Since the early 1900’s, the concept of beauty has been changing quite drastically in Korea. Looking back at Korean historical dramas you will see that round, long faces – often with a centre part in their hair – tended to be the norm. For many centuries, thick glossy hair, fair skin, thin eyebrows (in the shape of a willow leaf) and small lips were the symbols of beauty. Makeup was often homemade from spices and plants and used minimally to enhance features. It was only acceptable for entertainment ladies to wear white powder or colourful cosmetics. Since the time of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1919), which was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, a simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified behaviour and humble manners, were considered the embodiment of beauty and elegance. Simple and light makeup was preferred as this embodied the Confucians standards.
During the Chosun period, aristocratic women began using a mixture of flower ashes, indigo plants and gold powder for their eyebrows. Makeup made of saffron flowers and cinnabar (mercury sulphide), was used to enhance their cheeks and lips. A pale skin colour was preferred so aristocratic women of the time used light-peach coloured makeup. However, they avoided using white powder for their face as this was associated with the lowly Kisaeng – or women entertainers – who were trained in the art of music, dance, and poetry. To make their hair shiny, upper class women applied peony flower oil.
The common people of Chosun were not to be left out as they also enhanced their features with colour, but with less expensive cosmetics. To highlight their eyebrows, they used a piece of charcoal and for the lips, they used dried red pepper (spicy kisses!)
These ancient, natural makeup recipes were prepared in small batches according to what women needed per application. Cosmetic ingredients were stored in small containers with narrow openings to prevent contamination and spoilage, ready for use the next time.
The traditional clothing of Korea is called ‘Hanbok,’ and it represents one of the most visible aspects of Korean culture. Since before the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty, traditional Korean clothing was the norm and only very wealthy women would occasionally wear western clothing.
Traditional women’s clothing has two main items; a blouse-like, short jacket with long sleeves called a ‘Jeogori’, and a big puffy skirt, fastened just below the bust, called a ‘Chima.’ Commoners usually wore white, except during festivals and special occasions, such as weddings. However, clothes for the upper classes were made of bright colours and indicated the wearer’s social status. Various accessories such as footwear, headdresses, ornate pendants, and hair pins would complete an outfit.
Daeng’gi Meori is one of the most classic hairdos, easily seen all the way into the 1960’s. Long hair was parted down the middle then braided into a single, long braid accented with a bright-coloured ribbon at the end. Only unmarried women wore daeng’gi meori.
Another traditional up-style is the Jjokjin Meori which is probably the most classic Korean hairdo as it can still be seen to this day. This style was originally for married women, formed by first parting and holding down the front part of the hair and then tying the hair into a bun at the back of the neck then fastened with a large hairpin. It can be simple or orante with the addition of braids or plaits.