Updated January 2021
We recently attended a very special wedding in South Korea where our son married his beautiful Korean bride. As the mother of the groom, what an honour it was to wear the traditional Korean hanbok – the national dress of Korea – during the wedding ceremony, alongside the mother of the bride.
Since that wonderful day, I’ve received lots of messages from many other mothers all over the world whose sons are also marrying a Korean bride in South Korea.
I’ve been asked about my own experience of wearing the traditional Korean Hanbok at a Korean wedding.
I’ve also been asked if, as a wedding guest, you are expected to wear the traditional wedding hanbok.
I’ve also answered anxious questions about where to buy a hanbok and if it’s best to buy a custom made hanbok or to rent a hanbok for the wedding day.
Throughout this post, I’ll describe to you exactly what you might expect of a Korean wedding, based on my own experiences of preparing for and attending my son’s wedding, in the city of Daegu South Korea.
I’ll also explain to you about the wedding traditions and rituals you might also experience on the day.
First of all, you should also know that as a guest at a Korean wedding it’s not compulsory to wear the traditional Korean Hanbok wedding dress.
But, as a close relative to the bride and groom, it is probably expected.
And, given this is a rare and special opportunity and because it is such great honour to wear the hanbok, I’m sure most women will want to immerse themselves in the Korean culture and wear a beautiful and ancient Korean hanbok at a special wedding in South Korea.
Male relatives of the bride and groom will normally wear a formal Western-style tailored suit.
What is a Hanbok?
“I wore the hanbok with its bloomer style underpants, a net underskirt, traditional socks and shoes and a matching handbag. The voluminous dress (the chima) was topped with a neatly fitted jacket (the jeogori) which was decorated with ornamental pins and accessories.”
A hanbok is the traditional Confucian inspired style of dress of the Korean people.
The hanbok was worn daily until about a hundred years ago but it is now considered to be an icon and normally only worn on special occasions.
Although, South Korea did introduce October 21st as ‘hanbok day’ in 1996, in order to try and encourage hanbok wearing.
The history of the hanbok goes back to the Goguryeo Kingdom (37BCE – 668CE).
Hanboks are colourful garments and the colours of a wedding hanbok traditionally incorporate the five elements of Yin and Yang.
These colours are white (metal) red (fire) blue (wood) black (water) and yellow (earth).
The hanbok has an angular design to the jacket (the jeogori) and flowing lines to the pants (baji) and the skirt (the chima).
The hanbok has remained relatively unchanged to this day.
Traditionally, the Mother of the Groom wears a blue hanbok.
The Mother of the Bride will typically wear a pink, red, or purple hanbok.
The Bride might actually wear three or more different styles of dress on her wedding day: The traditional Korean Hanbok wedding dress to greet her guests. The white Western-style wedding dress for the actual wedding ceremony: and then a quick change into a traditional Joseon Dynasty gown for the Pyebaek Ceremony (Traditional Tea Ceremony) afterwards.
In South Korea, hanboks and other ceremonial robes, can be custom made to measure or they can be rented by the hour or by the day.
I had my hanbok made to measure because I was in South Korea visiting our son six months before his wedding.
Custom made hanboks: If you are not in Korea to be professionally measured and you want to have your own hanbok specially made for you then don’t despair.
It’s possible to order your hanbok online and to either have it sent out to you or for you to collect when you arrive in the country for the wedding.
Hiring your hanbok: Your new Korean family-to-be can help you locate a rental place but I would highly recommend you take your measurements accurately and make your reservation online and ahead of time.
Don’t forget to take some ID with you when you collect your hanbok.
I will admit, that at the time I went shopping for own traditional Korean Hanbok wedding dress with my daughter-in-law-to be and her mother and sister, I was unaware of the significance and importance of the Yin and Yang colours as I wandered around the store perusing all the vibrant silks and colours on offer.
“I was completely unaware of the significance of traditional colour for the Mother of the Groom hanbok and what must have been intense relief on the delighted faces of my Korean family-to-be – when by pure chance – I happened to choose blue, the colour of my eyes for my hanbok!”
“Whether you choose to have your hanbok made to measure or to hire one then you’ll need to have your measurements to hand. Do ask someone to help you take accurate measurements in centimetres.”
8 STEPS TO MEASURE YOURSELF FOR A HANBOK
1. Upper Chest: raise your arms and measure around your chest with the tape ticked under your armpits and across the widest part of your back.
