Korean Couture Exhibit Reflects Cultural Identity

by Sura Wood

“Couture Korea,” opening at the Asian Art Museum this month, looks beyond the artistry of couture to its historical context.

Before Korea opened its door to the West in the late 19th century, daily life was dictated by strict adherence to Confucian ideology, which advocated modesty, self-restraint and scrupulous attention to detail. Those codes included modes of dress; laws dictated which genders and classes were permitted to wear what fabrics and colors. “Couture Korea,” an unconventional costume exhibition opening at the Asian Art Museum this month, looks beyond the artistry and craftsmanship of fashions to their historical context and cultural significance.

“The exhibition…tells a story,” says curator Hyonjeong Kim Han. “We want to explore how cultural identity can be demonstrated through adornment in both historic and contemporary fashion and how fashion, when approached from this angle, is a really powerful form of self-expression.”

The show’s first section provides an illuminating introduction to “Hanbok,” the traditional ensemble of the elite during an extended period of cultural insularity in the mid- to late-Joseon Dynasty. Women wore high-waisted, full skirts that partially covered tight-fitting blouses; men wore loose pants and outer robes like the translucent, wide-sleeved, mint green silk dopo that once belonged to King Yeongjo, the 21st king of the Dynasty. Dating from before 1740 and one of the oldest and most important objects recreated for the exhibition, the original is the only existing informal royal robe of that era. 

To recreate garments for the historic portion of the show, the museum worked with the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation in Seoul, a group of artisans dedicated to preserving traditional Korean handcrafts; the museum conducted intensive research, drawing on paintings, texts, photographs and especially extant traditional clothing. General Nam Iheung’s fawn-colored sheepskin coat, for example, was reconstructed from a late 16th/early 17th-century garment; the blood-stained, arrow-pierced deerskin original, thought to have been worn under armor, was excavated from the general’s tomb in 1970. Shin Yunbok’s late 18th-century painting of a courtesan caught violating curfew, “A Secret, Forbidden Outing at Night,” is the inspiration for a woman’s winter ensemble on display. (Courtesans and entertainers were granted the freedom to experiment with provocative attire.) The outfit consists of a forest-green jacket with form-fitting sleeves and black accents and a voluminous inky-blue skirt. 

The exhibition also examines the confluence of East and West with an in-depth look at creations by Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, and Jin Teok, who’s been called Korea’s “poet of fashion.” Lagerfeld was influenced by old-fashioned Korean patchwork wrapping cloths for his haute couture tan and aqua suit that combines Chanel’s signature tweed and chains with a flower print blouse. Jin fuses old and new in a vest and skirt ensemble for which she repurposed an embroidered bridal robe with peony, butterfly and phoenix motifs. The pink and soft beige silk vest with mother-of-pearl buttons is paired with a harder-edged denim skirt made from a man’s vintage jeans that Jin decorated with lace. “The materials reveal conflicting stories,” Jin observed in a catalog interview. “A wedding is a celebratory event of happiness and hope; denim suggests labor and pain. When tradition and modernity, East and West, and play and work are brought together, a dramatic narrative unfolds.” 

The exhibition concludes with “From Seoul to San Francisco.” Installed in a studio-like gallery, this section features video interviews and presentations of collections from contemporary Korean designers. In a court outside the gallery is a large-scale projection of modern dancers in traditional clothing, showing how clothes move when worn by real people. The space also documents the artistic process of two rising trend-setters who reinterpret historical Korean fashion: Im Seonoc, known for forward-looking architectural styles melding elements of past and present, and for the exclusive use of neoprene, an eco-conscious, affordable material she bonds rather than sews; and Jung Misun, the youngest designer in the show. Jung’s knitted jersey clothing maintains a distinctly Western aesthetic while incorporating elegant silhouettes, sashes and other motifs reminiscent of traditional costumes. Throughout the show visitors can view the artists’ sketches on transparency sheets and touch fabric samples. 

“We want visitors to get a hands-on, intimate understanding of this clothing, to literally feel the history, and to foster a connection with that history and Korean culture,” says Han. “What we wear helps us to understand our pasts and navigate the modern world.”

Nov. 3 → Feb. 4

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., San Francisco 581-3500