K-pop may have thrust South Korea into global pop culture in recent years, with its stars attracting legions of fans and becoming muses for some of the top luxury fashion labels, but the nation has had a long history and fashionable rich – regardless of whether the West was watching.
That’s what Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, wants the world to see with the exhibition “Korean Fashion: From Royal Court to Runway” now open through December 22, 2022.
“I find it very disappointing and almost laughable that so much writing about fashion history and fashion and fashion theory equates fashion with the West,” says Talbot, who has lived in Korea and studied its culture and customs for years. in turn. “And they say, well, the fashion and the fashion system that we have today came about because of modernism in the West, because of the individualism that we have in the West, the particular market conditions that we have. But this is not the case at all. So what we’re showing in this is exposition, even hanbok, which we tend to translate as traditional Korean clothing, was subject to fashion, it changed over time, there would be trends that would come and go. You see lips rise and fall, colors go in and out of fashion.
“What I want to show with this exhibition is that it’s not that Korea went away from the traditional, fixed, and then all of a sudden with the adoption of Western fashion and modern Western lifestyles, all of a sudden fashion starts to appear,” he continues. “No. What I’m trying to say in this exhibition is that Koreans have always been fashionable. Always.”
The show marks the first time Korean textiles and fashion have been featured as the sole focus of a museum exhibition, at least outside of Korea, and the first time the Textile Museum has ever displayed textiles from Korea, Talbot says.
The moment may be long overdue considering Korean fashion made its way onto the American scene in 1893 via the World’s Columbian Exposition, or world’s fair in Chicago that year. Items from that fair 129 years ago will be on display in this exhibition.
“The exhibit is timed and starts with the objects that were sent to the Chicago World’s Fair and then ends with a display that will be updated every week showing only street models of Seoul,” says Talbot. “What I thought was really great about these bookstores is that they are both Koreans who present themselves through fashion to the world.”
In 1893, Korea was presenting itself to a global audience in its first appearance at a world’s fair, and it chose to do so in fashion.
Two wedding dresses or hwarrot on loan from Chicago’s Field Museum, which will be part of the exhibit, are, according to Talbot, “almost like a kind of Holy Grail material because they have this really interesting background. The king set up a commission in the royal court to select objects that would represent their country… it’s just fascinating as a group of objects that this is what the royal court chose.”
Wedding dresses, which would traditionally have been reserved for the aristocracy but eventually became standard for all brides (which they still are today, although the expensive embroidery and craftsmanship means many brides rent them), speak of the stories that traditional Korean clothing can tell. in relation to its holder.
As explained by Dr. Young Yang Chung, a textile historian and embroiderer of Korean origin, who was consulted for the Korean Fashion exhibition, “Clothing is not clothing. Everything makes sense, especially 100 years ago.”
One of the two garments to be exhibited is of red, yellow and blue silk – a patchwork of various old garments made into a new one – and embroidered with symbols that would also have meaning.
Describing one of the garments, Chung says, “It has a 1.5-foot-wide sleeve with three stripes of color and is constructed with 10 layers of padding. [made of] rice paper to make it hardened….The color will determine age, sex, occasion and social status.”
Red and blue, she says, symbolize harmony, and “this unique way of construction, with fully embroidered patterns … symbolic of the harmony of the bride and groom is something else.” For example, lotus and peony flowers represent wealth and dignity.
“This exhibition is so important for the public to understand Korean color and concept and the symbolic meanings of the designs,” Chung says.
The exhibit travels through time and Korea’s sometimes tumultuous history, from the country’s colonization by Japan to the Korean War — factors Talbot and Chung agree may have been among the reasons the country was off the radar for something like fashion. It extends into more contemporary times, featuring pieces like the mid-’60s with lots of color saekdong are worn by designer Nora Noh and then take things even further in a chaekgado jacket, tunic and trousers by designer Lie Sang Bong shown in 2017.
The link between the featured designers, according to Talbot, “is the Korean tradition as a point of inspiration for new expressions,” or designers who have used the past to create for the present.
“I think what [Lie Sang Bong is] doing is to show how Korean cultural heritage can be interpreted for the modern world. For example, some of the designers from previous generations who had international success, like Lee Young Hee, you look at her clothes and you recognize them as Korean for the most part. If you know Korean clothing, you can see the origin of hanbok in them. So it’s kind of a literal reimagining of hanbok or traditional Korean clothing,” says Talbot. Sang Bong lie? Not that much. In fact, you don’t see the cut, the construction, the shapes hanbok, but you see elements of Korean culture that stand out. For example, one of the dresses that we have has these very colorful patterns that were inspired by architectural paintings from the Joseon Dynasty, so that’s an aspect of Korean culture that you don’t necessarily expect to see manifested in the dress. He is perhaps best known, certainly in Korea, for his use of the Korean script, hangul, as a decorative element and we will emphasize this in the show as well.”
Interest in bringing the old to the new in terms of clothing has grown in recent years, according to Yoo Jin Cho, a doctoral student and curatorial intern at the Textile Museum, who, as a Korean speaker, provided research support and insight to the exhibition.
“In Korea, interest in this modernized traditional garment has grown considerably over the past five years, with many amateur enthusiasts making their own garments, many more online stores opening up to be more accessible to Koreans in their twenties and the thirties,” she says, which has encouraged many to try their hand at what she calls modern hanbok for everyday wear.
The government is in on it too, having created school uniforms and uniforms for public officials inspired by traditional Korean clothing, and these will be on display in part of the exhibition.
Cho, too, wants the fashion-conscious public to look beyond what K-pop has brought to the table.
“Korean culture is largely defined as the very latest contemporary fashion, worn mostly by K-pop idols or a very few streetwear. [style] snaps because of such exposure to K-pop culture,” she says. “And I just want to show that Korean culture existed far beyond these contemporary cultures that have become more available in the last decade.”
Korea, according to Talbot, who began working on the current exhibit before the pandemic when he saw what he calls an “explosion of cultural content coming out of Korea,” is one of the trendiest nations in the world.
In a word, he would owe it to “hybridity.”
“Koreans are really good at combining a lot of really different influences and creating something completely new. And this is not unique to contemporary fashion. It is something that we also see with the historical material”, he says. “There would be influences that would come from China, for example, and they would be very cleverly incorporated into the Korean costume and create a whole new look. So that’s something we’ve seen over time, but we’re certainly seeing it now in contemporary fashions, which combine traditional fashion elements and streetwear elements, [it’s] all these things come together in a truly unique aesthetic.”
For those who may not be able to make it to the museum, an international symposium titled “Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium for Korean Humanities: Korean Fashion,” in conjunction with the exhibit, will take place Nov. 5, virtually and in person at GW’s Elliott School of International Relations.