Here I am today to enrich the internet with a personal guide about one of my favourite cultural experiences in South Korea: the rental of a hanbok.
Drawing of my wealth of experience, hence it’s something I have done twice within the last two years, I took stock of everything I have learnt and decided to share it with you, in the hope of proving to be useful.
And for those who have no clue of what I’m talking about…
WHAT IS THE HANBOK?
The 한복 Hanbok is the traditional Korean dress par excellence.
It was introduced during the Jeoson period and it presented different features and accessories according to the status of the person.
Despite its traditional value, however, the Hanbok is not part of Korean contemporary life anymore. As a matter of fact, as I could learn from my local friends, the Hanbok is a particular dress people barely wear nowadays. I was indeed explained that hanbok is only worn by Koreans for traditional festivities (such as the Korean New Year) when they are children and that, as soon as they grow up, they see no reason to keep wearing it. Thus is very rare for Koreans to own a hanbok
As for weddings, they prefer wearing the western wedding dresses. Just in case they are interested, the spouses can go to a photographic studio to take photos in the traditional attire together with their family, but the clothes are obviously rented.
That being so, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that the Hanbok is nowadays a mere tourist ruse. I must also highlight that is pretty common to see Korean youngsters taking photos with ranted hanboks as well, but the 90% of the people who would be wearing the traditional attire on the road would definitely be tourists.
However, despite this capitalistic conversion of a cultural practice, I still deem this activity (although touristy) as one of the best experiences you could ever live in South Korea. After all, there are not many places around the world which give you the chance to freely walk around the streets in dreamy traditional dresses, are they?
That being said, let’s go into the blog post and let’s see what are all the things you should know before renting a hanbok, but that nobody tells you!
YOU WILL INEXORABLY BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT
This probably is the first thing everyone should know before embarking in this kind of experience.
Whether you want it or not, you’ll attract everyone’s attention: people wouldn’t simply give you a distracted glance, they would probably stare you or even stop you just because of the fact you are wearing a hanbok. It doesn’t matter if you are Korean, Asian or of any other ethnicity: people would be surprised to see you wearing this peculiar attire.
For obvious reason, this kind of extreme and pretty unusual behaviour is not held by the locals (who are definitely used to see tourists walking around the streets with Korean traditional clothes), but it’s held uniquely by tourists.
Many are the situation you can find yourself involved in, and I decided to categorize a few of them by the kind of tourist who can approach you.
- The skeptical observer: this is the case of the typically uncomfortable situation in which you look around knowing that someone is staring at you.
Wondering why a person who clearly looks foreign is wearing such an unusual attire, which looks typically Korean.
- The excited commentator: you are simply walking around the streets or the buildings of Gyeongbukgung and it gets noisy… Very noisy. So you start looking at your surroundings and you notice couples and groups of people looking at you in a very thrilled way. You pay closer attention and you notice they are animatedly talking about you, commenting your attire and asking to each other if they can do the same. In all this, you feel uncomfortable, of course.
- The inquisitive tourist: be sure that, at least once during the whole experience, someone will stop you to ask the following questions:
What are you wearing?
Did you buy it?
How much did you pay for the rental?
Where can I rent the dress?
It’s going to happen for sure, thus get ready for it in order to not get blind-sided. Take note, if necessary.
- The master of photography: this kind of person probably is the most exciting part about the whole hanbok experience. As a matter of fact, just because of the fact you are wearing a traditional dress, people will feel entitled to stop you to take photos WITH YOU or OF YOU. And believe me, it happens to everyone.
I don’t look Asian nor I look exceptionally beautiful, but at least 7 people stopped me for a snap. Those who wanted to take it with me were pretty quick photographers, those who instead asked for a solo snap, actually took a photoshoot of me: some of them even asked me to strike some specific poses at their leisure.
On hindsight, I truly regret not having asked my professional photographers to send me the snaps they took via e-mail, especially to those two who suggested me the poses. That’s a big loss in my traveller’s career, I admit.
Moreover, I still happen to wonder about what happened to all those photos of me posing with the demanding visitors who approached me; especially for the use they made of them. After all, it is not that ordinary to keep a photo of you with an average white girl wearing a Korean dress…
TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE NEED TO SPEND A CONSIDERABLE AMOUNT OF MONEY
Renting a Hanbok is definitely not too expensive, and this is a point which must be clarified. However, as everything in this world, it has a price which can fluctuate according to your preferences and budget, but take into account there is no way to spend less than 25,000KRW (about 20€) to rent just the clothes and nothing more.
