NOW READING Sageuk Skincare: Beauty Rituals from the Past in K-Beauty Today
August 17, 2017

Sageuk Skincare: Beauty Rituals from the Past in K-Beauty Today

We may never know if Joseon era women plastered sheets of seaweed on their face for 20 minutes at a time, but historical period K-dramas, or sageuk, allow us a peek into the beauty rituals of a time long gone. Here,  we look at sageuk skincare for some insight into K-beauty’s origins.

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Korean obsession with skincare is hardly a modern phenomenon. The current Korean beauty industry — sleek, sophisticated, thriving, and exuberant — stands in seemingly direct contrast to the gentle agrarian landscape of Korea’s past. As I watched Park Min Young ask a gisaeng (a highly skilled female entertainer) for beauty tips in Queen for Seven Days, I couldn’t help speculating over historical Korean beauty traditions and whether they have any influence on Korean beauty rituals today.

 

After some digging, it should hardly be surprising to learn that, yes, Korean beauty rituals and traditions are heavily influenced by practices and philosophies of the past. The Yeoyonggukjeon (a Joseon-era manual on women’s care and habits) mentions around 18 different types of cosmetics. And the Coreana Cosmetics Museum in Seoul (a must-visit for any K-beauty junkie) displays hundreds of makeup tools, such as brushes and tweezers, as well as cosmetics cases made of celadon and porcelain. This remarkable museum testifies to the importance of skincare and outward grooming for Korean women from the earliest recorded times.

 

An ingredient list Cosdna would love

 

Unlike the West, where makeup has hitherto been accorded more attention than skincare, Korean women have always devoted their attention and energy to skin. Joseon society (1392-1897) was ruled according to Confucian ideology, and Confucian ideology praised virtue and inner beauty. Clear, soft skin and glossy hair were thought to reveal this inner beauty, something that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last century or so.

 

beauty rituals sageuk skincare
Queen For Seven Days. KBS2

 

For shiny locks, Joseon-era women favored camellia oil. Today, we know that camellia oil is a beauty powerhouse, rich in antioxidants for both hair and skin. (Find it in Innisfree’s Camellia Essential Shampoo and SanDaWha’s Extra Virgin Camellia Face Oil.)

 

To achieve flawless complexions, Joseon women would use ground mung beans mixed with water for an exfoliating cleanser, followed by an application of safflower oil, rich in vitamin E, to soften their skin. The Face Shop harnesses the cleansing and brightening properties of mung beans in its Herbday Cleansing Foam , while powder cleansers are back in vogue for its non-liquid, gentle exfoliating powers. Eclado Red Velvet Natural Moisture Face Oil is rich in safflower oil and sinks in without any greasy afterfeel.

 

Women also used cucumbers and mugwort to clear their skin of impurities, both popular ingredients in K-beauty today. A mask of cucumber slices is still common practice in Korea, and in case you don’t happen to stock the aromatic plant in your fridge, this sheet mask from Illi uses mugwort as its main ingredient to tone and calm your skin.

 

Flower boys & willow brows (on fleek)

 

beauty rituals sageuk skincare
Hwarang, the K-drama. KBS2

 

During the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-935 AD), heavier makeup was favored, even among men. The Hwarang, elite male warriors of the time, were known for their makeup and cosmetic adornments. Known as the “Flowering Knights,” these young warriors are reminiscent of the “flower boy bands” of today’s K-pop.

 

On the other end of the spectrum, dramatic makeup was usually associated with gisaeng, which meant that ladies belonging to the yangban (noble) classes eschewed heavy makeup.

 

beauty rituals sageuk skincare
The iconic 18th century painting “Portrait of a Beauty” by Shin Yun Bok.

 

Nonetheless, gisaeng were the trendsetters of their day and popularized inked eyebrows and cherry-red lips. (Sound familiar?) Clean, trimmed brows were considered an indispensable frame for one’s face, and books about women’s habits written in the era mention around 10 eyebrow designs, with names such as “willow” or “crescent.” You can mimic these shapes with Etude House’s brow stencils or go for a bold gisaeng look with Peripera Ink Brow or 3CE’s Longwear Tattoo Eyebrow Maker.

