K-pop may have centered South Korea in global pop culture in recent years, with stars attracting legions of fans and becoming muses for some of luxury fashion’s leading brands, but the nation has had a long and rich history in fashion – regardless of the West Viewed.
That’s what Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, wants the world to see with the “Korea Fashion: From Royal Court to Runway” exhibition, open now through December 22, 2022.
“I’ve found it very frustrating and almost laughable that so much writing about fashion and fashion history and fashion theory equates fashion with the West,” says Talbot, who has lived in Korea and studied its culture and customs for years. “And they say, well, 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 kind of market conditions that we have. But that’s just not the case at all. So what we show in this one is exhibition, even male book, which we usually translate as traditional Korean garments, was subject to fashion, it changed over time, there would be trends that would come and go. You see hemlines rise and fall, colors come in and out of fashion.
“What I want to show with this exhibition is, it’s not that Korea went from traditional, unchanging and then suddenly adopting Western fashion and Western modern lifestyle, suddenly fashion starts to emerge,” he continues. “No. What I’m trying to say in this exhibition is that Koreans have always been fashionable. Enduring.”
The show marks the first time Korean textiles and fashion have been featured as the sole focus of a museum exhibit, at least outside of Korea, and the first time the Textile Museum has ever shown textiles from Korea, Talbot says.
The moment may be overdue considering that 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. Articles from that fair 129 years ago will be on display at this exhibition.
“The exhibition is booked in time, and it starts with the items that were sent to the Chicago World’s Fair, and then it ends with a display that will be updated weekly, showing only street fashion in Seoul,” says Talbot. “What I thought was really amazing about these bookends is that both are Koreans who present themselves through fashion to the world.”
In 1893, Korea introduced itself to a global audience in its first appearance at a World’s Fair, and it chose to do so with fashion.
Two bridal robes or why on loan from Chicago’s Field Museum that will be part of the exhibit are, according to Talbot, “almost like Holy Grail material because they have this really interesting provenance. The king put together a commission at the royal court to select the objects that would represent their country … it’s just fascinating as a group of objects that this is what the royal court chose.”
Bridal gowns, which would traditionally have been reserved for the aristocracy but eventually became standard for all brides (which is still the case today, although the expensive embroidery and craftsmanship prompts many brides to rent them), speak to the stories traditional Korean clothing can tell. about its bearer.
As Dr. Young Yang Chung, a Korean-born textile historian and embroiderer who consulted for the Korean fashion exhibition, explains: “Clothes are not clothes. Everything has meanings, and especially 100 years ago.”
One of the two robes to be displayed is made of red, yellow and blue silk – a patchwork of various older garments made into a new one – and embroidered with symbols that would also have had meaning.
Chung describes one of the capes, “It has a 1.5 foot wide sleeve with three color bands and is constructed with 10 layers of padding [made of] of rice paper to make it harden …. The color will determine age, sex, occasion and social status.”
Red and blue, she says, symbolizes harmony and “this unique way of construction, with fully embroidered … symbolic patterns of the harmony of the bride and groom is another thing.” Lotus and peony flowers, for example, represent wealth and dignity.
“This exhibition is so important for the public to understand Korean color and the concept and symbolic meaning of patterns,” says Chung.
The exhibit travels through time and through Korea’s sometimes troubled history, from Japan’s colonization of the country 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 to more modern times, with pieces such as a multicolored mid-60s saekdong dress from designer Nora Noh and then brings things even further to one chaekgado jacket, tunic and trousers by designer Lie Sang Bong shown in 2017.
The link between the designers featured, according to Talbot, “is Korean tradition as a point of inspiration for new expressions,” or designers who have tapped into the past to create for the present.
“I’m thinking what [Lie Sang Bong is] does is show ways Korean cultural heritage can be interpreted for the modern world. For example, some of the designers in previous generations who had some international success, like Lee Young Hee, you look at her clothes and mostly you recognize them as Korean. If you recognize Korean garments, you can see ancestry male book in them. So it’s kind of a literal reimagining of male book or traditional Korean clothing, says Talbot. Lie Sang Bong? Not so much. In fact, you don’t see the cut, the construction, the shapes male book, but you see elements of Korean culture coming out. For example, one of the outfits we have has these very colorful patterns that are inspired by Joseon Dynasty architectural paintings, so it’s an aspect of Korean culture that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see manifested in clothing. He is probably best known, certainly in Korea, for using Korean script, Hangul, as a decorative element, and we will also emphasize that in the show.”
Interest in bringing the old into the new when it comes to clothing has risen in recent years, according to Yoo Jin Cho, a doctoral student and curatorial intern at the Textile Museum, who, as a native speaker of Korean, provided research support and insight for the exhibit.
“In Korea, interest in these modernized traditional clothes has increased quite a bit in the last five years, with many more amateur enthusiasts making their own clothes, many more online stores opening to be more accessible to Koreans in their twenties and thirties,” she says, which has encouraged many to try what she called modern male book for everyday use.
Even the government is getting in on it, having created school uniforms and uniforms for public servants inspired by traditional Korean garments, which will be displayed in part of the exhibition.
Cho also wants the fashion-seeking audience to look beyond what K-pop has brought to the table.
“Korean culture has mostly been defined as the brand new modern fashion, mostly worn by K-pop idols or a few street [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 accessible in the last decade or so.”
Korea, according to Talbot, who began working on the current exhibit pre-pandemic when he saw what he calls an “explosion of cultural content coming out of Korea,” is one of the most fashion-forward nations in the world.
In a word, he owes it to “hybridity”.
“Koreans are really good at combining many different influences and creating something completely new. And that’s not unique to modern fashion. It’s something we see with historical material as well,” he says. “There would be influences from China, for example, and it would be very deftly incorporated into Korean costume and Korean-ized and they would create a whole new look. So it’s something we’ve seen over time, but we’re certainly seeing it now in contemporary fashions, combining traditional elements of couture and elements of streetwear, [it’s] all these things come together in a really unique aesthetic.”
For those who may not be able to make it to the museum, an international symposium entitled “Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium for Korean Humanities: Korean Fashion”, in conjunction with the exhibition, will take place on November 5, both virtually and in person at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs.