Couture Korea – Fashion at the Asian Art Museum

Couture Korea - Dress possibly worn by Empress Min - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Hi, a new fashion exhibit called Couture Korea, is now open at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Organized by the museum and the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation in Seoul, it features recreations of traditional Korean garments from centuries past as well as contemporary Korean fashion designs. It’s a fascinating look at Korean fashion and an unexpected venue to see fashion.

The exhibit takes up three rooms in the museum, with the largest room devoted to the traditional garments. The next room features the work of Korean fashion pioneer Jin Teok and Karl Lagerfeld. What is German designer Lagerfeld doing in an exhibit of Korean fashion? Well, when Chanel’s creative director designed his 2016 Cruise Collection, he was inspired by the Korean motifs and objects.

But before I show you photos from that part of Couture Korea, let me say a bit more about the traditional garments.

You may be familiar with hanbok, which refers to Korean traditional clothing, both women and men’s garments. I confess that I thought hanbok referred to the traditional women’s clothes. I didn’t realize it referred to all traditional Korean clothes regardless of gender.

The beautiful dress above was recreated using this photograph, which was on the description placard for this dress. I would have liked to get up close to the dress to look at the seams and pleats but the dress is behind glass.

Couture Korea - photo of Korean woman, possibly Empress Min

Please excuse the glare on the photos I took. Unfortunately all of the costumes are behind glass, which seems odd when many of them are recreations, not ancient garments. When I saw the Manus x Machina exhibit last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, most of the exhibit was not behind glass. The fashion mannequins were on raised platforms, which limited how close you could get to the garments. (You can see my posts about that show here, here and here.)

But this is a minor quibble because as the director of the Asian Art Museum stated at the press conference, this is the very first time Korean fashion has been presented on this scale. The Arumjigi Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving Korean culture, has done an amazing job with the reconstructed garments.

This ceremonial robe is from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910, yes, this monarchy lasted for five centuries!) as are many of the historical reconstructions in the exhibit.

Couture Korea - women's ceremonial robe from Jeosan dynasty - recreation at Asian Art Museum fashion exhibit

Some of the exhibit’s labels include swatches of fabric, which is great. I love to touch fabric. This silk was rather stiff so I assume it’s an organza. It would have been nice if they had provided more fabric details, such as screen printed silk organza. But they just say “silk with enamel and glass clasp.” This is the year of the sleeve, so these sleeves are right on trend. 😉

Couture Korea - exhibit - Asian Art Museum

There are many layers to traditional clothes – multiple drawers and skirts are worn together. Here was even a slide show demonstrating the many layers. Here’s layer 3 – a third set of drawers! How did they go to the bathroom?

Layers of womans ensemble - Couture Korea, Asian Art Museum - CSews

This is a women’s ensemble that has been reconstructed…

Couture Korea - women's ensemble 1700s - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum

… from this painting.

Couture Korea - Asian Art Museum - painting used to reconstruct Korean dress

Here are a few more highlights from the traditional part of the exhibit.

This is a man’s leather coat, which, according to the label, is shorter in back to accommodate sitting on a horse. You can’t see the back of the coat in the exhibit because it’s behind glass and the wall behind it is just a couple of feet away.

My photo of this coat had a ton of glare and I couldn’t get all of the sleeves in it. The sleeves are really long. This sheepskin coat is a reconstruction from a deerskin coat was worn by General Nam Iheung (1576-1627). According to the Couture Korea exhibit catalog, the general’s coat was “thought to have been worn under armor, due to the bloodstains and arrow holes that appear in its leather.”

Man's coat reconstruction from late 16th to early 17the century garment, sheepskin - Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum

Photo: Asian Art Museum

Sheepskin is quite soft and supple, as I discovered from touching the swatch on display.

Sheepskin sample - Couture Korea - Asian Art Museum - CSews

I love this 1500s ensemble.

Womens ensemble - 1500s reconstruction - Couture Korea fashion exbhibit- Asian Art Museum

There are many other traditional garments in Couture Korea, including these cropped women’s jackets (jeogori). They are very cropped (hemmed just below the bust) all in one large room.

Womens jackets jeogori)- Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

A stunning embroidered wedding bridal robe was also on display.

Bridal robe - reconstruction based on Joseon dynasty garment - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Here’s a detail of the embroidery.

Detail of embroidered bridal robe - reconstruction based on Joseon dynasty garment - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Couture Korea – contemporary fashion

This room features videos projected on the wall of some of Jin Teok’s fashion shows, along with some of her striking designs from the 1990s to the 2000s. I wish there was more biographical information on Jin Teok. The exhibit catalog says that in the 1990s she was “active in Paris” and that she “participated in several international fashion shows,” which is rather vague.

Jin Teok - Korean fashion designer - Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum CSews

Here’s a detail of that lovely pleat, which features an image from a 19th century Korean painting, “Woman Putting on Cosmetics.”

Dress detail - Jin Teok - Korean fashion designer - Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Here’s another dramatic ensemble by Jin Teok. It features beautiful embroidery.

Dress by Jin Teok - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Jin Teok shares the room with Karl Lagerfeld’s Korean inspired collection for Chanel. Here’s one of his designs in the 2016 Cruise collection.

Chanel 2016 Cruise collection - Karl Lagerfeld - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

This particular ensemble was inspired by hanbok and the Korean wrapping cloth, bojagi. It’s a handmade square cloth used to wrap food or to carry things. They are often made of scraps of silk and can be colorful. Here’s a vintage bojagi in the exhibit made around 1950-60. How’s that for inspiration?

Bojagi - Korean wrapping cloth - Couture Korea, Asian Art Museum - CSews

Here’s a detail of the jacket. You can see the Chanel logo on the buttons and the pink Petersham ribbon.

Chanel 2016 Cruise collection - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, CSews

The next generation of Couture Korea

The last (and smallest) room of Couture Korea is devoted to two Korean fashion designers from the younger generation, Im Seonoc, the creative director for zero-waste fashion line PARTsPARTs (see this YouTube video of her 2016 collection) and Jung Misun, who launched her fashion line Nohke in 2009. (Read this May 2017 interview with Jung Misun and see her Spring/Summer 2017 collection on Vogue’s website here).

My phone ran out of power when I got to this room. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention so these photos are courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.

This neoprene ensemble is by Im Seonoc. I like the elegance of the cropped jacket. It would have been nice to mix up the chronology in the exhibit and put some of the traditional garments next to the contemporary ones. You can certainly see the influence of hanbok in the modern designs.

Neoprene ensemble by Im Seonoc - Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Photo: Asian Art Museum

This vest is Im Seonoc’s neoprene interpretation of the traditional Korean vest – baeja.

Modern baeja by Im Seonoc - Couture Korea - fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum - CSews

Photo: Asian Art Museum

I like Jung Misun’s jersey dress. You can see echoes of hanbok in her designs, too They are a modern twist on the traditional.

Wool knit dress by Jung Misun - Couture Korea, fashion exhibit at the Asian Art Museum

Photo: Asian Art Museum

A grey wool knit dress was also in the exhibit. It has a long skirt and a cropped top with a tie that wrapped around the bust. It looked great on the mannequin but it would only suit figures with small busts unless you were to move the wrap to a lower position. You’ll have to see the show to see it in person!

These are just a few highlights from the show. It’s a rare opportunity to see historical and contemporary Korean fashions. The show is on display until February 4, 2018. But don’t delay. I usually wait until the last minute and then the exhibit space is crowded and you can’t get a good look at the designs. Go early and then see it again. You can also see the exhibit on Philippine art and a site-specific installation by Lui Jianhua on the second floor.

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