Women in Late Joseon Korea – Fashion and Marriage

This is the final post in my series on Korean women in the Joseon era. I excerpted from Louise Jordan Miln’s book Quaint Korea, published in 1895, in my previous posts, Women in Late Joseon Korea and The Kisaeng.

However, I noticed Miln’s wedding information is eerily similar to the description in History of Corea by John Ross, published in 1879. So I’ve excerpted some passages from History of Corea as well.

As I noted in my previous posts on the subject, the information presented here may not be entirely accurate. I welcome any polite corrections or additional information. I really struggled to find images for this series. Most of the photos in this post were taken a few years after the Joseon era.

Let’s first excerpt from Quaint Korea.

https://www.loc.gov/item/2004707992/

[Korean women] wear petticoats made very much in Western fashion, but stiffly starched into crinoline-like ungracefulness. The women of the poorer classes wear these skirts above their ankles. The women of wealth or of rank wear skirts touching the ground.

young woman
Souvenir de
Séoul, Corée : 1900. Courant, Maurice

They wear a jacket or belt shaped very much like, and answering the purpose of, a corset, and a shorter jacket which is at best but an inadequate neckerchief. And under their petticoat they wear three pairs of wide trousers.

Except among the very poorest class, respectable Korean women muffle themselves in a garment like a dress or great-coat whenever they go abroad.

John Ross writes in History of Corea, “They must never be seen by any man, except their husband; hence, when they go to the street, as they do freely, they throw over them a long robe, which they pull over the head and face, leaving only the smallest space open before the eyes, necessary to see their way; and their eyes always look to the ground. They must never be seen by any man, except their husband; hence, when they go to the street, as they do freely, they throw over them a long robe, which they pull over the head and face, leaving only the smallest space open before the eyes, necessary to see their way; and their eyes always look to the ground.”

Korean women muffle themselves in a garment like a dress or great-coat whenever they go abroad.
https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666557/
Korean women muffle themselves in a garment like a dress or great-coat whenever they go abroad.
From The Passing of Korea by Homer Bezaleel Hulbert
Doubleday, Page, 1906 

The women of Korea’s poor almost invariably wear the same colour as do the men of the same class: a blue so pale, so indefinite, and, from a short distance, so imperceptible, that it has generally been called white. … Korean women of position wear almost every conceivable colour. In China, pink and green are set aside for women, and are sacred to their wearing. I do not think that the women of Korea have the sole right to wear any colour, but they certainly have the right to wear, and the habit of wearing, almost every conceivable colour. Purples and greens are their high favourites, and green is almost invariably the hue—and a bright, deep green at that—of the generously-sleeved dress which the middle-class Korean woman (or on rare occasions, a lady) throws about her head and shoulders when she walks abroad. This green dress, which is used as a cloak, is almost exclusively the garment of the women of the middle class—the women who are not so poor that they are obliged to draw water, or to engage in any other forms of hard labour which would make the covering of their faces impossible—but who, at the same time, are occasionally obliged to go abroad on some matter of household business.

Susanna’s Note: I love the colorful clothes in Rookie Historian.

Wives and concubines and daughters of mandarins and of men of wealth do not often leave their own (by courtesy) house and gardens. When they do, they go in palanquins. They enter the palanquin in their own court-yard; the blinds or curtains are tightly closed. The chair is borne away on the shoulders … and is usually followed by one or more female servants or waiting women, who run closely behind it, looking on the ground, and carrying a fan, which indicates the rank of the palanquined mistress.

Woman in palanquin
https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666541/
Woman in palanquin
 https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666466/

In some parts of Korea, among some classes of the poor, the women wear a very short white jacket which barely covers the upper part of the bosom.

Korean women washing in a river
https://www.loc.gov/item/2001705582/

The dress of a Korean lady is as elaborate as the dress of a Korean working-woman is plain. The example of simplicity set by Queen Min is followed by almost none of the Korean women who can afford to do otherwise. The wardrobe of a Korean lady contains garments of silk, surprising in quantity, and covetable in quality, but satins are unknown, and the glimmer and glitter … must be made alone by the lustre of silk, and enhanced by as much tinsel, as many jewels and ornaments as the wearer can possibly afford.

***

[Cosmetics] are greatly used all over [Asia]. But in two particulars there is less to be said against the face-painting of Eastern women than there is to be said against the face-painting of the women of the West. In Asia, hair-oil, rouge, powder, kohl for the eyes and eyebrows, and brilliant pigments for the lips, are put on frankly, and are as avowedly, and as sincerely, a seemly and decent adornment, and as much an item of being “dressed up,” as is a silken petticoat or a jewelled necklet.

