A Korean woman with bared breasts / Robert Neff Collection circa 1910
By Robert Neff
Photographs and postcards of the late Joseon period often depict Korean women working or walking with bared breasts. Apparently, for many revisionists, this is a cause of shame and these pictures have been denounced as staged photographs ― designed to denigrate Korea. They claim that no Korean noblewoman would ever be seen in such an undressed state ― especially by foreigners. They are right, to a degree. Noblewomen were secluded from the gaze of men and to be caught outside with their face bare ― let alone with breasts bared ― would have been unbearably humiliating, but these were not noblewomen ― they were women of the lower classes.
James Morrison, an Englishman who traveled to Korea in 1883, noted Korea women wearing jackets that were “so short that it is little more than a collar, and between it and the skirt there is a lucid interval of five or six inches through which the breasts protrude or generally hang. Even when the face is carefully concealed, the women think nothing of exposing this part of their persons, and if the cloak over the face covers this also, it is only as a secondary affair.”
The late Horace G. Underwood once told the tale of an American woman missionary who was offended by her perceived immodesty of the Korean women. According to Underwood, this missionary traveled through the streets of Seoul with safety pins and pieces of cloth and covered up the bared breasts of the Korean women she encountered.
Most Westerners were unaware of the significance of the breasts revealing jackets and merely thought of them as part of a quaint Korean custom, but only women who had borne sons were allowed to wear these jackets and thus they were a symbol of pride, and not shame.
Of course, not all nakedness was a source of pride.
Charles-Louis Varat, a French explore who traveled to Korea in the fall of 1888, apparently had an interesting encounter with a young Korean prince and his retinue aboard a steamship traveling between Kobe and Nagasaki, Japan. According to an article in the Le Tour de Monde (translation provided on Daily-Korean-stuff.com - a very interesting blog), Varat befriended the young prince out of curiosity. But he learned more about the young prince than he expected or wanted:
“The prince rushes towards me, his face showing signs of great anguish mixed with a strong feeling of confidence. He rolls up his large sleeve up to the shoulder and shows me with an exceptional anxiety the thousand bites that speckle his unusually white skin. I make him understand with signs that he probably has been a victim of mosquitoes. He shakes his head to tell that it is much worse, and, suddenly turning his back to me, pulls up his jacket and takes down his pants to show me the first quarters of a moon I quickly try to eclipse by covering it.”
But it wasn’t just the Westerners shocked by the casual display of flesh.
In the summer of 1880, an Italian warship was anchored off the coast of Wonsan, Korea, for several days while awaiting an answer to a dispatch they had sent to the regional magistrate. Imagine the Italian captain’s surprise when a Korean delegation arrived ― not to negotiate diplomatic treaties but to berate him for the scandalous conduct of his crew. Apparently the weather had been quite hot and the Italian sailors had taken the opportunity to do some swimming and bathing around their ship. Their nude, or near-nude, bodies had offended the sensibilities of the nearby Korean villagers and prevented them from leaving their homes for several days!
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.