In ancient times, the saekdong compositional tradition was shared by Korea, China, and Japan, but it is only in Korea where this audacious arrangement of primary colors remained consistently in vogue and came to be recognized as one of the definitive characteristics of traditional clothing, or hanbok.
The term saekdong literally means “colorful strips,” but popularly denotes “the sleeves of a traditional jacket dyed with colorful pigments or made by patching together colorful cloth strips.” The saekdong technique was mainly used for skirts during the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–A.D. 668). During the Joseon Dynasty, however, its application became more extensive, including in upper garments for the first birthday, children’s ceremonial attire and outer coats, children’s headgear, and also adult clothing such as men’s long jackets, shamans’robes, and women’s ceremonial clothing.
Given that white was the predominant color in Korean traditional attire to the extent that the Koreans came to be self-described as the “people clad in white,” it is interesting that the rather broad color expression in saekdong is considered one of the characteristic identifiers of hanbok. This is because the saekdong tradition vividly delivers historical Korean aesthetic preferences and wisdom. Patchwork, the primary technique for creating saekdong, is performed with the maker freely selecting and joining together cloth strips of diverse hues, and thus reflecting her personal creative color expression. Saekdong clothes made through patchwork were the product of the ingenuity and creativity of ancient Korean women, the hanbok designers of the time. Another aspect of saekdong is that it is an expression of wishes for good luck by ancient Koreans. For them, colors were not just about visual satisfaction, but also an expression of the beliefs in the opposing forces of yin and yang and the philosophical concept of wu xing (five elements). These principles were believed to determine fortunes and were also applied in color usage to drive away evil and call down good luck. This is why the color black, symbolizing negative forces, is excluded from the color composition for saekdong and lucky saekdong textiles were more widely used for children’s attire than for adults’. The aesthetically pleasing color organization of saekdong also conveys Korean ancestors’ desire to not waste any chance to call down good fortune.
Source: Excerpt from Hanbok, Attractive Traditional Korean Clothing (vol. 2) by the Hanbok Advancement Center; Costume Arts by Geum Gi-suk, Making Our Clothes by Sim Hwa-jin et al., and Aesthetic Analysis of Saekdong in Clothes by Choi Yun-jeong)