A new and unique exhibit of more than 120 creations and artifacts highlighting the fabulous style, artistry and complexity of the five-hundred year-old tradition of Korean dress is on view at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum through February 4, 2018. A result of the partnership between the Museum and the Seoul-based Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation, the displayed garments and accoutrements range from the most traditional recreations of styles from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) to current fashion by celebrated Korean designers Jin Teok, Im Seonoc and Jung Misun, as well as outfits by Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld, which were inspired by Korean artistic practices. From examining historical Korean art and culture, one can easily discern today’s Korean-influenced cutting edge fashion.
The fascinating first section of “Couture Korea,” titled “What is Hanbok” reflects the traditional Korean dress design of the Joseon dynasty. Korea was the last country in East Asia to open its borders to Western culture. Its fashion was wholly untouched by European style during that isolation. Life in Korea was imbued with Confucian ideals of modesty and restraint, which led to strict dress codes. For example, by law, certain classes could wear only certain colors.
Hanbok style consisted of high full skirts for women with a long blouse. Menswear also included pants and a robe. The children’s outfits, although formal, allowed for ease of movement and used bright colors. The exhibition contains a variety of styles and fabrics, from the elaborately ornate to the severely austere. All the Hanbok costumes are reproductions so they are in perfect condition. The apparel has been recreated accurately through research of historic documents, paintings and relics. In one case, a pre-1740 translucent silk outer robe worn by King Yeongjo was discovered inside a statue placed in a Buddhist temple attended by the royal family and was recreated.
The following section, “Between East and West” highlights couture from two internationally known designers, Jin Teok (b. 1934) and Karl Lagerfeld (b. 1938). Although they are most well-known for more homogeneous fashion, both have adapted Korean motifs and borrowed aspects of traditional Korean dress to enhance their collections. Karl Lagerfeld’s 2016 Chanel cruise collection creatively employs remnants of colorful wrapping cloths and mother of pearl lacquerware as accents to his line, which effortlessly meld with his classic Chanel look.
“From Seoul to San Francisco,” the last section, reveals the avant garde couture of two contemporary Korean designers, Im Seonoc (b. 1962) and Jung Misun (b. 1984). These creative couturiers transliterate aspects of traditional Korean looks and draping techniques into modern and stylish garments, using combinations of unusual fabrics like neoprene.
The Asian Art Museum is the only venue for “Couture Korea.” This important show imparts to the viewer not only Korea’s customary artistic fabrications and the ways in which current Korean couture is broadly influenced by the past, but it also signals the increasing importance of Korean fashion throughout the world.
By Emily S. Mendel