If you want to know what your chicest friends will be wearing soon, check out the cool kids in Seoul and Busan. South Korea is a cutting-edge fashion culture, especially in streetwear, sharing trends with the West through K-pop stars and Instagram influencers.
This was not always the case. In the 19th century, most Westerners considered Korea a closed book. However, after centuries of isolationist policies designed to protect itself from major Asian powers, the country finally opened its borders to diplomacy and trade in 1876 at the end of the Joseon dynasty. Americans finally discovered Korean fashion and textiles on a grand scale at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
“Koreans today can upload their photos online and immediately people around the world see and imitate them,” said Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. “But 130 years ago the situation was very different.”
Some of those same pieces from the World’s Fair are now on display in the museum’s latest exhibit, “Korean Fashion: From the Royal Court to the Runway,” alongside other rare pieces from the Joseon era, fashions from the second half of the 20th century as Korean designers began to parade in Paris and Milan, and streetwear from 2022.
The exhibition retraces this evolution of fashion, emphasizing hanboka collective term for Korean clothing which now, for women, usually refers to a traditional Joseon silhouette of bell-shaped skirt and long-sleeved jacket that is still worn on special occasions.
Over the centuries, clothing has reflected changes in Korean culture. As Korea’s borders became more fluid in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, hanbok came to incorporate European silhouettes like tailored waistcoats and metal or horn buttons. Yet traditional craftsmanship shone. A 19th-century hat displayed in “Korean Fashion” looks like a typical bowler hat from a distance, but up close is revealed to be intricately woven from horsehair with elaborately-figured cranes in the grain of the weave – a delicate traditional technique.
The first half of the exhibit on the second floor of the museum offers insight into late 19th-century Korean court life and the context in which it operated. The Confucian influence within the culture emphasized simplicity of form. Thus, while fabrics were rich and garments might use time-consuming luxury techniques like quilting, few were embellished except where those embellishments served a practical or ceremonial function. Embroidered rank badgesfor example, used the number and type of animals depicted to indicate where civil and military officials stood in their hierarchy.
Confucianism’s emphasis on frugality and modesty also determined Joseon fashions. Hanbok has been worn with paper on the collars and cuffs to prevent dirt and fading. Patchwork was popular in everyday and formal wear, with old dresses sometimes recycled into sleeve stripes that symbolized good luck and protection. Even a 19th century wedding dress worn by a princess features these patchwork techniques: its wearer could have been among the country’s wealthiest citizens and it is perhaps the most elaborate garment she has ever worn, but she (or her servants) always had to make do with what was available.
On the third floor of the museum are fashions from the 20th and 21st centuries, celebrating designers who thrived on the interplay between new and traditional fashion. The pieces on display are from Nora Noh, who helped bring the Mod aesthetic to Korea in the 1960s, as well as Lee Young Hee and Icinoo, who in the 1990s were the first Korean designers to present their collections on the catwalks Parisians. The exhibition also celebrates stage and television costumes.
In 2022, however, fashion is changing so rapidly that curators have finally decided they can only accurately depict the current state of Korean fashion with a rotating, continuously updated digital display.
“By the time you get a hot street look in time for our restaurateurs to whip it up, it’s not hot anymore,” Talbot said.
In collaboration with a submission-based street style aggregator HIPHOPERATORa screen on the third floor shows Korean influencers in their hottest outfits – from knee-high socks and baggy sweater vests to Y2K-style rave-influenced neon ensembles – each tagged with their hometown and even district. Hanbok silhouettes always appear, refined and sometimes seeming almost futuristic.
“Hanbok doesn’t stay the same, it incorporates a lot of different influences and it changes over time, but it’s still uniquely Korean,” Talbot said.