For many years, "traditional" has been a euphemism for "dull" for young South Koreans. But lately there seems one exception: hanbok, or Korean traditional attire.
On Thursday's quaint cobblestones of Gyeongbok Palace, the largest royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a throwback to an ancient era is on display: young people sporting colorful hanbok with matching hairdos and clutches.
"I saw lots of photos of my friends in hanbok posted on social media sites. I thought it would be cool to do the same. Photos last forever," said 20-year-old university student Cho In-ho. He wanted to do something special and memorable with his girlfriend, rather than watching a movie, he said.
The couple, in burgundy hanbok and wielding a selfie stick, are two of the growing number of young South Koreans helping the centuries-old attire, which fell out of favor for decades, to make a dramatic comeback.
Jung Ye-jin, all glammed up in a vivid pink hanbok and braided hair, has waited for a long time for this moment.
"The last time I wore it was when I was in elementary school. Since then, I haven't had a chance to wear it. I feel so good now," Jung said, casting a glow of excitement.
"It is much more comfortable than I thought it would be," she said, before heading off to a nearby historic neighborhood, Bukchon Hanok Village, for her "Kodak moment."
In a back alley of Samcheong-dong, a scenic, classy area east of the palace, Im Bo-young and two Thai friends were skimming the pavement impeccably clad in winter hanbok and matching sleeveless waistcoats lined with white fur, accented with delicate hair ornaments. They excitedly recounted an episode about how they were encircled by a swarm of Chinese tourists for a photo.
"I always fancied the idea of wandering around in traditional outfits. Now I am so happy I could give my friends a great memory of Korea," Im said.
The renewed attention on the Korean traditional garment is in large part fueled by a modern-day digital culture where young people share their experiences with friends by flaunting interesting and unique photos on their social media accounts.
Indeed, a stream of photos using the hashtag #hanbok can be easily found on popular social networking sites like Twitter and Instagram.
Accustomed to modern garments, many Korean women dismissed hanbok's chima, a full-length empire-waist airy skirt, and jeogori, a cropped cross-collar jacket with two long ties, as being uncomfortable, if not outright unwearable. Because of the diminished popularity, hanbok was reserved only for special occasions like weddings, a child's first birthday, or big family events.
But such a perception has started to change, with efforts by individuals and institutions alike to incorporate more hanbok into daily life. On the design front, designers modify the clothing to better suit a modern lifestyle, for example, by making the chima shorter and men's trousers slimmer.
Yang Xue, who works for Seoul-based Chinese tour company HZ Travel, found it surprisingly more comfortable to wear hanbok than when she did it back in 2012. "It became easier to wear and the design also got prettier." Her company works to meet an increasing demand from Chinese tourists who'd like to try something uniquely Korean, and hanbok is definitely one of them, said Yang's boss Li Xiang-yu. "For the past two years, we saw a big jump in the number of inquiries from our customers about the attire. It is pretty, memorable, and a great item to post on Weibo," Li said, referring to the popular Twitter-like social networking service in China.
Meanwhile, some hanbok lovers take this renewed appreciation of the dress to the next level by venturing overseas to promote its potential as an everyday garment.
Kwon Miru has always been fascinated by hanbok's elegant and simplistic charm. Like many others, she used to break out her hanbok only for Korean traditional holidays. But one day she became curious if she could overcome what seemed like self-inflicted limitations on the attire.
I was wondering how far I could go wearing hanbok," she said.
Starting with Italy in February 2014, she has traveled to nine countries in the red-carpet worthy dress that triggered curiosity and admiration wherever she went.
With the collection of photos from her overseas trips, Kwon, now known as a "traveler in hanbok," opened a few exhibitions in 2015 with kindred spirits to change people's perception of the traditional clothing that, for centuries, served as a daily outfit, but receives awkward and curious looks today. The exhibition was sponsored by the Hanbok Advancement Center of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in an effort to push the boundaries of the garment.
Researcher Kim Jung-soo at the center believes the popularity of hanbok among young Koreans is not ephemeral. Rather, she thinks a new culture has been formed among them who rediscover and appreciate the value of the attire. The center, established in 2014, offers education on the formal style of the dress and works toward adapting the traditional dress to more practical, easy-to-wear clothing.
Another ongoing campaign by the center is to create an official, legal "Hanbok Day," which the center has been celebrating every autumn for the last 20 years, in order to create an environment where people feel less "self-conscious and awkward" in going about their daily lives in the classic wear.
On the hanbok's newly-gained status as an "it" fashion item, Kim said one essential condition to keep the trend going was to help young people experience hanbok with due formality.
"It should serve as a chance for them to learn the tradition, not just enjoy it as one-off fun," she said. "As in everything, a first experience is important. Once learned properly, it can last for a long time." (Yonhap)