2. Chest: measure around your chest at the fullest part of your bust.
3. Arm length: stand with your arms down straight and measure the outside length of your arm from the tip of your shoulder to 2.5cm below your wrist.
4. Armhole: standing as above in #3 measure the circle of your armpit area.
5. Upper Arm: measure the circumference at the widest part of your arm between your elbow and shoulder.
6. Neck measurement: take the circumference measurement halfway up on your neck (around the voice box area).
7. Waist: use the tape to circle and measure around your natural waist.
8. Total length: measure from the nape of your neck down your back to your heel.
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Traditionally, Korean couples would marry at the bride’s home and the ceremonies and rites and celebrations would be held over several days often at great expense.
Today’s modern Korean wedding ceremonies are fast and efficiently dispatched in just a couple of hours and are frequently held in designated specially designed ‘wedding halls’.
These wedding halls take care of everything in a wedding package deal. Everything is managed ‘in-house’ for a fixed fee that includes everything you can think of and that often includes the hiring of the bride’s wedding gowns (many choose to have one dress for the ceremony and two more for later in the day. Make-up and hairdressing for the bridal party (both men and women) is also all on site, together with the services of a wedding planner, officiants and celebrants, MC’s, musicians, florists, photographers, table linens, top chefs, and an army of catering staff.
Wedding Hall’s efficiently process many weddings per day and simultaneously.
The wedding hall offers each wedding party access to private wedding rooms for a period of time only meaning that as one bride leaves the area then another will arrive.
As guests arrive, the groom and his groomsmen will greet his guests in the lobby, while a private pre-wedding greeting room is provided for the bride to sit with her entourage and where she can chat easily with guests and have photographs taken.
When the allotted time of the wedding is imminent, a large private function room with guest seating set around a central stage and a raised ‘aisle’ is made available.
Guests are then directed to their seats by smartly uniformed staff wearing head-microphones and an MC on a microphone sings and tells raucous jokes until everyone is in their designated place and the marital formalities can and bowing ceremonies can begin.
The Gyobaerye Ceremony
The Gyobaerye ceremony is also known as The Bowing Ceremony and bowing is a sign of deep respect in Korea.
In preparation for my son’s wedding, I was kindly offered ‘bowing practice’ by our Korean wedding planner.
I was very grateful for this advance instruction (to bow at 45 degrees from the waist and not just nod the head) because to start the wedding ceremony, I would be asked to walk along the raised aisle proudly wearing my beautiful hanbok, while carrying a candle alongside the mother of the bride.
Just like the red and blue clothing, the bride’s mother carries a red candle and the groom’s mother carries a blue candle.
On reaching the wedding stage together, we would turn and bow slowly and simultaneously, to show our respect to the congregation of both families and friends.
A Traditional Korean Wedding
Traditionally, back when Korean marriages were arranged by families, the bowing ceremony often marked the first time the bride and groom saw each other – at their wedding – when the groom walked to the east side of the wedding table and the bride walked to the west end to face each other.
Helpers would assist to wash the hands of the bride and groom before the bride bowed twice to the groom and he bowed back to her once. This bowing to each other was repeated two more times before they knelt facing each other for the commencement of the wedding ceremony.
The bowing showed not only their respect but also their commitment to each other.
In today’s modern Korea, people bow to each other rather than shaking hands but in the modern wedding ceremony, the soon-to-be-married couple will still stop and bow to each other respectfully in the traditional way when they come together at the wedding altar for the formal ceremony.
The formal ceremony was, in our case, conducted in the Korean language also called Hangul (한국말) and during this time there was lots of bowing to show respect. Our son, who teaches English and has lived in Korea for over six years now, said his marriage vows in the Korean language.
The traditional Korean wedding ceremony is known as ‘The Great Ritual’ and it involves ancient Korean customs and meticulously conducted ceremonies BEFORE and DURING and AFTER the wedding in order to show respect to each family.
“A Korean wedding is not just about the joining of two people: it is about the joining of two families.”
BEFORE THE WEDDING
The Jeonanrye Ceremony
This is an important and ancient Korean ritual in which the groom must bow twice and present his future in-laws with a kireogi or wild goose or duck.
The kireogi offering was to show his love and commitment to their daughter.
In these modern times, the groom can offer a wooden goose or duck!
The romantic reason behind this tradition is because geese and ducks mate for life in the wild and, even if one of them dies, the other will not seek a new partner for the rest of his or her life. So, this traditional act, becomes a symbol of his lifelong promise to love and care for their daughter.
