The Hanbok Color Code: What Do the Different Colors of Hanbok Mean?

woman wearing a korean hanbok

Did you know that different hanbok colors have different meanings? In fashion, every color tells a story about the person wearing it. With hanbok, there’s a specific color code that’s based on the five traditional yin-yang elements. Honesty, passion, calm, wisdom, power; what message does your favorite shade of hanbok send?

The five color system includes white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Each hue represents a different element. White goes with metal, red represents fire, blue goes with wood, black expresses water, and yellow is tied to earth. Each of these elements has an emotional or spiritual meaning as well.

White (metal) suggests the same purity and honesty as the feel of a simple piece of silver held in the palm of your hand. A white hanbok suggests the wearer has nothing to hide and lives peacefully with a patriotic belief in what is good and right. In some periods of history, lower social classes who did not have access to expensive dyes wore white hanbok, but now that dyes are commonplace that tradition is fully reversed and it has become a sign of high status to be able to keep a purely white garment fully crisp and pristine.

Red (fire) represents passionate love and powerful wealth. The bold energy of this color feels courageous, confident, and passionate. If you’re looking at wearing a hanbok on your wedding day, red is a beautiful traditional choice. Brides, when getting married, often choose red hanbok because the color is said to bring luck to the marriage. Whether or not you believe it confers good fortune, there’s no denying that a bride wearing a bold red shade of hanbok has chosen to make the brave, committed clarity of her love unmistakable to everyone who witnesses the ceremony.

Blue (wood) shows the wearer to have constancy and reliable strength. It is the opposite of red’s flaming intensity, but also its equal in power. A bright blue is associated with the energy of new birth, while mothers have often worn darker blue or navy hanbok as a badge of honor to show they had carried children. Independent of family life, the calm and clear authority associated with blue in the five-color system made this a favored color for the coats of court officials who carried the responsibility of governing well.

Black (like its element water) has the depth and mystery of infinity with no clear edges. This has led to an association with wisdom and intelligence, and black hanbok are often favored by intellectuals and those who seek knowledge. A hanbok in this color can also represent both death and creation, symbolizing the cycle of life.

Yellow (earth) grabs the eye and calls out for attention. Traditionally, a light yellow colored hanbok was worn by unmarried women to signal that they were still available for marriage. Meanwhile a deeper yellow was favored by royalty of all genders. Why was it so prized? Because in the five-color system, the sunny brightness of a yellow hanbok represents the center of the world.

Modern designers and apparel stores like the Korean in Me, a Sacramento-based premium Hanbok boutique, make hanbok in every color from bright, lighthearted pink to sophisticated caramel and toffee shades. When one of these colors speaks to you, it’s unmistakable. Have you browsed a few photos and suddenly looked at one and felt “That’s my hanbok?” Maybe it’s because that color tells your story. What do you want your hanbok color code to say?

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