Said that, it seems a great thing since you can live an undoubtedly unique experience for a reasonable amount of price, but is it worth to go cheap on it?
This question raised after I got the chance to stroll around Gyeongbukgung Palace both on a cheap and in a pretty expensive Hanbok attire: and, believe me, it was a completely different feeling which made me reconsider my previous choice. But let’s proceed step by step.
August 2017: Seoul with my wingman.
My first time in South Korea was in 2017 and, of course, I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure to wear a Hanbok and take some souvenir photos to show at home. Plus, I was dying to see my sidekick walking around with that traditional suit, considering his unfitness to whatever is out of his comfort zone.
Despite his initial refusal, I succeeded convincing him to follow me in this historical revival and I dragged him in the first rental shop we could find in Bukchon Hanok Village. And this is where the story begins.
This store was situated in a hidden alleyway, which made me believe that higher were the chances for us to economize on the experience. But it was so WRONG because, as I later discovered, there is a fixed price set among the shops of the same area. Therefore, there is no difference among the different rental shops, with the exception of a bigger or smaller rage of different hanboks to choose from. And the rental where we stopped by had very little choice, unfortunately.
Despite I didn’t like the exposed clothes from the very first moment, however, I felt forced to remain because of the amiability of the owner of the business. She was a very talkative and gregarious ajumma (i.e. Korean old woman) who, despite she didn’t speak a word of English, she somehow succeeded to make us feel at our ease and convince our staying in order to get to know her better.
She guided us in the choice of the hanbok and the accessories but, no matter how many times she tried to lead me choose the most expensive gowns (whose price alone was about 30,000KRW), I stood by my position to keep the price low and I went for the 15,000KRW skirt. However, I let the ajumma persuade me to style my hair, with a braid and the supplement of a hair accessory. This is the furthest I went.
In total, the Jeogori (the upper garment part), the Chima (the skirt) and the headband costed me around 35,000KRW, and this was the price set for a two hours rent.
This means that, other than paying the specific Hanbok set you choose, you also pay a higher or lower fee according to the rental time.
And this was the result:
As we can all agree, the Hanbok was simply ugly.
As my Korean professor in University commented: “You chose the ajumma’s typical hanbok, those colours are for old people“. And I coudn’t agree more with him, because compared to what you see around, my hanbok choice was pretty sad and regretful. And this all happened for two main reasons: I forced myself to rent an orange gown just because orange is my favourite colour (without considering if it could suit me or not) and I economized my experience just to save some money… But that was so wrong.
For this reason, despite the good memory of visiting the Gyeongbukgung for the first time and having fun with my traveling companion, I can’t help but remember the great feeling of unease of walking around with a dress I didn’t feel nor comfortable or good wearing.
March 2018: my exchange in South Korea.
My second time in South Korea was on the occasion of my exchange experience. I studied in a local university and, as part of a study program I succeeded to be part of, a field trip to Gyeongbukgung was scheduled with my class. And during that visit, a hanbok rental was also planned.
Luckily, I had to spend no cent on the whole experience, which now prevents me to be useful as concerns for the account of the price spent. However, due to the fact I was given absolute freedom to wander around the shop and choose whatever I wanted, I simply went for the most expensive (and thereby, the most beautiful) hanbok choice I could possibly make. Other than feeling pushed to go fancy thanks to the favorable circumstance, I was also helped in the choice of the attire by my friends, who definitely were better fashion advisors as compared to my sometimes-imperfect wingman.
And this was the final result:
There is not much to say, other than I look definitely better, and it wasn’t just about how I appeared, but how I felt as well. I truly felt much more at ease with the hanbok I had chosen and, to be honest, I felt beautiful.
I walked around the Gyeongbukgung and I never was remorseful whenever I looked at other girls wearing their beautiful hanboks: I was fully satisfied and proud of my choice. I loved looking at my gown and I loved interacting with the other tourists who stopped me for a photo.
I simply felt good, and this is the biggest gift I could make for myself.
The moral of the story is: don’t mind about the money and just choose whatever makes you feel beautiful or good with yourself! Wearing a hanbok is not an every-day experience, and there is no reason to go cheap on something which you might not live again. Especially if the involved experience can give you so much joy.
