A comparison of the traditional costume of China, Japan and Korea.
The traditional costume is associated with the adopted dress of a geographic region, rooted in the history and cultural influences of the area. In this way they become deeply associated with the national identity and character and an outward symbol of national pride. Traditional clothes often signified particular societal roles and occasions or denoted status; and may have included formal and informal versions. In this post I will look at the similarities and differences between the three East Asian culture’s traditional costumes.
Unsurprisingly, given the shared history, cultural influences and geography, the traditional costumes of China, Japan and Korea share many similarities. Whilst Western dress might be loosely termed as relatively simple and individualistic, the authentic Asian dress is perhaps better characterised as elaborate and elegant. In all East Asian cultures the style, colour and elaborateness of the dress signify status.
East Asian dresses are often adorned with intricate embroidery of symbolic images such as: peacocks, blossom, fish, dragons, pheasants, flowers and butterflies. They will also usually be fashioned in luxurious fabrics like silk, satin and brocade. East Asia includes the present countries of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Historically China was the predominant East Asian presence and heavily influenced its neighbouring peoples, perhaps best exemplified by the widespread use of silk across the region. The traditional clothing from China Japan and Korea tends to conceal the shape of the body and is highly decorated and uses bold colour combinations.
All East Asian traditional clothing open down the front like a coat allowing a range of extravagant hairstyles and headwear to evolve , which further characterises the regional dress.
Traditional wedding wear
Korea – Hanbok
The traditional clothing of Korea is called the Hanbok, which is an abbreviation of the term Han-guk pokshik meaning literally “Korean attire.” Traditional Korean clothing has its roots extending back at least as far as the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. – 668 A.D.), as evidenced by wall paintings in tombs dating from this period. The Korean hanbok represents one of the most visible aspects of Korean culture. The Hanbok is a very symbolic item of clothing; everything from the material used, to the colours selected, and the design patterns are carefully chosen by the individual to represent individual status, tastes, and aspects of the Korean culture. The common Hanbok today consists of two pieces, a jeogori and either chima or paji. The jeogori is a blouse like over-shirt with flowing sleeves which are usually cut longer for men than women. Chima and paji are the traditional bottom garments, a chima is a skirt for women and paji are baggy pants for men.
Colours and materials which make up the hanbok signify class and social status for the wearer. Traditionally, the upper class of society wear light weight, high-grade materials such as silk adorned with patterns and woven intricacies. Upper class society members wear bright colours while commoners wear only white.
Jeogori composition: 1. hwajang 2. godae 3. kkeutdong (somae buri) 4. somae 5. goreum 6. u 7. doryeon 8, 11. jindong 9. gil 10. baerae 12. git 13. Dongjeong
Silk is the main fabric used in making hanboks, but summer hanboks are often made with ramie or hemp and winter hanboks are frequently made with brocade or satin. Some decorations such as gilts or embroidery can be attached to hanbok, and characters such as 囍 (Hui 희, happiness and joy) and 福 (Bok 복, fortune or luck) or flower patterns are frequently used as part of the adornment.
Hanbok in film
The colours of the hanbok traditionally represent different virtues; white represents purity, integrity, and chastity, and was the most common colour for common clothes. The upper class and court figures wore clothes in red, yellow, blue, and black in addition to white. These colours symbolise the five traditional elements in Oriental cosmology (fire, earth, water, metal, and wood). Dyes were made from natural materials such as flowers or bark.
Children’s hanbok – all little boys love dressing in hanbok as you can see.
The basic garment of China, for both sexes, was a robe like or tunic-like wrapped garment. Elites wore robes, usually of silk, that were wrapped around the body and tied closed with a waist sash. Such robes were either long enough to require no lower garments or somewhat shorter (e.g. thigh length) and worn over trousers or a skirt. Trousers and skirts were not closely tied to gender and were worn by both men and women. Both sexes considered it socially essential to wear their hair bound up in a topknot or other dressed style, and covered with a head cloth or hat of some kind. Elite women favoured highly colourful patterned silk cloth for their clothing. Fashion in women’s clothing went through an era of rapid change during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), when a wealthy and cosmopolitan imperial culture stimulated consumption and emulation, and novelty was supplied by cultural influences, via the Silk Route, of Persian and Turkic peoples.