***

[The Korean woman] lays on the thick layers of brilliant red and ghastly white as devoutly and as dutifully as she says her prayers. The other good word I have to say for the cosmetics of [Korea] is this—they are infinitely less harmful than the cosmetics we are wont to use in Europe. I know that. For, on the stage I have tried both very thoroughly.

***

A well-to-do Korean woman usually has a very interesting collection of hair-pins. They are long, heavily ornamented, made of silver, of gold, or of copper; more usually of silver. Some of them are very beautiful, and some that I have seen reminded me very much of the long silver pins that are thrust through the braids of Italian peasant women.

hair pin

The well-to-do women, especially in the capital, now very generally wear European under-clothing. They invariably wear a pouch which is fastened by cords to their girdle. This is their pocket, the only pocket they have, except their sleeves, and in it they carry a tiger’s claw for luck, a small cushion of sachet, or a bottle of thick, rich perfume, some of their favourite pieces of jewellery, scissors usually, or a knife, two or three of their most frequently used toilet implements, and almost invariably a small Korean chess-board and chess-men. The board and the pieces are often made of silver or even of gold. Chess is, perhaps, the most popular of all Korea’s many games, and the Korean women of the leisure class play it incessantly. The pocket also contains, more likely than not, the official book of female politeness; a book which every Korean lady studies assiduously. But whatever this pocket contains or does not contain, it must by no means be without several charms, charms for good luck, charms for health, charms for wealth, and for any or every other good desirable under the Korean sun. Of its charms the most valuable is the tiger’s claw … The tiger is probably the most dreaded foe of the Koreans.

Korean brother and 2 sisters
Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001705586/

The hands of a Korean lady are always exquisitely kept, and usually loaded with rings, often with rings of very great value.

***

Among some classes of Korean women the dressing of their hair is the most important item of their toilet, and one skilled in ways Korean, and in signs of Korean rank, can very readily determine, from a glance at her coiffure, who and what a Korean woman is. The ladies of the court wear their hair in different prescribed ways. The geisha girls have an artistic fashion of their own, and a Korean woman servant, one part of whose duty is to fetch and to carry, makes out of the braids of her own hair an enormous cushion upon which she can carry with the greatest security a huge bundle, or a vast dish of food.

Korean hair dressing
British Library digitised image from page 197 of “Corea, the hermit nation. I. Ancient and mediæval history. II. Political and social Corea. III. Modern and recent history”

The men of no other race are so amply dowered with hats as are the men of Korea. Probably the women of no other civilized country are so badly off for head-gear as are the women of Chosön… The only hat the Korean women wear now is the folded dress which I have described before. There is indeed a jaunty, little embroidered cap not unlike a modified Turkish fez, or the glorious capote of a French vivandière.

Korean women's hats
Every-day Life in Korea: A Collection of Studies and Stories, by Daniel L. Gifford
Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898

The following description of a Joseon era wedding is excerpted from History of Corea by John Ross.

Ordinarily, the father of young hopeful begins the preparations for marriage ; but the father of a girl may look out a husband for her at pleasure. Fathers and mothers are even, if possible, more absolute than in China. The father makes enquiries as to who, of all his acquaintances, possesses a daughter eligible in years, appearance, character, and position. Having ascertained, he consults with his wife, who gets on her long robe, pulls it over her face, and starts for the house of the young lady. If the interview does not satisfy the old lady, the process is repeated. When a good match is met with, a mutual friend of the two parental parties is engaged to perform the task of sounding the girl’s parents, who may stop all further advances at once; or the father of the girl may, in his turn, visit the house of the aspirant, and have an unofficial interview with the young man, in the same manner as his daughter was visited before. When both parties are agreeable, formal negotiations are opened by the father of the young man writing a long red-paper letter to his friend ; first giving his own name and address, then asking carefully about his friend’s health, &c., and expressing the warmest wishes for his welfare ; and last of all, like some postscripts, be mentions that he has one, two, or three sons, as the case may be; that number one is unmarried, and of marriageable age; that after careful enquiry among his many friends, he has discovered that his friend has a marriageable daughter, &c., &c. This letter is written in presence of the middle man, to whom it is handed for delivery to the girl’s father. There is, however, no engagement on either side, and either may draw back, until the girl’s father replies in an equally formal manner, accepting the proposal for his daughter, after which acceptation the young people are virtually married; for, if before the final consummation of marriage the young man dies, the girl is a widow, and acts as such, never marrying except with disgrace. It is a queer custom, and a most unequal and unjust one; for if the woman dies, the youth can marry when he chooses.

Susanna’s note: The plot of the K-drama Bossam – Steal The Fate is centered around a woman whose fiancé dies, and she cannot marry again.

