The day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I pulled a hanbok out of my closet. I felt compelled to wear this traditional Korean garment, with its stiff collar, short top, and floor-length, empire-waist skirt, as my small statement of resistance. To some, such a gesture might read conservative, feminine, or modest, but to me it was defiantly different. After all, with every sexist or xenophobic barb Trump lobbed, I became more determined to flaunt my womanhood and Korean identity.
That evening, as I headed to a restaurant in downtown Chicago with friends, I felt a little self-conscious but still pleased with my outfit choice. I shrugged off the sidelong glances of passersby, resolute in my mission. But as we rounded a corner, a young woman in jeans and a baseball cap yelled, “You look like Mulan!”
It’s hard to describe the vulnerability I felt as I was called out for being “other” in America, that day of all days. I averted my eyes, afraid the stranger’s comment might escalate into a rant or, worse, a physical confrontation. My palms slick with sweat, I breathed in shallow bursts. I knew my dress would attract attention, but I hadn’t expected such a direct outburst. My friends expressed remorse, but I barely reacted, too disoriented to be articulate. Inside, though, I seethed—at the stranger, but also at myself. Why hadn’t I responded more forcefully? My entire point had been to show that diversity was a necessary, integral part of our country, and yet I had remained silent.
After that incident, I tucked my traditional Korean dress away, only pulling it out for family events. As a child of Korean parents who immigrated to Queens, New York, in the 1980s, I grew up wearing hanboks on special occasions, like Lunar New Year, when I’d sit on the rug in my parents’ closet and watch my mother pick out her hanbok. I fawned over the intricate embroidery and multiple layers, excited for my turn to get dressed. Once robed, my mother would walk my younger sister and me through the process: First, you put on a filmy, delicate underdress. Next, the chima, a length of cloth that wraps around the body into a high, full skirt. The final piece, my favorite, was the jeogori, a short top that is secured by tying two long ribbons into a bow at your chest. When I wore my hanbok with rainbow-colored sleeves, I vibrated with a pleasure rooted not only in my appearance, but in my connection to my culture.
My pride faded, though, when I noticed my older cousins were no longer wearing hanboks to our family functions. They complained that they were uncomfortable, too formal—they were in America, after all, and should be allowed to wear American clothing. I nodded along, suddenly feeling itchy and foreign in my dress. Soon I, too, began refusing to wear my hanbok, and my sister followed suit.
We weren’t the first generation to reject the tradition, however. The hanbok, a term applicable to traditional men’s and women’s clothing, traces back to the third century b.c.; most Koreans wore variations of what’s now considered festive semiformal attire for centuries. But as American influence increased following the Korean War, Western fashion became synonymous with progress and modernization. My grandparents’ generation retired their hanboks, only bringing them out for holidays and special occasions.
It wasn’t until recently, when I started writing If You Leave Me, a novel set during the Korean War, that my interest in hanboks returned. Creating a strong female protagonist who boldly wears them as society westernizes around her reminded me of how integral hanboks were to our history. I wanted to incorporate a bit of my Korean heritage back into my contemporary wardrobe, but I needed to find hanboks that were more conducive to daily wear. Enter Leesle. South Korean fashion designer Leesle Hwang founded the brand in 2014 to promote modern hanboks that reflect our current needs—namely, her designs are washable and have pockets.
As Korea’s global influence spreads—from K-pop to K-beauty—it seems only natural that Korean fashion would follow. In 2015, Karl Lagerfeld presented his Korean-dynasty-inspired Chanel cruise collection in Seoul, which included his own take on the silhouette. A year later, Carolina Herrera partnered with the South Korean government to create three custom-made hanboks, which were shown at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. And this past March, Seoul Fashion Week’s opening runway show featured an all-hanbok line by renowned costume designer Kim Hye-soon, using unconventional fabrics like faux fur and sequins. Street-style photos show young women and men pairing jeogoris with jeans, mixing traditional outerwear with sweaters, and even bending the hanbok’s gender rules with unisex pants.
I visited the Leesle Design Lab store in Jeonju, South Korea, a few months ago, eager to embrace the refreshed, more accessible iteration of the hanbok. There, I slipped into jackets with high slits and belts, Y-collared blazers with knot buttons, and short jeogori tops paired with chima skirts in lace, linen, and cotton—each piece a beautiful blend of old and new. I left with an armful of new clothes to take home to Chicago.
For my husband’s medical school graduation, I wore a floral navy jeogori with a dark green chima (pictured at left). Thankfully, I had the opposite experience from that unpleasant evening in late 2016. Friends and strangers stopped me to admire the flowery print, asking me what my dress was called—and where they could buy one for themselves. It probably didn’t hurt that this time I was determined to wear my hanbok with confidence, and to drop the hesitancy that had marred my first try. I stood taller and took up more space. At the end of the night, as a group of us strolled the beaches of Lake Michigan, I told my friend Danika about my earlier encounter in 2016. Danika, who’s tall, blond, and blue-eyed, shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. What I love most about America is this.” She gestured at my dress. “That we can share our cultures with each other.”
I’ve been wearing my hanbok proudly ever since, donning full dresses as well as separates paired with leggings and sandals, for nights on the town or even quick trips to the grocery store. What we wear can be a way to tell the world that no matter where we come from, we deserve to be here—and we demand to be seen. ■