 

But most of all, inner beauty

 

Unforgettable women of Korean history were known for more than just their looks, however. The soul-stirring poetry of Heo Nanseoulheon and the delicate paintings of Shin Saimdang testify to the courage of these women and the difficulties they faced in daring to create art that would resonate centuries later.

 

beauty rituals sageuk skincare
Saimdang, Light’s Diary. SBS

 

Today, Shin Saimdang is the face of the 50,000 won note (and Lee Young-ae, fittingly the face of the classic Korean hanbang beauty brand The History of Whoo, played her beautifully in Saimdang, Light’s Diary). As Korean feminists call for more women to be recognized for their contributions to Korean culture and advancement, we hope that their achievements inspire us to be the best that we can be, both inside and out.

 

What’s your favorite sageuk skincare or beauty ritual scene from a Korean drama? Do you have a favorite historical Korean drama?

 

 

When not traveling and pestering people of varying ages and histories with impertinent questions for research purposes (yes, it’s legit), Becky indulges her passion for narrative by watching Korean dramas (she’s a certified sageuk addict). Her obsession with all things Asian began at the tender age of 5 when her parents moved to Taiwan for a year. Since then she’s travelled and lived in China, India, and South Korea, and spends her face-masking moments planning the next great Asian exploration.

Beautytap

COMMENTS 11

kbeautyholic53091

i love watching in the historical drama how they take care their skin and putting make up on...i like the drama empress ki

silvia

This article is really interesting.

annapark

I love seeing the beauty looks in historical dramas. Though it seems like they've been "modernizing" the beauty looks and even the language to create a more hip, fusion-style drama, it's still fun to see. I looooved the hanboks in Queen for 7 Days.

lightbulb

annapark, I'm fascinated by this article and hope to see the historical dramas it references. I'm a period-piece geek, in general, and have seen many such Japanese movies because they've received critical acclaim in the US. Do you have advice for me on how to find Korean dramas? I'm going to start searching Netflix, Prime, etc., but thought it couldn't hurt to ask my favorite k-beauty guru for tips. 🌹

kimmy

Have you seen Splash Splash Love? It's more of a movie, but really cute and sorta historical. And for Chinese historical dramas, there's nothing better than Nirvana In Fire, the show that has forever set my expectations too high concerning intricate plot, writing, cinematography, and soundtrack. My love. Augh. It's so unbelievably good. It's available on VIKI, and with the comments on you feel like you're watching it with a group of friends. 100% recommended.

annapark

Ooo, I've never watched a Chinese drama, so I definitely have to check that out. (Though I'm lowkey terrified that now it'll add to my giant slate of dramas I have to watch hahaha.)

lightbulb

Thank you kimmy! I can't wait to watch Nirvana In Fire! Hey, we're starting a little film club 😊. If you haven't seen the Afghani film The Color of Paradise, check it out! It's been a while since I've seen it but it still has haunts me. 😘

annapark

Awwwww @lightbulb ☺️😊😘 But yeeeesss, my fave historical K-drama is hands-down Moonlight Drawn By Clouds. It's sorta fusion-y, but OMG it's sooo good. I also really like Faith (with Lee Min Ho) because ... Lee Min Ho. 😂I watched them on Viki, but I don't know if they're on Netflix. The other one that I just finished that's definitely worth watching is Mr. Sunshine — that's a Netflix original actually and beautifully shot. Can't wait to hear what you think!

lightbulb

Thank you annapark!! 😘🌹 I'm going to hunt down Moonlight Drawn By Clouds! The title alone makes me want to grab some tissue. I'll start with Mr. Sunshine and let you know what I think. I used to be an art-house/foreign/indy film junky but haven't put on my black beret 😉 for years - because kid. He's old enough now, though, for me to at least attempt to have a life. I've been a single mom since he was three so - yep - time to see if I can still walk in heels... Read more

annapark

@lightbulb ooo, if you're a film buff, you might find Sunshine's script a little clunky at times, but for a Korean drama it really is cinematically shot and beautiful to watch. And Moonlight ... I just love the two leads and their chemistry.

lightbulb

annapark - I know that when james started beautytap his vision was to introduce people to, and be an embassitor of, South Korean life and culture. Articles that use k-beauty as a vehicle to discuss the broader cultural and historical richness of South Korea are an amazingly effective way to achieve his mission! 🌹 😘

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