On the very first day in Seoul, in the very first place I visit, Gyeongbokgung palace (a renovated 14th century royal palace complex), I notice that a lot of the visitors are wearing very colorful clothing. Turns out, these beautiful dresses and costumes are Korean national dress hanbok! At this point I remember seeing a movie “Liberation Day” about Slovenian rock band Laibach performing in North Korea and their vocalist Mina wearing something similar. Could I wear one too?
Planning a trip to South Korea? Check out Lonely Planet guidebook on South Korea, as this is what I used when planning my travel!
Walking in the narrow streets nearby the palace I noticed a lot of small shops where you can rent the hanbok. Although most of the women wearing one are locals, I do see a few foreigners as well. Turns out, there is no particular reason for wearing the costume other than just take a nice picture, and it’s not just women who wear costumes! By the way, if you are wearing a hanbok, visiting Gyeongbokgung palace is for free!
The Hanbok Experience
Before deciding that I will actually rent the hanbok, I did a quick search on the Internet on how this might be perceived and if it weouldn’t be offensive that a 183 cm tall European woman will show up in one on the street. Conclusion – yes, it’s ok to wear it and it is even promoted as a part of the Korean culture experience for both men and women! You can rent not just the outfit, but also a wide array of accessories for the experience to be even more authentic!
On the day of renting it is very warm, +37°C, so I opt for renting hanbok in the first place that offers it, right next to the entrance to the palace. I have seen posters advertising hanbok rental for as little as 10-15 thousand won (7.5-10 euro), without further detail for how long this is, but my rental was 30 thousand for two hours (and fifteen minutes extra). I could have rented a more simple outfit cheaper, but of course, I needed the most colorful one!
Entering the store I an enveloped with a pleasant cool air coming from the AC. The lady at the counter immediately takes me to the “Large Sizes” section of the store to find something that would fit my height. The long skirt is actually tied at chest, so the length should not be measured from the waist but from your armpits! Fitting takes places in a separate room, and the shopkeep helps me put it on. She also gives me a bag for my own clothing. I keep my own shoes. By the way, for hygienic reasons it is not allowed to just try the outfit on and not rent it (and not pay), so you have to select one that you really like.
Once I exit the fitting room, I head to the hairdresser, who puts my hair up for 5 thousand won, adds a little wig for volume and offers a selection of ribbons and pins.
She also asks me if I’d like the special queen hair, which will cost me additional 2 thousand won, but I decline, saying regular is fine. She still proceeds to make the fancy one and says that I can take a couple of pictures here and she will take out the extra pins afterwards. Of course the hair looks really nice and I decide to pay extra to keep it, as 2 thousand is almost nothing! Hairdresser has a good upselling technique! She also gives me some red lipstick to put on for free (you can order also full make up) and I am ready to go!
Before leaving I pay at the counter (total of 37 thousand won or roughly 27 euros, cash) and get a receipt specifying the return time. Ladies also give me a few tips on what would be traditional poses in the outfit, and I was told I should put my hands under the jacket. I also get a small purse without having to pay extra for it (to put in my phone). If you wish to, you can leave your bags for safekeeping at the store.
While I was trying on the outfits and getting ready, quite a few more people showed up and went to try on the costumes. Exiting the shop I notice that their poster actually has the same outfit pictures as mine! Of course, I could have probably found a cheaper place with fancy embroidery and not polyester print, but I really couldn’t make myself walk all that distance in the heat searching for one.
In the Palace
Five minutes later I was in Gyeongbokgung palace. There is no special free ticket to be collected, you just walk in through the gate (regular ticket is also not expensive, just 3 thousand won).
When we enter the palace, guard changing ceremony begins, so the palace is almost deserted. This time around it seems nearly half of all the visitors are wearing hanbok!
In the two hours that we spent in the palace we saw two other European women wearing the hanbok, but none of them had their hair or make up done. The local girls had braids with ribbons and some had their hair up and had nice accessories on the head, but none had the kind of “wonders” as I did! A couple of times local girls and boys came up to me asking to take a picture with me (just a couple of days ago it was me who asked locals to take a picture with them!). In the remaining two other weeks in Korea this was the only time someone asked me for a picture together, not like it was in China or India! Everyone was really nice and from the communication I got my confirmation that wearing hanbok really is ok and it is not offensive to the locals.
Two hours later I was back at the rental. My costume was immediately put in a box and taken away for cleaning. Because of the heat all of the underskirts and my underwear were soaking wet! So I can appreciate how clean the hanboks are and that it is not allowed to just try them on! There are museums and palaces in Seoul you can try them on for free and take some pictures, even some of the restaurants in Bukchon Hanok folk village offer that, but of course, the hanboks won’t be pristine clean, so I definitely recommend renting your own! I would have wanted to buy one, but for someone my size it would have to be pre-ordered and it won’t be cheap, upwards of 200 euros for sure!
Hanbok experience was definitely on of the most interesting things I did in Korea! Later, when visiting Busan and Jeju I often saw people wearing hanbok and taking pictures, and it seems such a lovely tradition to wear your national costume when visiting important historic sites! I would have definitely ordered my own hanbok, had I stayed longer in Seoul!
What else to see and do if you are in South Korea?