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Rep. Strickland wore a hanbok to swearing in. It felt more meaningful than she expected.

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland (center, in hanbok) is sworn into the 117th Congress.
Marilyn Strickland's Office
U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland (center, in hanbok) is sworn into the 117th Congress.

Last Sunday, members of the 117th Congress were sworn in. Among them was Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, representing Washington's 10th District. She is Korean American, and she dressed for the occasion in a traditional garment called a hanbok. 

The hanbok has two main pieces, a voluminous skirt and a cropped jacket. The jacket itself has a bow, and Strickland admits she watched some YouTube videos to make sure she tied it just right.  

"I was at a ceremony before and I tied it, and I had the bow facing the wrong way. So I was very conscientious to make sure I had the bow facing on the left side, which is the correct way of wearing it."

The hanbok dates back to the Three Kingdoms period of the Korean Peninsula, which began in 57 B.C. Today, it's worn to big events like a wedding, a 100th day party – or being sworn into the United States Congress.

That led to Strickland adding one more piece of ceremonial attire.  

"So when you're a member of Congress, you have a lapel pin. And I wanted to, you know, just to make sure people knew I was a member of Congress. So I actually put that right in the middle of the bow." 

Strickland was elected in November by the people of the 10th District, which covers much of the South Sound from Shelton to Puyallup. She ran on her record as a two-term mayor of Tacoma and touted her efforts to raise the minimum wage and pass paid sick leave. She said she wanted to go to Congress to fight for progressive policies from universal health care, to green energy investments, to housing for all.

She was sworn into the 117th Congress, the most diverse in the nation's history. There has never before been a Korean-American woman sworn into Congress. But on Sunday, Strickland was one of three. She was also the first African American to represent Washington state at the federal level.

Strickland says she wore the hanbok to honor her mother, who grew up in Korea during the Japanese occupation and then the Korean War. 

"She married my father and ended up coming to the United States and and just having to, you know, make that bold decision to come here with her daughter and her husband and to come to a place where she didn't really know anyone, didn't speak the language, and just really looking at her resilience, her strength and really just wanting to honor her."

Her mother watched the ceremony on TV and was, Strickland reports, very proud. 

The images of Strickland's hanbok also reached the rest of the country. 

"Oh, immediately I was filled with pride," says Tae In Ahn. Ahn is a collection specialist at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The hanbok has marked all the big events of her life. Her graduation, her wedding. But she never imagined she'd see it on such a big stage.

"It was just an amazing sight to see and also unbelievable the fact that that was worn, and then shortly after in the same building, there was someone waving a Confederate flag," Ahn said. 

Three days after the swearing in, Congress was interrupted by a pro-Trump mob who stormed the Capitol building. Strickland and her fellow members of Congress had gathered to certify the election results that would confirm Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.

Strickland took shelter and then returned under armed guard and stayed up late into the night to finish certifying the results. She says the events of the day made her even more glad to have worn her hanbok. 

"I wanted to send a message about who we are as a nation and what we're supposed to represent and the fact that we come from all over the world," Strickland said. "That is really the epitome of what the United States represents. We accept all people, we embrace all people, and we view our diversity as one of our strengths."

While Strickland says she wore the hanbok to honor her mother, she also says she wore it so that people of all cultural backgrounds could see that the House of Representatives is, in fact, the people's house. 

Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.