It is quite common on Halloween to see Japanese, Chinese, or sometimes even vaguely labelled Oriental costumes. These outfits often comprise of cheap satin-like material with oriental symbols, animals and plants for details. Sometimes it is adorned with chop stick hair accessories, or a rice patty hat. Despite growing fondness of Korean pop culture in the West, the Korean traditional dress called Hanbok is not widely known, and is not commonly worn as Halloween attire. The story is slightly different in East Asia. Is it socially acceptable to wear the Hanbok on Halloween, or is it as offensive as the Oriental fancy dress?
Native Koreans do not think that Westerners wearing a Hanbok is offensive. In fact, anyone wearing the Hanbok is seen as an opportunity to let others know about Korean culture. As Westerners wear the traditional dress with respect, most people do not think that wearing it is racist or patronising. Even native Koreans are open to wearing the Hanbok on Halloween. While they are aware that it is traditional, they see no harm in wearing their own culturally symbolic dress for parties. Others simply view the Hanbok as fancy-dress anyway, as hurried modernity has left traditional Korea with diminished relevance.
These views could change if the Hanbok is adapted and taken out of context like the Japanese Kimono and the Chinese Cheongsam, which have been sexualised by Western Halloween. The intention of wearing the Hanbok is important. If a traditional dress is remade in a way which oversimplifies a selection of demeaning traits it could disturb natives. Although Halloween costumes do have a tendency to sexualise everything, from food to animals, many ethnic minorities who have a history of being dehumanised and misrepresented, take these costumes as an offense.
Costumes which celebrate and parody Korea are growing in Korea. The common attire of a Korean middle aged woman, ‘Ajumma’ was mimicked by Westerners. Some people expressed dissatisfaction with the insensitive costume, saying that it is mocking Korean women. Others viewed it as a fun and affectionate portrayal. While dressing as a niche group in Korean culture may seem like a minor offense, it could be a stepping stone to more costumes which reinforce a stereotype.
The Hanbok can be worn on Halloween, but one must be concious of the way that the clothes are being presented. Dressing up as an ethnicity to mock is definitely not acceptable, even if it is to be a joke for one day. Growing awareness of cultural appropriation in the West is making the fine line between comic ethnic costuming and racism clearer. The Hanbok is a beautiful and colourful dress, but it is also symbolic of history and tradition for Koreans. To diminish the risk of being offensive at all, there are plenty of other Halloween costumes to choose from.
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