Welcome, dear reader, to our comprehensive guide on the history of Korean beauty, where we will take you on a journey through time to explore the secrets and traditions behind one of the most fascinating beauty cultures in the world. And no, we won’t bore you with generic and cliché introductions about how beauty standards have changed over time, and how everyone is beautiful in their own way.
The Silla Dynasty
The Silla Dynasty was heavily focused on the importance of beauty, which was driven by the young-yook-il-chi-sa-sang ideology. This concept proposed that a beautiful body contained a beautiful soul. Gold was commonly used to create accessories, and the people of Silla were infatuated with makeup, hair styling, and clothes to embellish themselves, leading some scholars to describe the era as flamboyant. The people of Silla also believed that lighter skin tones were prerequisites for good leadership.
Over time, the use of makeup became more prevalent, with people wearing heavier, more colorful makeup to reflect the vestimentary conventions of the era. Yeonji, a red makeup made of safflower, was the most sought after, while plucking eyebrows was also common. Bathing was a crucial part of everyday life, and people believed that a pure heart accompanied a clean body. Bathing facilities opened in larger cities, and the upper class even built their bathtubs at home. The women of Silla enjoyed having long hair and wore hair accessories that evolved into elaborate wigs or gachae, which were heavily accessorized.
Silla’s emphasis on beauty was further accentuated by key figures such as Misil, Queen Seondeok, and the Hwarang. Misil, the most beautiful woman in the history of Korea, was given the title Goongjoo, which meant “the owner of the palace.” Queen Seondeok was the first queen in the history of Korea and known for her beauty, along with her brilliance and wisdom. Lastly, the Hwarang were trained knights who wore elegant uniforms and hats decorated with beads in line with the ideology that a beautiful body contained a beautiful soul.
The Goryeo Dynasty and the Evolution of Korean Beauty
As part of the Leo Gala Series, which aims to celebrate Korean culture and its beauty beyond surface-level appearances, we will examine the shift in beauty standards during the Goryeo Dynasty.
During the Three Kingdom period (57 BCE – 668 CE), women’s beauty was primarily defined by their curvaceous bodies, which were thought to represent fertility, akin to Mother Earth. However, during the Goryeo Dynasty, the beauty ideals shifted towards elegance.
As beauty standards changed, makeup and embellishment methods evolved accordingly. Women from lower classes who worked in taverns often wore heavy and colorful makeup. This created a discriminatory stereotype, which led to women from the ruling class using lighter makeup to differentiate themselves. Upper-class women opted for thin layers of makeup, and people from the Goryeo Dynasty began to devote more time to taking care of their skin to achieve a clear complexion. The upper-class women mainly used peach-colored blush and safflower-based red makeup called yeonji on their lips. However, on special occasions, such as weddings, brides wore yeonji on their cheeks and foreheads, which was called gonji.
Formal portraits, such as Lady Hayeon’s, offer further insights into the beauty trends during the Goryeo Dynasty. Women were expected to have thick and arch-shaped eyebrows, drawn to match the diameter of their eyes. The same yeonji used on the cheeks, chin, and forehead was also applied to the lips to create a harmonious look. This type of makeup was also observed in portraits of the deceased, who were often drawn dressed in their finest attire.
Women in the Goryeo Dynasty enjoyed more independence than those in the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). They retained their surnames and economic independence, owned property, and all siblings received equal inheritance. Additionally, women were allowed to remarry after their husbands’ deaths and were entrusted with taking care of their aging parents. Men often moved into their wives’ homes, indicating aspects of a matrilocal society. Children shared equal responsibilities for rituals after their parents’ deaths. Although women were excluded from business affairs and governmental roles, they played active and independent roles within their households and had a voice in decision-making.
The pursuit of beauty standards and the status of women have evolved with time. Across the Silla Dynasty, it was believed that a beautiful soul resided within a beautiful body. In the Goryeo Dynasty, elegance was emphasized as a key aspect of beauty. Lighter makeup was preferred, and people invested more time in their skincare routines to achieve a clear complexion. Women enjoyed greater freedoms in the Goryeo Dynasty than in the Joseon Dynasty, which was influenced by Confucianism. While women were excluded from business affairs and governmental roles, they held an equal status to men within their households.
The next episode in the Korean Beauty series will offer a more nuanced analysis of the aesthetics and social status of women in the Joseon Dynasty.
During the Joseon Dynasty, ethics and morals were highly valued, especially filial piety, which was preached to and practiced by women of the family. Female members were expected to uphold their feminine dignity and sense of morality, resulting in educational programs and policies that inculcated such virtues. This common understanding of basic values was deeply ingrained in the public psyche. Women were encouraged to carry a silver pocket knife called eunjangdo, symbolizing their dedication to protecting their moral worth.
Elegance and neatness were highly valued in the Joseon Dynasty’s aesthetic sensibilities, with natural makeup and a calm personality being the most prized qualities for women. The three main criteria for feminine beauty were sambaek, samheuk, and samhong. Sambaek or “the three whites” highlighted the whiteness of the skin, teeth, and the whites of the eyes. Samheuk or “the three blacks” emphasized the need for charcoal-black pupils, eyebrows, and hair. Lastly, samhong or “the three reds” stressed the redness of the cheeks and lips as well as peachy fingernails. These three elements were directly applied to the embellishment of Joseon women, who wore yeonji, red makeup on their cheeks and lips, and idolized flawless skin, much like modern Korean society.
