There’s a reason examples of 15th-century clothing look so glamorous in “Korean Fashion: From Royal Court to Runway,” at the George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum. The elegantly tailored, gold-trimmed suits are actually suits from the 2011 South Korean hit TV series “The Princess’s Man,” a period romance that took a few liberties with traditional Korean attire. The actual historical elements in the show are more subtle, but no less interesting.
Those doubtfully accurate outfits aside, “Korean fashion” covers a little more than a century of the nation’s clothing. The oldest items are royal and aristocratic garments that were displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Like many objects displayed at that event, they later entered the collection of the institution that became the Field Museum.) It was the first time that Korea, known from 1392 to 1897 as “the hermit kingdom”, participated in a world’s fair.
At the time, Korea upheld the strict norms of Neo-Confucianism, so extravagant clothing and self-expressive fashion were not acceptable. Korean clothing, known as hanbok, denoted social status, but did so discreetly. The colors were muted and the embellishments were sparse. The most prominent individuals were distinguished by the sumptuous quality and elegant details of their hand-woven and assembled attire.
Although Korea is culturally very close to neighboring China and Japan, hanbok is unique. Their signature items include billowy skirts, black top hats, and women’s jackets so short they’re little more than sleeves. Of the 19th-century clothing in this selection, the pieces that most closely resemble the clothing of Korea’s neighbors are ornate bridal robes embroidered with images of flowers.
If the 1893 expo was the first time Korea showed hanbok to the world, it was also a kind of last stand for the nation’s traditional clothing. In 1895, the country’s officials adopted Western attire and the hanbok was reserved for special occasions, as the show’s curator Lee Talbot points out. (A more harrowing change came in 1905, when Korea began the transition to become a colony of Imperial Japan, which imposed its culture and language.)
The top floor of this two-story exhibit is dedicated to the modern era, highlighted by hallyu, the “Korean wave” of entertainment and fashion that emerged beyond South Korea’s borders. Two video screens document recent K-pop artists and today’s youth streetwear, respectively, while a third offers a brief 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 during the 1970s.
Among the more recent items are hanbok-style children’s togs from the 1980s, made in bright hues, because those colors are supposed to ward off children from evil, and contemporary hanbok-inspired school uniforms. There’s a quilted jacket designed by Julie Lee, an American woman who married one of Korea’s last crown princes in 1959, and elegant gowns by Nora Noh, South Korea’s first major postwar designer.
Another dress on display was conceived 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 traditional not in outline but in material: hanji, or Korean handmade paper.
Also on display are examples of bojagi, which is made of colorfully decorated cloth but is not designed to be worn. Produced in Korea for at least 600 years, decorative wrapping cloths are used to wrap gifts and for other ritual purposes. The show includes some examples of updated recent bojagi, as well as a bojagi-inspired dress crafted in 2016 by German designer Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s longtime creative director. That eye-catching dress represents Korea’s long journey from hermit kingdom to global fashion trendsetter.
Korean Fashion: From the Royal Court to the Catwalk
George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. museum.gwu.edu.