These dubiously accurate accoutrements aside, “Korean Fashion” covers just over a century of the nation’s dress. The oldest items are royal and aristocratic garments that were displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (Like many of the objects presented at this event, they later entered the collection of the institution which became the Field Museum.) It was the first time that Korea, known from 1392 to 1897 as “the hermit kingdom”, participated in a World Expo.
At the time, Korea adhered to the strict proprieties of Neo-Confucianism, so extravagant clothing and expressive fashion were not acceptable. Korean clothing, known as hanbok, indicated social status, but did so discreetly. Colors were muted and adornment was sparse. The most prominent personalities distinguished themselves by the sumptuous quality and the elegant details of their garments, woven and assembled by hand.
Although Korea is culturally very close to neighboring China and Japan, the hanbok is unique. Its distinctive items include puffy skirts, black hats and women’s jackets cut so high they are little more than sleeves. Of the 19th century garments in this selection, the pieces that most closely resemble the garments of Korea’s neighbors are ornate wedding dresses embroidered with flower images.
While the 1893 expo was the first time Korea introduced hanbok to the world, it was also something of a last stand for the nation’s traditional clothing. In 1895, the country’s officials switched to Western dress and the hanbok became reserved for special occasions, as noted by the show’s curator, Lee Talbot. (A more heartbreaking transition occurred in 1905, when Korea began its transition to becoming a colony of Imperial Japan, which imposed its culture and language.)
The top floor of this two-story exhibition is devoted to the modern era, including hallyu, the “Korean wave” of entertainment and fashion that has swept beyond South Korea’s borders. Two video screens document recent K-pop artists and today’s youthful streetwear respectively, while a third offers a quick history of South Korean fashion from the end of the Korean War to the 1990s. This includes photos of an official police crackdown on long hair for men and short skirts for women in the 1970s.
Newer items include 1980s hanbok-style togs for children – made in bright hues, as these colors are believed to protect children from harm – and contemporary hanbok-inspired school uniforms. There’s a quilted jacket designed by Julie Lee, an American who married one of Korea’s last crown princes in 1959, and elegant dresses by Nora Noh, South Korea’s first major post-war designer.
Another dress on display was designed in the 1990s by the designer known as Icinoo (a phonetic contraction of Lee Shin-woo), one of the first South Koreans to present a collection in Paris. It is not traditional in its contours but in its material: hanji, or handmade Korean paper.
Also on display are examples of bojagi, which are made of brightly decorated cloth but are not meant to be worn. Decorated wrapping cloths, produced in Korea for at least 600 years, are used to wrap gifts and for various other ceremonial purposes. The show includes some updated examples of recent bojagi, as well as a bojagi-inspired dress made in 2016 by German designer Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s longtime creative director. This striking dress represents Korea’s long journey from hermit kingdom to global fashion pioneer.
Korean fashion: from the royal court to the runway
George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. museum.gwu.edu.