Jang Ok-jeong, also known as Hui-bin Jang, was a renowned beauty during the Joseon Dynasty and the only person recorded in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty for her beautiful features. She worked as a palace maid, and King Sukjong noticed her beauty in 1680 when she started serving him directly. Many feared that the king’s deep affection for Jang would impact the royal family. Her story is beloved among Korean period dramas, with several adaptations completed in both dramas and cinema over the years. It’s worth noting that the actresses who played the role of Jang Ok-jeong were deemed the most beautiful female stars of their generation.
The ideal lady image was reflected in the role of Joseon wives, whereby a woman’s reproductive health and family background were highly valued. A wife to the first-born son of the family had to be a well-nourished woman with a round face, white skin, no scars or blemishes, and preferably luscious hair.
Physicians and plastic surgeons in Korea conducted research that concluded that there were striking similarities between the famous Korean painting, Portrait of a Beauty, and the Buddha statues of the Joseon period. The most outstanding commonalities include the ratio of the forehead to face, the ratio of the width of the eye to the face, the ratio of the width to the height of the eye, and the ratio of philtrum to the width of the lips. This observation provides a glimpse of how the beauty standards of the time were grounded in the Joseon people’s reverence for the Buddha, among other things.
Meanwhile, the strict pursuit of femininity, as defined by the virtues, had a restrictive effect on women’s freedom. Neo-Confucianism became an organizing principle for governing the Joseon Dynasty, emphasizing the social fabric over personal choice. The growth of neo-Confucianism led to a more paternalistic society than the preceding Goryeo period. The cultural conventions of sexism were exacerbated to the point that the term namjonyeobi. However, the legacy of the Joseon Dynasty lives on, and its impact can still be seen in Korean beauty standards today.
In recent years, the popularity of K-beauty has exploded globally, with Korean skincare and makeup products becoming must-haves for beauty enthusiasts everywhere. The emphasis on achieving flawless, radiant skin, along with a natural, understated makeup look, can be traced back to the beauty standards of the Joseon Dynasty.
Moreover, the use of traditional ingredients such as ginseng, green tea, and rice in modern-day K-beauty products is a testament to the enduring influence of traditional Korean beauty practices. The focus on maintaining healthy skin through a gentle, holistic approach is deeply rooted in the Joseon Dynasty’s emphasis on inner beauty and self-care.
In conclusion, the Joseon Dynasty’s beauty standards were deeply intertwined with the virtues and ethics of its society. While its emphasis on feminine modesty and restraint may seem outdated in today’s world, its lasting impact on Korean beauty culture is undeniable. By understanding the historical context of Korean beauty, we can appreciate the rich heritage behind the products and practices that continue to captivate us today.
The Gisaeng, a social group first appearing in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and known for their entertainment services, were often looked down upon by peasants. These women were trained to become professional artists and excelled in poetry, calligraphy, dance, and singing. Gisaeng were rated based on their artistic abilities, sociability, intelligence, and appearance, and the top-tiered ones were given important diplomatic tasks and treated like members of the upper class.
Hwangjinee and Non-gae are two notable Gisaeng who made their mark in history. Non-gae’s courageous act of throwing herself and a Japanese general off a cliff during the Imjin War (1592-1598) marked one of the first instances in which loyalty was identified as a virtue that a woman could possess. Hwangjinee, a musician, dancer, calligrapher, and poet, shared her poetry with some of the most well-educated upper-class individuals during the mid-Joseon Dynasty.
Gisaeng took care of their appearances by washing their faces with rice bran water and bathing in starch-infused water. They also applied various oils and powders to their skin and hair, and diligently applied makeup to achieve their signature look.
Despite the stereotype of what their jobs entailed, Gisaeng were artists with exceptional skills and intelligence, who offered refined conversations with an undertone of subtlety for members of the Korean gentry. They were often referred to as “hye-uh-hwa” (해어화;解語花) for their abilities to communicate effectively.
As we have seen throughout history, ancient Korean beauty secrets and standards have undergone significant transformations. From the Silla Dynasty’s emphasis on a pale complexion and luxurious hair to modern times, where Korean beauty has become a global phenomenon, the beauty standards have shifted drastically.
However, one thing that remains constant is the importance of natural ingredients in skincare and beauty rituals. The use of ingredients like rice water, green tea, and ginseng in beauty products is still popular in Korea today, and many Korean women swear by the effectiveness of these ingredients in achieving healthy, glowing skin.
Another aspect that has remained consistent is the emphasis on self-care and taking time for oneself. Whether it was the royals of the Silla Dynasty taking time for leisurely baths or modern-day Koreans indulging in skincare routines, self-care has always been an integral part of Korean beauty culture.
Despite the changes in beauty standards and trends, ancient Korean beauty secrets have undoubtedly left a lasting impact on the world of beauty. From innovative products like BB creams and sheet masks to skincare philosophies like the 10-step routine, Korean beauty has become synonymous with innovation and efficacy.
In conclusion, ancient Korean beauty secrets and standards have come a long way, but their influence continues to be felt in the beauty industry today. As Korean beauty continues to evolve and push boundaries, it is clear that the ancient beauty secrets of Korea will remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.