Of all Korean historical dramas, maybe the most spectacular ones are those set in Goryeo. Political power struggles, palace intrigues and fascinating characters aside, one other thing that makes these productions so appealing are undoubtedly the Goryeo costumes.
Goryeo fashion stands out not only because of the beautiful designs for both men and women’s clothes, but as a whole. From the hairstyles and down to the boots and shoes, the refinement of these outfits is only comparable to the Heian fashion that flourished in Japan (more or less) around the same period. Although radically different, both fashion styles are unique, due to an aestheticism that remained unparalleled in their respective countries’ histories.
Spanning from the 10th to the late 14th century and going through its share of historical struggles and turbulences, the Goryeo period also saw a remarkable cultural development, being considered “Korea’s Age of Enlightenment” (quoting Kumja Paik Kim, Curator of Korean Art at the Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, San Francisco). Regarding the clothing of the noble houses, what sets apart the Goryeo fashion from the Joseon one is that it gives the wearer an incredibly dignified bearing, an aura that is very difficult to match. Both women and men seem to have come straight from an Asian version of a fairy tale, and the display of such beautiful costumes must have been a visual feast.
According to Cho Hyo-sook, former president of The Korean Society of Costume, during the Three Kingdoms Period and up to the Goryeo Dynasty, silk fabrics such as brocade and gauze were extensively used. In order to figure out the fashion and fabrics of those times, a great help came from researching how women were depicted on paintings, tomb murals and clay figurines.
Also worth mentioning is that, “in a break from imitating Chinese textiles, mid-twelfth century weavers developed unique Korean sericulture. By 1200, Korean fabric merchants competed openly against Chinese dealers” (World Clothing and Fashion: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Social Influence, by Mary Ellen Snodgrass).
Along with the intricate patterns, usually inspired from the natural world (flowers, tree branches or geometric figures), that adorn both men’s and women’s apparel, jewelry and accessories were also present to give an extra polish to the overall attire.
In “Goryeo Dogyeong”, a illustrated book dating from 1223 about the Goryeo lifestyle, Seo Geung (a Chinese official of the Sung dynasty) mentions that “the aristocratic women of Goryeo dynasty… wrapped their waists with olive green sashes, from which they hung gold bells with colored ribbons and silk pouches filled with incense” (quoted in Norigae: Splendor of the Korean Costume, Volume 2, by Kyung Ja Lee).
The medium where this fabulous fashion is best conveyed is definitely the dramaland, and two perfect examples are Scarlet Heart Ryeo, and The King Loves. I have yet to see more beautiful dresses than in Scarlet Heart Ryeo. Both Hae Soo and Yeon Hwa surely know how to wear their outfits. The patterns, designs, and fabrics are exquisite, and, unlike the Western corseted dresses or the Japanese juuni-hitoe of (about) the same period and later, this kind of dress also seems very comfortable to wear.
Scarlet Heart also offers a good range of princes’ attires. Well, they all look pretty similar, but at least we can have a detailed image about how Goryeo’s princes used to dress like, since most men’s apparel that we see in this drama is royal.
As for men’s clothing of those times, the big prize for the most dashing, dazzling and elegant man of the entire Goryeo fandom and across all social standings, definitely goes to Wang Rin from The King Loves. I’d say he outshines not only all the other male characters from the same fandom, but even the most dazzling women of the noble households and royal houses, dressed in the most beautiful dresses.
I personally prefer Goryeo men’s attire, precisely because of that dignified bearing I was writing above. And I am also a huge fan of the Goryeo men’s hairstyle – I love how they wear it half in that pony tail secured with an accessory that can easily pass for a piece of jewelry, and with that headband.
My heart aches when I’m trying to watch Joseon dramas and see the male characters hiding their hair like that. Why?! And where did those glorious outfits disappear? Oh, Joseon Dynasty, what have you done to that gorgeous Goryeo male fashion? This is one reason why Joseon dramas are not exactly my cup of tea (the only outfit that I kind of like from the Joseon period is the military one). But I shall not digress…
The carefully matched chromatic of Rin’s costumes made me think of the Japanese juuni-hitoe and how attentively they chose the colors for them. I think this was the case here. Rin is of royal blood and he truly looks and acts like a royal. His clothes always seem to emphasize his beautiful character even more.
It’s easy to notice that a wide range of fabrics were used for his outfits, from silky and golden colored fabrics, to thick cottons in red and silver. Even in simple Soo In disguise clothes, he manages to look as royal as in his “official” attires. But I guess it’s just the awesomeness of the character (or essentially of Hong Jong Hyun).
Since I have a favorite outfit of Rin, the olive green and black one, I will dedicate a separate screenshot row just for this one. This color combination seems to be made especially for Rin. Or for Hong Jong Hyun. Same thing.
One reason I prefer The King Loves is that, due to the huge amount of skillfully done close-ups, we can see the attires in great detail. Fabrics, rich textures, graceful patterns, and even seams are beautifully highlighted and add to the overall visual effect of an already masterful cinematography.
The most visually striking Goryeo costumes are those of the aristocracy. However, even the guards’ and the commoners’ clothes have their own beauty. The way they are tailored and sewn seems to do the trick: the outfit seems to perfectly fit the wearer, to look good even if it’s just a dull apparel.
Strictly as a personal opinion, I think that, fashion-wise, Joseon was a bit of a downgrade. Though pretty, the Joseon hanbok lost the dazzling beauty of the Goryeo costumes. This is why the Goryeo dramas will always have that drop of magnificence that cannot be conveyed in other Korean historical shows.
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.