IF YOU ARE A GIRL, MIND YOUR STEPS!
The title is pretty clear: remember to watch your steps while walking around with your beautiful but impractical gown.
On one hand it must be recognized the absolute comfort to wear the hanbok: since it covers the stomach area (considering the width of the skirt) , there is no reason for you to hold your belly in. And believe me, it’s the best feeling ever.
However, the length of the gown is a problem which shouldn’t be underestimated. It is indeed extremely easy to stumble upon its fabric whenever climbing a step, which can lead to more or less big inconveniences: you can tumble down in front of everyone (as it happened to me, the first time I wore the hanbok) or you can even accidentally rip the skirt. And nobody likes to pay an extra fee for such a stupid event, I believe.
This way, as Spiderman once said “with great power comes great responsibility“, you should also be extremely mindful to every step you take when wearing a hanbok, and possibly hold the skirt from the very start of your walk. Don’t follow my example, since I had to learn this simple survival lesson after tripping over a few times and finally falling in the attempt to climb a step… That’s not too nice to experience, especially if you are being observed, and there is a very good chance considering the circumstance.
FINAL CONSIDERATIONS AND TIPS
All in all, you should not leave South Korea without renting a hanbok: it’s a proper must-do when visiting this country. It might not be the most unconventional activity to take part in, but it’s definitely worth the while. In fact, what is better than a photographic souvenir of you walking around (fake) historical buildings while wearing the traditional clothes of the local population? It’s simply priceless.
This way, despite what can be considered as negative, there is no reason to say no to this kind of experience. After all, if you are shy and you feel extremely uncomfortable at the thought of strangers taking photos of you, just tell them no! Remember you are a person and not a tourist attraction, it’s your right to politely refuse this kind of proposals. And, as for those who simply look at you or make comments, just don’t care and walk away, proud of you beautiful attire. Don’t let some fools ruin such an amazing experience!
To conclude, here there is a short list of further things you might want to take note of to make the hanbok experience even more perfect!
- Rent a clutch bag as well! I did not do it my first time, and I can’t deny it was troublesome. I indeed though I could get away with it and hide my own bag somewhere (i.e. under the skirt) whenever I wanted to take a photo, but it was unsuccessful most of time since I either forgot to put it away or I failed hiding it. Instead, if you rented a clutch at the rental shop, you would be sure to keep all your most important personal belongings (such as money and documents) with you! And you can just leave the rest in a safety box at the shop.
Believe me: the rented clutch looks much better than any unfitting bag you have.
- Wear a white shirt underneath: this is exactly what I wished to be told the morning I got dressed before my school trip.
Since high are the chances you are going to choose a white “vest”, just wear something white or light coloured underneath in order not to risk to spoil the outfit. As a matter of fact, you will be asked to keep your own upper clothes on (unlike the trousers or long skirts), so you it’s highly preferable to wear a not-coloured, low-cut shirt which can easily hide under the vest. Thus, just avoid every turtleneck cloth or any fancy shirt: the hanbok does not forgive this fashion choices!
- Opt for the rental shops nearby the Gyeongbokgung. They are the best in terms of choice, they truly have what suits every taste! Unfortunately, I can’t tell the same about the Hanok Bukchon Village and Myeongdong: they are definitely not worth it, in my humble opinion.
- If possible, just avoid sneakers and flip-flops. They simply are unsightly.
I know it’s not a possible choice for every kind of traveller, but if you can, just wear a well-fitting pair of shoes which can suit the hanbok style the best it can. I promise it would look much better in photo!
- Prefer the Changdeokgung to the Gyeongbokgung. Despite the latter being the most famous to the public, the Changdeokgung truly is the most beautiful palace in Seoul, objectively speaking. It would definitely be a much more picturesque background for your photos, especially during Autumn and Spring time!
This is all for today! I hope you liked this post and found it useful for your upcoming trip to South Korea. If you have any question, just leave a comment down below and I will try my best to be helpful! And obviously, if you also experienced a promenade wearing a hanbok, let me know your impression about it! Did you experience the same tourists as I did or do you have something else to add to my unreliable sociological research?
If you are interested in discovering more about my South Korean adventure, I wrote a few other articles on my blog! Click on the title to be directed to the related post~