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GWU’s Textile Museum showcases Korean fashion, old and new

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GWU's Textile Museum showcases Korean fashion, old and new

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There’s a reason the examples of 15th-century clothing look so glamorous in “Korean Fashion: From Royal Court to Runway,”at the George Washington University Museum, and the Textile Museum. The elegantly tailored, gold-embellished costumes are actually from the 2011 South Korean TV series. “The Princess’s Man,”A period romance that took a few liberties with traditional Korean garb. The actual historical items featured in the show are subtler, yet no less interesting.

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These dubiously accurate getups aside “Korean Fashion” covers a little more than a century of the nation’s apparel. The oldest items are royal and aristocratic garments that were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Like many objects displayed at the Chicago event, they were later added to the collection that became the Field Museum.) It was the first time Korea, which was known between 1392 and 1897, was recognized as an independent country. “the hermit kingdom,” participated in a world’s fair.

Korea at the time reaffirmed the strict principles of Neo-Confucianism. Therefore, extravagant clothing and self expression were not permitted. Hanbok, a Korean term for clothing, was used to denote social status. However, it was done discreetly. The colors were muted and ornamentation was rare. The exquisite quality and elegant details of their hand-woven, hand-assembled attire made them more prominent.

While Korea is culturally very similar to Japan and China in many ways, hanbok is unique. Its distinctive items include billowing skirts, black stovepipe hats and women’s jackets cropped so high that they’re little more than sleeves. Of the 19th-century apparel in this selection, the pieces that look most like the clothing of Korea’s neighbors are ornate bridal robes embroidered with images of flowers.

If the 1893 expo was the first time Korea displayed hanbok to the world, it was also something of a last stand for the nation’s traditional clothing. In 1895, the country’s officials switched to Western garb, and hanbok became reserved for special occasions, as the show’s curator, Lee Talbot, notes. (A more difficult transition occurred in 1905 when Korea became a colony under imperial Japan. It imposed its culture, language, and culture.

The modern era is celebrated on the top floor of this two-story exhibit. Hallyu and other notables are featured on the second floor. “Korean wave” of entertainment and fashion that surged beyond South Korea’s borders. Two video screens document recent K-pop performers and today’s youthful streetwear, respectively, while a third offers a quick-cut history of South Korean fashion from the end of the Korean War to the 1990s. This includes photos of a police crackdown on women wearing short skirts and long hair in the 1970s.

Among the more recent objects are 1980s hanbok-style togs for children — made in bright hues, because such colors are supposed to protect kids from evil — and hanbok-inspired contemporary school uniforms. There’s a quilted jacket designed by Julie Lee, an American woman who in 1959 married one of Korea’s last crown princes, and sleek dresses by Nora Noh, South Korea’s first major postwar woman designer.

Another dress on display was designed by Icinoo, a phonetic contraction for Lee Shin-woo, in the 1990s. He was one of the first South Koreans ever to present a Paris collection. It’s traditional not in outline but in material: hanji, or handmade Korean paper.

Exhibited are also examples of bojagi. This is a fabric made from colorfully decorated fabric that is not meant to be worn. These decorated wrapping cloths have been made in Korea for at most 600 years and are used for gift packaging and other ritual purposes. Some examples of the most recent bojagi are shown, as well a bojagi-inspired Chanel dress that Karl Lagerfeld (German designer and long-term creative director) created in 2016. That striking gown represents Korea’s long journey from hermit kingdom to global fashion trendsetter.

Korean Fashion: From Royal Courts to Runway

George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum 701 21st St. NW museum.gwu.edu.

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