Reconstruction on based on an eighteenth‐century painting. Ramie, silk, and polyester. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation.
The fashions in the show are the antithesis of what many now think of as Korean culture. This is the traditional, non-flashy, non glitzy Korea, in existence decades before K-Pop. For those who think that Korean culture is K-Pop, the show is a revelation but they will have to put aside their expectations of boy bands with dyed blonde hair, loud music, synchronized dancing and skin tight pants on skinny bodies.
For Hyonjeong Kim Han, the museum’s associate curator of Korean art, the real signature of Korean fashion isn’t any one particular technique or garment: It’s the overall sense of subtlety and restraint that distinguishes it from other cultures’ traditions of dress. The aesthetic on view is of subtle elegance, compelling in its simplicity and muted colors.
Korean society was ruled by their version of Neo-Confucianism, an attempt to create a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism by rejecting superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism. Rank and status were all, with the society ranged in a rigid hierarchy with the monarch on top and workers on the bottom. Women were second class, if considered at all, again nothing new if one is familiar with the position of women in traditional Asian societies. However, by watching Korean traditional soap operas, it is possible to get a sense of how aristocratic women welded power behind the scenes but showing nothing but restraint and modesty in public.
King Yeongjo's outer robe (dopo), 2015.
Reconstruction on based on a pre‐1740 garment. Silk.
Man's coat (gu'ui), 2015.
Reconstruction based on a late sixteenth‐ to early seventeenth‐century garment. Sheepskin. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation
Laws governed which classes could wear certain colors, combinations of garments, materials (such as silk, cotton, and ramie — a fine linen-like fiber) and even accessories like scholars’ stiff horsehair hats. Viewers accustomed to the brighter colors of Japanese kinomos will be surprised at the prevalence of white garments, but as Han explained, “Koreans have highly revered the beauty of the color white, and that of the unadorned, the pure, the plain,” Han added “That concept and reverence relate to the Korean people’s love for white-ware pottery, like the traditional Moon Jar we have on view in our gallery.” The bright colors are reserved for children's clothing, for infant mortality was high in pre-20th century Korea and it was a cause for celebration when a child reached his first birthday.
Based on a nineteenth‐century photograph. Silk. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Founda on. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation.
Ceremonial costume for a boy’s first birthday (dolbok), 2017.
Reconstructon based on a Joseon‐dynasty ensemble. Silk with jade buttons and gold‐stamped belt. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundaton. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation
Ceremonial costume for a girl’s first birthday (dolbok), 2017.
Reconstruction based on a Joseon‐dynasty ensemble. Silk. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Founda on. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation.
Bridal robe (hwarot), 2015. Reconstruction on based on a Joseon‐dynasty garment. Silk. Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation
It looks like a wedding was about the only time that Korean women were allowed to wear bright colors.
Coat inspired by a tradi onal man’s po, 2013, by Jin Teok (Korean, b. 1934).
Silk organza. Jin Teok Studio. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers
Strata, from the Earth series, 2000, by Jin Teok (Korean, b. 1934).
Co on. Jin Teok Studio. Photograph © Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation.
The last two galleries showcase modern styles by designers Jin Teok, Im Seonoc and Jung Misun as well as looks from Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld that were inspired by Korean artistic traditions. I found this section the least interesting but then, my interest is on traditional Korean and its culture and art. Others might be more interested in the contemporary side of fashion and at least, the Asian gives these designers a rare opportunity to present their work to a wider public.
This show is the last one planned before the Museum expands next year when certain areas of the space will be closed for a while. As is usual with the Asian, the scope of the exhibit is ambitious, looking to cover Korean's past and look into its future through clothing, a multi layered approach which is more successful in the first gallery dealing with traditional Korean culture than in the following two galleries showing contemporary Korean fashion.
It is also another smart move on the part of the museum's leadership to look beyond its traditional focus on Chinese art and into the histories, cultures and increasing importance of other peoples of Asia and Southeast Asia - not only Korean, but Indian, Filipino, Burma (now Myanmar) Thailand and Mongolia.
Back in 2013, the Asian presented a show of art from the Joseon Dynasty, one of the longest ruling dynasties in the world. At the time I wrote, "the grim side of Korean history is not what the show is about - of course not when the focus is court history (and clothing worn by the elite)- but how can one ignore it? According to one article I read, 40 - 50% of the population were slaves and the remaining 40% farmers whose labor supported layers and layers of hierarchy. " Today the focus is on fashion, another item that is for the elite, however beautiful the work is. In a way, it is a relief to turn away from the problems we have with North Korean and the fear of war to bask in this beauty.
Exhibition Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 AM to 5 PM. Closed Mondays.
Exhibition Admission: FREE for museum members and children (12 & under. On weekdays, $20 for adults and $15 for seniors (65 & over), youth (13–17) and college students (with ID). On weekends, $25 for adults and $20 for seniors (65 & over), youth (13–17) and college students (with ID). On Target First Free Sundays admission to the exhibition is $10.
General Museum Admission: FREE for museum members, $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (65+), college students with ID, and youth (13–17). FREE for children under 12 and SFUSD students with ID. General admission is FREE to all on Target First Free Sundays (the first Sunday of every month).