Relearning the symbolism, artisanship in royal costume
Dec 16, 2016
A display of the queen and king's regal-red first night robes at the Korea Furniture Museum in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul. The special exhibition showing the royal attire of Korea will continue until January 2017.
/ Courtesy of Korea Furniture Museum

The Korea Furniture Museum, a lovely traditional Korean edifice, is located in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul. It is a posh part of the city that retains a certain element of old Seoul.

Here the museum holds exhibitions that allow visitors to travel back in time to learn traditional Korean culture. Currently it is holding an exhibition of traditional royal garments for women, which they recreated.

"These clothes here on display, they are remade based on historical records, and mostly reflect the King Yeongjo (1694-1776) and the King Jeongjo (1752-1800) years of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) when the kingdom flourished in many aspects," said Kim Kyung-sil, deputy head of Korean Royal Costume Research Institute and a professor at Sungkyunkwan University. "Here you can see elements or symbolic artwork that shows the prosperity of the times," Kim said.

In that vein, the exhibition shows how a queen would progressively dress for a wedding, first putting on layers of underclothes before putting three layers of "jeogori" and three layers of gold-gilded skirt underneath the "nokdangeui" green ceremonial jacket. The queen then puts on the inner red gown, and then the full outer gown and coats for the official marriage. The exhibition then shows the king and his "hongnyongpo" or red ceremonial robe, and the queen's "hongwonsam" or ceremonial red robe she wore on her first night, as well as the inner room where the king and the queen would pay respects to the Empress the morning after. Interestingly, the colors in the exhibition start with the white and ivory underclothes and some in soft pink, and then progresses to bold and stronger red and blue, reserved for kings and queens. The princes and the princesses would wear more of the purplish red or green. Towards the end, the exhibition shows gold-gilded yellow ceremonial robes of Queen Yoon (Empress Sunjong) and the green-colored one of the second daughter of King Yeongjo.

"Here, even with the underclothes, the women of nobility wore up to four layers including two different types of petticoats, which strangely resemble both the French and Spanish-style petticoats," Kim said.

Professor Kim Kyung-sil of Sungkyunkwan University poses in front of the underclothes that a queen wore, based on historical records, at a special ongoing exhibition at the Korea Furniture Museum.

All in all, royal Korean female attire for a queen involved more than 13 layers in some cases.

"It must have been a bit cumbersome for those in the royal court to wear all those layers," said Ann Chu, a tourist visiting last Saturday from Hong Kong.

But Professor Kim said that the layers illustrated not only their status, but also a certain set of "codes" of designing or making a king's, a queen's or a Prince's gown.

"For instance, for the king's coat or the "hongnyongpo," the dragon design on it should depict a five-toed dragon while it should be a four-toed dragon for prince. The historical documents carry very specific details about what a king should wear on certain occasions," