Marvelous modesty

Times Staff Writer

In an age when showing the flesh is synonymous with sex appeal, the traditional Korean woman's attire may seem old-fashioned.

But as every true-blooded Korean knows, the beauty of the Korean outfit, called a hanbok, is in hiding one's physical attributes under yards of luxurious brocades, silks and satins. In their Confucian-steeped traditional culture, modesty and dignity were paramount. So, the hanbok reflects the Korean character and history.

On Friday night, a rare fashion show commemorating the 100th anniversary of Korean immigration to the United States drew 600 people to the Biltmore Millennium Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for a cultural, artistic and musical experience sponsored by the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles and KTE-TV Korean-language television.

One-hundred costumes, designed by 50 top South Korean designers, were displayed to the accompaniment of the Korean classical court music. Guests oohed and aahed as they watched the evolution of the hanbok from the 14th century to contemporary times, with designs ranging from the shimmering golden hwangwonsam -- a ceremonial garment worn during the 19th century by the empress -- to the contemporary chima-juhgori -- a billowy skirt and short-waisted jacket in lavender ramie favored by contemporary Korean women.

"The exquisite costumes not only incorporate Korean history by paralleling the development of a nation, but also represent the ideologies of Korean people through the dichotomy of modesty and luxury," said Youn-Bok Lee, consul general at the Korean consulate in Los Angeles.

"This event is a wonderful occasion not only for second- and third-generations of Korean Americans, but also for mainstream Americans to discover the attractive dignity and innovative simplicity of the Korean traditional costume," Lee said.

Indeed, along with many second-generation Korean Americans, there were also a good number of non-Koreans at the event, applauding as models paraded the intricately wrapped garments fastened with sashes.

"We are impressed," said Justyna Orlinska, who works at the Polish consulate in Los Angeles and who had never seen a Korean outfit before. "They are so beautiful. Everything -- colors, fabrics."

Designer Tae-Kyung Kang, chairman of the Korean Traditional Costumes Assn., who flew in from Seoul to work on the show, said the hanbok is unique.

The Chinese cheongsam emphasizes a woman's legs, the Japanese kimono the nape of the neck, and in Western styles, clothing emphasizes the bust line, waist and hips, Kang said.

"But the Korean hanbok leaves everything to the imagination," he said. "You let just a little bit of the white petticoat show when the hemline is turned up in the breeze. That's the sex appeal in the hanbok."

What distinguishes the garment is its rounded jacket sleeves and the full skirt that makes the wearer's silhouette resemble a Korean kimchi jar, he said.

"Koreans like the round shape, whether it is in the shape of a woman's face or in an urn," said Greta Lee, president of the Hanbok Preservation Society of Korea. "In times past, Koreans found a plump woman with a round face and almond shaped eyes beautiful. Today's beauty standards go completely against that."

The hanbok is designed with the skirt attached to a white cotton waistband, which wraps around the body at the chest under the arms. The skirt's many pleats allow for easy and graceful movement. Another unusual characteristic of the hanbok is underwear. To be well-groomed meant wearing as many as seven layers of undergarments because of the cultural emphasis on modesty, Lee said. "With the hanbok, you cannot cover yourself enough," Kang said.

The hanbok also reflected the hierarchal nature of the old Korean society, which was not friendly to the lower class. Peasants were relegated to wearing only white or gray. During the Choson Kingdom, 1392-1910, what people could wear was written into decrees, Lee said.

Experts say the muted colors for the everyday wear of commoners and the vibrant finery of court apparel was a deliberate statement of the absolute authority of the royal household. Colors have significance.

A hanbok with yellow jacket and red skirt is worn by maidens, bright green top with red skirt is for a newlywed. Married women wear a yellow top and cobalt blue skirt. The contemporary hanbok is patterned after those worn by women of the Choson Kingdom's upper class.

As she left the Biltmore after the show, Los Angeles-born Jennifer Koh called it an "exquisite event" that allowed her and her sister, Juliette, to share the experience with non-Koreans. "It was an artistic, musical, cultural and entertainment experience," said Juliette Koh. "I am so glad I came all the way from Santa Barbara."

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