Traditional shoes represent Korean beauty, elegance
By Chung Ah-young
Footwear completes every wardrobe signifying how important shoes are not only to protect your feet but also in the realm of fashion.
“Gatsin,” better known as flower shoes, are traditional Korean leather shoes which are separated into two kinds, “hwa” (boots) and “hye” (low-rise shoes). “Gatsin” or leather shoes were originally only worn by “yangban” (noble class) and royal families while the commoners wore wooden clogs or straw shoes during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
In modern times, these traditional shoes have become virtually obsolete but their legacy struggles to continue from generation to generation. Hwang Hae-bong, a traditional shoemaker, is the only one who holds the title as Important Intangible Cultural Properties No. 116.
Hwang is the grandson of the late Hwang Han-gap, the first traditional shoemaker who was named an Important Intangible Cultural Property. Including him, five generations of his family have worked as traditional shoemakers.
“I have done this job out of responsibility, to take over my family’s business because my father passed away earlier than my grandfather. So I grew up learning the skills by watching what my grandfather did,” Hwang said in an interview with The Korea Times.
The artisan said that it is a pity that many people mistakenly think of traditional Korean shoes as being rubber shoes which were introduced in the 1920s under the influence of the Japanese colonial period (1910-45).
“Although ‘gatsin’ were worn by the elite and royal class, it was traditionally Korean with flamboyant patterns and colors. The shoes tell the history of the Joseon era, particularly the fate of the Confucian state,” he said.
Dresses and ornaments, including shoes, particularly thrived in the Joseon period as they represented the social status and rank in the Confucian state of the wearer.
As the Joseon Kingdom waned and the social hierarchy system crumbled, a lot more people began wearing the leather shoes, pushing the sales and demands for the production of “gatsin.” However, the traditional shoes gave way to rubber shoes in the 1920s and Westernized shoes in the ’30s.
These days despite the decline of traditional shoes, the artisan has never given up his job with the belief that the shoes represent true Korean traditional beauty and elegance.
“When making the shoes, it is the most important to form a perfect toe tip and a beautiful curve on the edge,” he said.
The typical form of “hye” combines the natural curve of the hem of the sleeve of the “jeogori,” a traditional Korean-style jacket and its pointed tips of the Korean socks (beoseon) worn with the hanbok.
Wearing hye and hwa was strictly limited to the elite class but commoners were allowed to wear the leather shoes only at their weddings.
In the past, there was a division of labor in the production of the hye and hwa. Originally, traditional shoemakers were divided into “hwajang,” a person who made long-necked shoes (hwa), and “hyejang,” a person who made shoes that did not go over the ankles (hye).
According to “Gyeongguk-daejeon” (Grand Code for State Administration), the demand for producing shoes was so high that there were 16 hwajang and 14 hyejang affiliated with the central government office.
Hye are made by pasting several layers of cotton or ramie cloth onto a cotton lining and covering them with silk to make the outer rim. This is then sewn onto a sole made of leather. It is important to maintain a balance to prevent the tip of the shoes from twisting.
There are some 20 different kinds of hye and hwa shoes from the Joseon era — “taesahye,” “oikohye,” “jeokseok” for men and “suhye,” “unhye,” “danghye” and “heukhye” for women. They are mostly made of leather and silk and other materials appropriate for each season.
Hwang’s works were used in the television drama “Hwang Jin-i” and a film “Scandal” in which actresses Ha Ji-won, Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Mi-sook wore the shoes he made.
Now he is keen on restoring the old relics in museum displays in accordance with historical research.
“Restoration is now my primary job to preserve the tradition that has been handed down for five generations in my family. My son will follow in my steps. He is learning from me to continue this tradition,” he said.