‘Couture Korea’ exhibit paints past, present, future of Korean fashion

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Asian Art Museum/Courtesy

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A tender array of pastels on delicate fabric fills the warmly lit space of the “Couture Korea” exhibit, currently on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The three-part exhibition is the first in the United States to recognize Korean fashion as an art form, displaying the rich visual narrative of traditional Korean fashion by exploring the unique style of “hanbok” and its evolution.

Hanbok is the name of the traditional Korean garments worn during premodern times, before the large-scale adaptation of Western clothing at the end of the 19th century. The traditional attire is characterized by the use of silk and cotton as well as relaxed silhouettes — involving draping  and layering — that allowed for the freedom of mobility. More than a simple expression of personal taste, hanbok was worn in variations to indicate differences in class, age, gender and occasion.

The first section of the exhibit displays the reconstructions of traditional hanbok worn during the Joseon period (1392-1910). Hanbok, in its most traditional sense, embodies a unique sense of sartorial elegance with tranquil colors and dignified silhouettes. Such elegance derives from the simplicity of the basic components of fashion at the time. The typical attire for women was the jacket (jeogori) and skirt (chima) ensemble, while men matched loose-fitting pants (baji) with their jeogori. Subdued colors were preferred by older and higher-class men and women, while bright colors with flamboyant patterns were often adorned by courtesans or children for special occasions.

Accessories, such as hats or ornaments, were also of societal significance during the Joseon period. Hats for men indicated different class or status; for example, a man of the elite class (yangban) would wear a horsehair hat as part of his formal attire, even at home. The ornamental pendant (norigae) was considered a highly coveted luxury item for women, and these served as symbols of wealth and power. Similar to today, fashion was a mode of implicit competition that permeated the societal fabric.

After an introduction to hanbok, the viewer is led to the second section of “Couture Korea,” which showcases Western and Eastern reinterpretations of the traditional Korean attire. This section features two designers who were inspired by the subtle beauty of Korean aesthetics: Jin Teok and Karl Lagerfeld, the head creative director of Chanel.

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Asian Art Museum/Courtesy

Jin Teok’s modern interpretations of hanbok display her shrewd understanding of its textile, form and pattern. She plays with the idea of contrast, blending these traditional motifs with modern elements such as denim or Western-style dresses. Such juxtapositions thrive in her work, giving them a sense of complexity that blurs the boundaries between the East and the West, as well as modern and traditional.

The 2015/16 Chanel Cruise collection was also inspired by traditional Korean aesthetics, although more experimental in its approach than the collection of Jin Teok. Specifically, Lagerfeld chooses to draw motifs from both clothing and nonclothing elements embedded in Korean tradition. He masterfully weaves the colorful patterns of bojagi, or wrapping clothes, as well as the delicate images of mother-of-pearl lacquerware, with recognizable elements of the Chanel identity. By combining a modern couture identity with traditional clothing, Lagerfeld creates innovation out of an unlikely harmony.

The future of hanbok and its aesthetics are explored in the final section of the exhibit as a story that is ever-evolving. Hanbok continues to inspire contemporary designers such as Im Seonoc and Jung Misun, who take hanbok and position it in an entirely new playing field. These designers both aim to recreate the hanbok look with innovative materials, deviating from the traditional textiles in order to bridge the past and the future.

The “Couture Korea” exhibit is an extensive narrative of Korean aesthetics, told in fabric. Although the story lacks the developments in hanbok styles in the 20th century, it still accomplishes its goal of visualizing its history as an art form. The exhibit is a fluid and interactive space, where each section in the exhibit is distinct yet connected. Collectively, the spaces in the museum remind us that fashion is more than what is worn; it is a reflection of societal nuances and a legacy that continues to inspire.

“Couture Korea” is on view at the Asian Art Museum until Feb. 4.

Contact Jennifer Jeong at [email protected].

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