|Kang Ah-Hyeong models hanbok from the Golden Needle hanbok design shop, as the wind catches it to billow it up at just the right moment. Photo by Michael Hurt|
By Michael Hurt
As a photographer and visual sociologist, I have always found hanbok the traditional clothing worn by Korean people deeply interesting. And I don't mean "interesting" in the sense that I want to wear it, but rather in the sense that as a symbol of Koreanness itself, and as an object worn on the body, it is the object that is most charged with a corporealized Koreanness. And in that sense, it is quite "raced" as an object strongly associated with the markers of that self-same Koreanness.
Put more simply, hanbok is associated with "Korean" faces, Korean bodies and is a marker of many other things Korean. It is the thing, based on the bodies generally seen to inhabit it or seen as OK to inhabit it that help define what and who the proper Korean body even is in the bigger picture.
This photography/fashion project is part of an attempt to question/interrupt both a) who gets to embody hanbok, and b) what hanbok even is. Put even more simply, it's a visual/aesthetic remix of hanbok and all it denotes.
|Canadian model Sarah Shusan, of Libyan descent, wears hanbok from the Golden Needle. Photo by Michael Hurt|
Of course, this isn't the first time a non-Korean has worn hanbok. And since hanbok has become a staple of tourism in a Korea awash with travelers brought by the Korean wave, it has become a staple of tourist selfie pics and has even risen to the level of near-cosplay at toured sights/sites in Korea.
|Hanbokking at Incheon International Airport. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Tourists from Hong Kong in hanbok. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Hanbokked Malaysian tourists at Seoul Fashion Week, April 2017. Photo by Michael Hurt|
For this project, however, it occurred to me to go as many skin tones and racial markers away from the Korean center as I could. In truth, this opportunity and idea fell into my lap.
In early February this year, I was contacted by a modeling agent who was looking for Seoul-based foreign photographers who could work with models and knew the fashion scene here. Although I generally have more than enough on my plate, I recognized the opportunity to connect up model Sarah with Kim Young Mi of the Golden Needle Hanbok, a hanbok designer I had just started working with and who designed the hanbok for and worked with Han Hyeon-min, a Korean of African descent who has gained quite a bit of fame of late.
So, my initial idea was to introduce the designer to a female version of him, since to "flip" the idea of hanbok's meaning one has to do it with a female model, as the very idea of hanbok-as-cultural-symbol is itself so heavily gendered in the first place. Hanbok as a cultural symbol is a female hanbok, and has been for a long time, across both Koreas. Flipping that with a differently raced body of African descent seemed like the starkest way to do this, and the tall, modelesque body of an actual non-Korean fashion model standing at 175 cm far above the average height of most Korean women seemed an apropos way to start.
|The picture speaks for itself: The model's skin tone picks up the gold and dark red in ways quite different from the milky, pale skin generally draped in hanbok. Photo by Michael Hurt|
This is just the beginning of the project. I'm experimenting with models of different skin tones and looks, with an emphasis on pro or experienced models. I am also working a lot with modern hanbok, as they are themselves retakes on the accepted, older hanbok of tradition. Putting all this together different races, faces and places, modern and traditional has yielded some promising and pleasing results.
|Swedish model Miranda Alvenkrona in a modern hanbok style by Heo Sarang Hanbok in an old kind of place, a dabang. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Miranda, a face of a different race in an unusual place, in a Heo Sarang Hanbok hanbok. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Miranda changes the 1970s with the help of a beauty dish mounted on the flash and the "Pop" Snapchat filter. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Model Keena Wilson brings a Heo Sarang Hanbok hanbok into the stratosphere with a high fashion feel. Photo by Michael Hurt|
How does it look so far? What looks work? What would you like to see? Male looks are coming soon, along with a couple more female models I think would make things even more interesting.
|Senagalese model Fama Ndiaye in a designer hanbok from the Jaraq Select shop in Itaewon. Photo by Michael Hurt|
And finally, a last word about traditionally proper hanbok versus the tourist hanboks that have evolved randomly non-hanbokky features such as strange fabrics that look like living room drapes, large hoops to give the hanbok ballroom gown-style volume they were never supposed to have, or bows in the back of the dress.
|Jihye models a rental hanbok gone wrong, with a bow in the back. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|The hoops inside give the dress a ridiculous, constant volume. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Ah-hyeong wears a Golden Needle hanbok that drapes properly while also naturally billowing out with the wind. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Ah-hyeong demonstrates how a hanbok should move when walking. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|Ah-hyeong in the '70s. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|There's a slightly different drape on Keena, a Western model with a modern hanbok/dress and possessed of a different skin color and attitude as part of her aesthetic, and who stands nearly a foot taller with a modeling style rooted in Western-style runway and print editorial modeling. Photo by Michael Hurt|
|A totally different feel, but still hanbok. Photo by Michael Hurt|
EDITORIAL MODELS (in order of appearance):
Kang Ah-Hyeong - Instagram @bro0206
Sarah Shusan - Instagram @queenoffuckingeverything
Miranda Alvenkrona - Instagram @mieandaaa
Keena Wilson - Instagram @keenapilar
Fama Ndiaye - Instagram @Famaworldmusic
Jeong Jihye - Instagram @geejiiii
HANBOK DESIGNERS (in order of appearance):
Golden Needle (황금바늘) Hanbok (formal, traditional hanboks on Ah-hyeong and Sarah)
Heo Sarang (허사랑 한복) Hanbok (modern hanboks on Miranda and Keena)
Jaraq Select (자락 셀렉트) Shop (haute couture hanbok on Fama)
ASSISTANCE AND FIXING
Dr. Michael Hurt (@kuraeji on Instagram) is a photographer and professor living in Seoul. He received his doctorate from UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies and started Korea's first street fashion blog in 2006. He explores gender and fashion at The Girl Act (Instagram @girlact_official) and also writes on Visual Sociology and Cultural Studies at Deconstructing Korea.