention to detail, like adding a traditional-style binyeo (hair piece) to capture the Korean-ness.''
``There was also a `destructive' change in the choice of fabric, such as using Western curtain material and hanji (Korean traditional paper) instead of the classic silk or hemp.''
According to Paik, who is also president of the Korean Hanbok Maker's Association, it's also interesting to note that the fashion trends of East and West have developed in sync. For example, in the 19th century, short and tight jeogori tops were paired with full, voluptuous chima (skirt), much like petticoats, their European counterpart.
``Beopgochangshin'' may be the best term to describe the renaissance of hanbok, as suggested by Kim Hye-soon. The Korean expression means remaining faithful to roots while evolving anew, and we can expect even more fresh interpretations of hanbok in the future.
You can learn more about hanbok and its ever-evolving styles by visitng www.habokin.com and www.han-style.com. Fans of the KBS drama ``Hwang Jin Yi'' may be interested in the colorfully illustrated book featuring hanbok with explanations and historical background information. Call (02) 548-3101.