Chinese dress changed radically after the end of the imperial period in 1911. A new form of men’s clothing, called the Sun Yat-sen suit, developed on the basis of European military uniforms and won widespread acceptance; this suit had a jacket with a high, stiff “mandarin” collar, four pockets, and a buttoned front, with trousers in matching cloth. A new women’s dress, called the qipao or cheongsam, evolved in Shanghai and other Chinese cities in the 1920s and 1930s.
Historic Chinese garments share some of the characteristics of those from Japan and Korea but the outline is generally more flared and the sleeves are not so deep.
Robe, China, 19th century.
The features of the later, slimmer Chinese robe that make it distinct from other East Asian garments are the method of closure and the shape of the sleeve ends. In the later Chinese style mentioned above, robes are cut with the body and sleeve in one piece. These integral upper sleeves reach to elbow level; to make them full length additional fabric is joined on. In the case of dragon-patterned official robes, which were worn by a broad sector of the male population, the lower sleeves are in a contrasting plain dark material and are sometimes crimped or banded with gold. The sleeves end in outward-curving ‘horsehoof’ cuffs which match the collar band.
A Chinese robe closes securely right across the front. This is achieved by using an extra length of cloth which is seamed vertically down the centre to form a complete overlap. At the top this overlap curves down and is edged with a band that is a continuation of the neck binding. The robe is fastened at the neck, along the band and down the right side with button and loop closures
The Cheongsam evolved by merging with western patterns that show off the beauty of a female body. Its features are straight collar, strain on the waist, coiled buttons and slits on both sides of the dress. Materials used are usually silk, cotton and linen. Cheongsam is the most popular Chinese attire in the world today.
Japan – Kimono
The traditional clothing of Japan is the kimono. The word Kimono literally means, “something worn.” A Kimono is a long, T-shaped robe which extends from the shoulders to the ankles and is fastened in the middle by a belt called an obi. Kimonos have long, wide sleeves, some as wide as a meter. Like the Korean hanbok, the kimono began as a unisex robe which evolved into distinct men’s and women’s styles.
A traditional red Uchikake kimono with cranes
Like the hanbok, the colours and designs of the kimono make subtle statements about the wearer’s social and cultural status. For a woman, the style and colour of the kimono can give visual cues about her marital status as well. For example, subdued single colour kimonos which are patterned only below the waist are reserved for married women, while brightly coloured and completely patterned kimonos are worn by unmarried women. In addition, there are other single and multi coloured kimonos used for various ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and the Japanese tea ceremony.
In contrast to brightly coloured and patterned kimonos worn by women, men’s kimonos tend to be single dark colours such as navy-blue, black, or charcoal grey. Men’s kimonos are simpler than women’s kimonos and while the women’s ensemble may include as many as a dozen items of clothing, a man’s will not include more than five.
A traditional wedding kimono with tsunokakushi (wedding headpiece)
Modern styles of furisode
Kimonos range from extremely formal to casual. The level of formality of women’s kimono is determined mostly by the pattern of the fabric, and colour. Young women’s kimonos have longer sleeves, signifying that they are not married, and tend to be more elaborate than similarly formal older women’s kimono. Men’s kimonos are usually one basic shape and are mainly worn in subdued colours. Formality is also determined by the type and color of accessories, the fabric, and the number or absence of kamon (family crests), with five crests signifying extreme formality. Silk is the most desirable, and most formal, fabric. Kimonos made of fabrics such as cotton and polyester generally reflect a more casual style.
Modern East Asian dress
Modern interpretations of the traditional costumes, attest to the enduring legacy and influence of the East Asian costume. So that whilst the traditional attire may be increasingly confined to special occasions , the style and traditions continue to endure and evolve.