Arts » Art

Couture's Past & Present

by Sura Wood
Sunday Nov 12, 2017

From meticulous recreations of royal finery of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) to the Korean-influenced, haute Parisian chic of Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, and the daring of "master of deconstruction" Jin Teok, the Asian Art Museum's new costume exhibition, "Couture Korea," represents an ambitious undertaking outside its comfort zone.

This, the last show launched before the institution undergoes its planned expansion next year, aims to look beyond the glamour of the catwalk to the historical context and cultural significance of clothing and what it reveals about Korea's collective past and present. That's a tall order for a museum which excels at historical subjects - the older the better - and unfortunately, the closer the show edges towards modernity, the more threadbare it becomes. Not surprisingly, the exhibition acquits itself most beautifully in its opening section, which features reconstructions of handmade traditional Korean ensembles for the elite or "Hanbok," stunningly displayed and accompanied by substantive scholarship.

During an extended period of cultural insularity in the mid-to-late Joseon dynasty, before Korea reluctantly opened to the West at the end of the 19th century, daily life was dictated by strict adherence to Confucian ideology that advocated modesty, self-restraint and scrupulous attention to detail. Those values also applied to modes of dress that differed for men, who were masters of the universe, ruling society and family life, and women, who rarely emerged from their domestic compounds.

On occasions when noblewomen did venture out, they were expected to hide their faces under a coat. Men wore loose-fitting pants and spacious robes made of translucent silks or coats lined in fur. Women's fashions didn't stint on fabric. Tight-fitting short jackets or blouses were partnered with voluminous skirts of fine linen, silk or cotton that anchored under the bust; in an elegant flourish, arm-warmers in contrasting material, lined with sheepskin, might extend from elbow to wrist.

Styles were sedate, but colors were anything but. Take the pleated hot-pink skirt or a full one in tangerine silk whose hem pools in a circle on the floor. The garments may not have been deliberately designed to quell female rebellion, but they certainly didn't promote mobility or ease of use; no running for the bus or away from troublesome husbands in these get-ups. Assembling the required complex network of undergarments was a major operation in itself. A display accompanied by a touch screen goes through multiple steps and layers - I counted at least four - before one could put on what would be seen in public. Cumbersome, yes; and god help you if the temperature soared.

Courtesans, free from the oppressive constraints of respectability, could afford to be adventurous in their dress, and some elite woman discreetly followed suit. Based on "A Secret, Forbidden Outing at Night," Shin Yunbok's famous 18th-century painting of a courtesan violating curfew, the head-turning, high-fashion winter ensemble, with a thick wrapped cerulean-blue skirt buoyed by undergarments exposed below the hemline, was likely part of a trend-setting courtesan's wardrobe.

The cross-pollination of East and West is explored through the pairing of Chanel's creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, and Jin Teok, who spent several years working in Paris. Lagerfeld's spiffy black-and-white ensemble with ruffled peasant dress and a slew of large shiny silver sequins attached to its wide ¾-length skirt was inspired by traditional Korean wear. Juxtaposing past and present, feminine and masculine, labor and luxury, Jin transformed an embroidered, red silk charmeuse bridal robe into a long halter top, and styled it with a skirt cut from a man's vintage jean; a double layered vest in the same vein is mixed with a tobacco-toned, asymmetrical denim skirt tiered in lace and gathered so that it juts away from the hips like a bustle. Way cool, as long as the doorway is wide enough.

Korean fashion hasn't had the global impact of its Asian counterparts Japan and China, but two stellar, cutting-edge talents, Im Senonoc and Jung Misun, are the wave of the future. They're the focus of the show's last part and its skimpiest content-wise. Gallery brochures contain a few pictures but no supporting information; displays of their garments aren't labeled so you won't know whose work you're looking at, and though a lone text panel promises a dive into their creative process, a handful of transparency sketches, bolts of thread and photographs of scissors just don't cut it. It's as if the curators ran out of steam at the end; no fault of the designers, whose contemporary reinterpretations of historical Korean fashion in practical, on-the-go fabrics deserved better. Im is known for body-conscious, architectural styles and her exclusive use of eco-conscious neoprene (a nifty cropped vest in fire-engine red is a keeper), while Jung creates knitted jersey pieces combining Western aesthetics and sleek silhouettes with the construction and motifs of traditional costumes. I confess to falling for a black, ultra-slim pencil skirt with a band of motorcycle leather at the waist and a feminine, sheer organza overlay. It's a reminder that the engine that really powers fashion - and has made it a billion dollar industry - is desire.

Through Feb. 4.

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