What I Learned… Hiring a Hanbok in Seoul
My last overseas trip (thanks Covid) was to Korea and Japan in 2019. We arrived in Seoul and had four days to explore the bustling capital. My travel companions and I are always looking for a mixture of things to do, balancing the big ticket items (like a day trip to the North Korean border and the DMZ zone) with more quirky, unusual activities.
One of the more unusual activities we did was hire a hanbok for the day!
What is a hanbok, you may ask? A hanbok is any piece of traditional Korean clothing. Usually associated with the vibrant, colourful dresses the women wear, the notion of this style of traditional dress originated over 2000 years ago and is now often worn for special days and holidays. You can read more about the history of the hanbok here.
I’ve always had a penchant for fancy dress, so it seems only natural that I combine travel and dress ups, as seen here in traditional dress in Borneo on New Years Eve and on a floating island in Lake Titicaca, Peru.
We researched a few shops and tourist outlets who rented out hanboks to the general public. One of my more teancious travel companions knew to find a venue that had a huge range of hanboks, catering to the ‘fat westerner’ market (my terminology, not theirs!) As a size 18 Aussie girl, I knew all too well the curse of clothes shopping and finding outfits in Asian countries, so we made sure we found a hanbok rental place that had ‘bigger’sizes.
Hanboks were designed with ease of movement in mind, which speaks to me on a deeper level, especially when travelling! Could I have found my dream travel dress up outift?! Colour me vivid colours and sign me up. We headed to an area near the Gyeongbokgung Palace and metro station to hire an outfit. The secret is to get there early so that you have the pick of all the outfits and then wear them all day while you sightsee. We were ushered upstairs to the dressing room where a horde of western, Middle Eastern and Asian tourists were scouring the racks of hanbok dresses. They were organised into sizes, sorted into dresses and the jackets that sit over the top. We were instructed to pick one of each, try them on and then line up for our ‘fitting’.
Us girls went crazy, like it was the Boxing Day sales. They even have traditional menswear, complete with hats. Our enthusiasm waned when we discovered a very small amount of dresses and jackets would actually fit us, and after many had rummaged through the rack we didn’t get much choice of colour or design. Luckily, all the outfits were amazing – but it wasn’t quite the smorgasboard of options you’d expect. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers, especially plus size beggars!
was left with chose a purple dress with a white embroided jacket. The jacket didn’t meet in the middle, but I decided to just wear it open and loose. Or not! When I got to the front of the line for my fitting, three Korean ladies stared at me aghast when I motioned ‘don’t worry it doesn’t button up, I’ll wear it open’ and they promptly sucked me in and fastened my chest area together with pins. Obviously I had committed some cultural faux pas and the jacket had to be very muched closed, thank you very much.
We then went downstairs to get beautiful pins and barrettes put in our hair to complete the look. There was also the option to have your make up done, but we passed on that. Once in our complete Hanbook looks, we had the option to have a photo shoot done, which we said yes to – of course! We opted to have our photoshoot after sightseeing, as we didn’t want to have to wait while all the other groups were having photos taken.
So with our clothes stored in a locker (very handy) and my usual white sneakers on, we headed out to explore Seoul, looking like a local! First stop was to the Gyeongbokgung Palace and grounds, past the guard demonstration at the gates. It was awesome seeing so many people in traditional dress, there are many places to hire hanboks and it was a very popular thing for tourists to do. Plus, it made for some epic photo shoots!
We happened upon the changing of the royal guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace, which only happens twice a day at 10am and 2pm. The palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty, built in 1395. With extensive grounds it is a lovely place to wander and see the traditional buildings, door ways, statues and gates against the back drop of Mount Bugaksan. We enjoyed just twirling around and taking photos with the Geunjeongjeon throne hall in the background.
The hanboks were so fun to wear, but they were very hot, the polyester being quite unforgiving, not to mention the added layers from the hoop and tulle petticoat they make you wear! In order for my petticoat to fit, I had to pull the waist right up under my bust, which meant I was extra hot and restricted, and my hoop sat around my knees! The only consolation was that every tourist women I saw in a hanbok looked like me, short and plump! Something about the high waist and volumous skirt.
Of course along with the sensible, posing photos we had to take some silly ones. I perfected a jump in a dress, and we found a cute garden and door way that were the perfect backdrop to our outfits.
I didn’t understand why these Korean women were in dress up, or who the coyboy was they were in love with, but they happily posed for a photo when I motioned that I loved their outfit. They posed with the popular ‘fingers as lovehearts’ symbol, that we saw people doing all over South Korea.
After the palace we visited a folk museum (mainly for toilets, air conditioning and cold drinks) before moving further north east to the Bukchon Hanok Village. Situated on top of a hill, the village is full of winding streets, traditional houses (hanoks), shops and cafes and is preserved to look like a 600 year old urban environment. It is a must visit in Seoul, but doing it in traditional clothing was even better, the photos really make the location look like a traditional Korean scene! We wandered around the shops and homes before finding a cafe for another cold drink.
By about 1pm (3 hours in the hanboks) we were pretty hot and bothered and decided to return to the air conditioned shop. It was time for our photo shoot and then to get back into normal clothes and head somewhere for lunch. We definitely had gotten our money’s worth and didn’t feel the need to stay in the outfits any longer. You can wear them all day, as long as you bring them back before the shop closes. The photo shoot was hilarious, with all manner of props and poses. I’m not sure what happened to those photos! Someone must have a copy.
I definitely recommend hiring a hanbok when in Seoul! I would also recommend doing it near the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Bukchon Hanok Village for three reasons – there are plenty of shops to hire from, it makes for great photos and there are loads of people dressing up so you won’t feel a bit awkward or out of place. We hired ours on a Wednesday, I would imagine weekends are busier.
We wore bike shorts and singlets under our hanboks, so we weren’t completely bare when dressing in front of others and to stop the scratchy poylester rubbing on our skin. I’m prone to chafing in the heat so bike shorts were a must, plus we sweated the day off in the long sleeved jackets and full hoop skirts!
We enjoyed our dressing up immensely. Wherever I travel to next across Asia, I will definitely look up similar activities to do!