An auspicious day is discovered by horology, on which the bridegroom sends presents of female clothing, and of materials for a “man’s” clothing, to the bride, including stuff for the long outer, wider, manly robe, which he assumes on his marriage-day for the first time in his life. After these are sent, the bridegroom is permitted to tie up his hair in a knot on the crown of his head, in old Chinese style; his uncut hair having been previously plaited in a queue similar to the present Chinese or Manchu fashion. The Corean never cuts off any of his hair and never shaves. There is, however, on the middle of the crown of his head a little spot, which could be covered with a sixpence, which was burnt on the occasion of his first childish illness; and that spot is made a little larger when the knot is tied, as the accumulation of hair on the top of his head makes the head uncomfortably hot, and causes sore eyes. And the bridegroom having become a man, now goes round to pay his humble respects to all the relations and friends of his father. On the night of the day on which the bridegroom sent his presents, the friends of his father collect at his house, sit up all night, and eat, drink, and make merry.

Korean bride and groom meet
https://www.loc.gov/item/89706272/

As Corea is an extremely poor country, there are many who cannot afford to get wives for their sons, and there are many men who grow up bachelors of a respectable age … The male human being who is unmarried is never called a “man,” whatever his age, but goes by the name of “yatow”; a name given by the Chinese to unmarriageble young girls: and the “man” of thirteen or fourteen has perfect right to strike, abuse, order about the “yatow” of thirty, who dares not as much as open his lips to complain.

Korean married couple
https://www.loc.gov/item/2003665580/

Another auspicious day, perhaps the third after present-day, is found for “diang gaighanda”—the marriage. On the night before the marriage, the bride sends back her husband’s garments made by herself, being her first wifely duty done. An auspicious hour is fixed for the departure of the bridegroom and his party from his own house to that of the bride. In front of the procession is a servant on horseback, carrying a life-size likeness of a wild goose, covered by red cotton cloth, which he holds with both hands. Then follows the bridegroom, also on horseback; his groom riding after him, all his other servants following on horseback. The bridegroom’s father brings up the rear, with his servants behind, all riding,–the number of horses and amount of display being bounded only by the purse of the parties, but in all cases implying great expense.

Arrived at the house, the wild goose man first dismounts, enters and places the wild goose on the top of a huge bowl of rice, and then retires. The father then dismounts outside the main gate, and the bridegroom last of all. Etiquette demands that all the company should stand facing the east, in which position they doff their grand official hats, richly embroidered outer robes, and boots, worn by permission on this day by plebeian as by my lord. In their ordinary apparel, they are now led into the house by the bride’s father, who has come out to welcome them, the bridegroom advancing first of all. No sooner are they comfortably seated, thạn a scene of the greatest confusion and uproarious mirth takes place. The bridegroom is a scholar, and has been accompanied by all his fellow-scholars, who now suddenly dash on him in a body, and carry him off in spite of all striving and remonstrance on his part. They hold him a prisoner till his father-in-law redeems him with a handsome bribe, on which they hand him over, and depart to make merry with their plunder.

The bridegroom’s party is then regaled with food, after partaking of which they all depart, each of the servants with a little present of money, leaving the bridegroom alone to pay his respects to the ancestral tablet of his bride. And in the evening he is introduced into the bride’s chamber, which is decked out with flowers, two bowls of rice on the kang, in each of which is stuck a yellow candlestick and a burning candle. There he remains alone, till the bride is by and by escorted by her mother and female relations in the house, and the married people see each other for the first time. They are at once left alone and the door closed. On the next day the bride divides the one queue, in which her hair had been hitherto done up, into two; each containing half her hair, and plaited back on the crown of the head, one on each side, towards the forehead, in which fashion she wears it ever after. On the third day, the young couple may return to the bridegroom’s father’s house ; but if not then, a whole year must pass ere they go thither, many allowing two years. When they do arrive at the young husband’s house, they both worship his ancestral tablet.

At marriage, a red paper with written characters is handed them, which is afterwards cut in two,—each retaining half; for in case of future trouble, the husband cannot marry again, if he has not the half showing him independent; for many married people separate in Corea, from “incompatibility of temper,” or other reasons; nor need we wonder at the fact. The separated husband, with his half of this red paper, can easily obtain another wife, but not without; while she is supposed never again to marry.

One of the lower class informed me that the youth went to the father-in-law’s house, a month before marriage, and saw the girl. That if both, or either, were dissatisfied, they could break the match, by persistent opposition, in spite of parental chastisement (!) which is likely enough; for mutual choice was the ancient custom of the country.

Woman in palanquin
https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666523/

2 Replies to “Women in Late Joseon Korea – Fashion and Marriage”

  1. Gosh, yes! I made this series to kinda make sense of the historical K-Dramas I had been watching.

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