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Dressed in Her Korean Heritage

IT was a steamy afternoon in Seoul more than 10 years ago when my aunt took me to the huge warehouse crammed with fabric vendors. She had decided to have a traditional Korean dress, or hanbok, made for me, and while I had been pleased by the idea at first, I was becoming less enthusiastic as she dragged me from booth to booth searching for the right material. Just as I was becoming interested in a fabric, I would look up to see my aunt, a relentlessly energetic woman, inspecting bolts at another booth.

"Come, Meh-ree-ehn," she would call, flapping her hand at me impatiently. "That cloth no good."

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It took most of the afternoon to find the material for my hanbok. Several times we agreed on a fabric only to discover that it wasn't wide enough, since the length of the skirt, which should sweep the floor, is determined by the width of the cloth. At 5 feet, 5 inches, I must have been at least two inches taller than the average Korean woman.

Eventually, we found a white fabric with flowers of various colors embroidered on it that satisfied my height requirement and my aunt's standards of quality. The embroidery would embellish the jacket, she explained, and would border the hem of the skirt. Then I waited for several minutes while she bellowed at the vendor as they haggled over the price. I suspect my aunt got the deal she wanted; she owned several businesses, including a successful tearoom, and she had started her career from scratch by sel ling American dollars on the black market during the Korean War.

The next day, we took the material to my aunt's dressmaker. The hanbok took several weeks to make, and I was called in once for a fitting when it was little more than a mass of fabric and pins.

When it was finished, the dressmaker helped me put it on and tried to teach me how to fasten the jacket. Two sashes sewn on front were tied together to form a bow with a single loop.

As the dressmaker and my aunt fussed over the hanbok, I wondered how Korean women could stand wearing one for long periods of time, especially in the summer heat.

Although the dress was made of summer linen, the short jacket was stiff and uncomfortably warm because of the long sleeves and snug fit. The skirt was gently gathered just above the chest, but it was tied very tightly; I felt especially pinched under the arms. When I mentioned this, my aunt said, "Too loose, no good. Dress comes down."

The hanbok was long enough for me to wear with low-heeled shoes (outdoors that is, since shoes aren't worn inside). I had already learned I couldn't tolerate the traditional Korean footwear. A posun, a thick white bootie with an upturned toe, covers the foot, which is then squeezed into a komoo shin, a skinny rubber shoe with an upturned toe that resembles a canoe. Since a canoe in no way resembles a human foot, the result is a crushing of toes with each torturous step. Apparently, Korean-born women can' t stand these shoes either, because most wear stockings and heels with their hanbok.

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At the final fitting, it was white athletic socks that peeked out beneath my hanbok. The dress was very lovely and seemed to float as I moved.

"Very pretty," said my aunt, smiling and patting my cheek. "Looks beautiful."

I wasn't so sure.

Although the hanbok was intended to make me look delicate, fragile, and ethereal, I felt ungainly and incongruous as I gazed at the mirror. It just didn't seem to go with the socks, the tinted glasses, and the frizzy hair, which hadn't yet recovered from a permanent wave. And somehow - despite the countless times I'd had to explain to people that I don't speak Korean, that I had grown up in the United States - I never felt less Korean than I did wearing my hanbok. I felt more at ease when I put my T-shir t and jeans back on.

For more than a decade, the hanbok lay buried in my parents' basement until my mother found it in a trunk with several of her hanbok. When I was a child, she used to wear them to formal gatherings; eventually she abandoned them in favor of Western evening gowns. I picked up a beautiful hanbok made of black velvet, thinking it was more striking than any evening gown.

"Oh, I started quite a trend when I wore this," she said. "Nobody had ever seen one in velvet before."

I had never thought that a traditional dress could be subject to trends. But when my sister Esther saw my hanbok, she studied the jacket, frowning.

"I don't think you can wear this now," she said. "No one wears the jacket that short any more."

Not that I planned to wear it anywhere. I couldn't imagine when I would ever have the chance. I don't frequent Korean festivals because I hate crowds, and I doubt that I'll ever go to a fancy-dress party. Still, I wanted to see how it would look, so I tried it on one day when I was alone.

I realized immediately that over the years, exercise and several extra pounds had slightly altered my upper body. I couldn't close the front opening of the slip. Undaunted, I tried on the skirt, slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, then wrestling with the two ties in the back. The dressmaker hadn't succumbed to modern conveniences such as snaps and buttons. In the days when the hanbok was standard apparel, ladies had maids to help them dress.

After several attempts, I made a sturdy knot but was dismayed to observe that the edges of the skirt didn't overlap.

"It's up to you to keep the dress from separating in the back," my mother later explained. "You have to hold onto one edge of the skirt almost all the time."

Finally, I tried on the jacket. I tried to coax the sashes into a crisp, single-loop bow but gave up when I glanced at the mirror. The jacket was stretched to capacity at the shoulders, and when I tied the sashes, I felt as if my modest deltoids would burst through the sleeves a la Popeye.

Esther was right - I can't wear that hanbok anymore. But I'm not sure I would ever have been able to wear it without feeling self-conscious. A hanbok seems to demand things of its wearer - a willingness to sacrifice time, comfort, and freedom of movement - that are too much at odds with my life. I wear my hair short so I don't have to spend time styling it. I choose my clothes for comfort and ease of movement; I avoid buying outfits with hooks and other complications that require someone else's assistanc e when I dress.

But my hanbok is also a beautiful and graceful garment, with its yards of white, floating fabric. So I'm putting it away for my three-year-old daughter, Alicia, who is half Korean and speaks only English. I wonder if it will say anything to her. My hanbok tells me that I'm thoroughly American. But maybe, someday, it will remind Ali that she's partly Korean.

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