In Korean culture, the kireogialso symbolise the virtues of respect and harmony and the leaving of a great legacy. As wild geese and ducks will fly together in a ‘V’ formation in the sky, this demonstrates their understanding of their order and position in the formation according to hierarchy, it this is seen as both reverent and respectful.
DURING THE WEDDING
The Traditional Chicken Ceremony.
Yes, you read that correctly. As well as the geese and ducks, chickens play a big and important part in Traditional Korean Wedding Customs. A male and female chicken (one wrapped in a blue silk cloth and the other in a red one to represent the natural powers and duality of Yin and Yang in traditional Confucius teachings) sit either on or under the wedding table.
The male chicken typically starts a new day by crowing and this signifies the warding off of evil spirits and a bright fresh start in life, just like the marriage should be between the bride and the groom.
The female chicken is chosen because she makes many eggs. This represents the new bride’s fertility and the blessing of producing many children.
“Again, in these modern times, the chickens can be wooden ones as it’s the natural symbolism that is important here!”
THE WEDDING GIFT WHITE ENVELOPE
In the West, a bride and groom often solve the problem of receiving duplicate or unwanted wedding gifts by organising a ‘wedding list’ with a store that guests can access in person or online to choose an item at a price they can afford to gift the newlyweds.
In Korea, they have simplified the wedding gifting dilemma even further by making it acceptable and entirely preferable to gift the couple with a sum of money in cash.
It’s not compulsory. But it is usual for friends and guest to offer the couple at least a nominal sum (30,000 won or around £15) if only to cover their own meal after the wedding. Close relatives are expected to offer the couple a lot more as a reflection of their own high standing and their high regard for the newly married family member.
“The money is sealed into a white envelope with the giver’s name written on the back.“
Therefore, the first thing you should do as a wedding guest is to find the couple’s cash desk and hand over your envelope. In return, you will be given a voucher to redeem your buffet meal from the dining hall and you can join the other guests watching the wedding and take part in the photographs.
You should be aware that your gift of money may go directly and entirely towards settling the cost of the invoice for the wedding hall rather than to the newlyweds themselves. This is often how weddings are funded in Korea.
AFTER THE WEDDING
Family members and guests are managed into a group for formal photos and then invited from the function room into a central communal self-service dining hall for an ‘international’ buffet-style wedding meal. The choice of food is of a high standard and is plentiful with wine and beer and soft drinks available on tap.
Only brides and grooms and immediate family members are offered a reserved table.
Other wedding guests will take unassigned seating and often find themselves sitting among strangers and guests from many other weddings. As a westerner, I found this ‘total package wedding deal’ to be strange but astonishingly slick and super-convenient for all concerned.
“It certainly provides for a stress-less and problem-free wedding day.“
The Pyebaek Ceremony
(Traditional Wedding Tea Ceremony)
Following the wedding ceremony, our son and his bride took some time to change out of their western style wedding clothes into their special and traditional Joseon Ceremonial Dynasty clothing reserved for the short Korean ceremony called The Pyebaek, which is for family members only.
The bride and groom bow and serve tea to the parents who are seated opposite them behind a low table that is stocked with traditional and symbolic wedding foods such as chestnuts, dates, and fruits.
During this tea ceremony, the parents bless the newlywed couple. Afterwards, there will be an entertaining round of throwing chestnuts and dates at the bride and groom that they try and catch in a cloth which will predict how many children the couple will have – dates for girls and chestnuts for boys!
With the formalities over, there was singing, a fabulous meal, and an after-party at the family home during which our son had his feet beaten in a strange traditional Korean apres-wedding ritual!
The Traditional Groom’s Feet-Beating Ceremony
With all the wedding formalities over, family and friends of the newly-weds, all retired back to the bride’s parents home where there was singing, another fabulous meal, and an after-party during which our son was involved in a very strange and traditional Korean apres-wedding ritual!
Beating the groom’s feet! His groomsmen and family members took great delight in binding his ankles with rope and removing his socks so they could take it in turns to beat his feet with a stick!
Traditionally, the beating of feet ritual is meant as a test of the newly wedded husband’s strength and character and it used to be done with a dried fish!
I have to say this was all done with great amusement and laughter (including our son’s) and the beaters are rewarded with a drink by the bride’s mother!
Have you ever worn a traditional costume to a wedding?
Have you ever encountered a strange wedding ritual?
Are you planning to attend a wedding in South Korea?
Have you ever been to a wedding in South Korea?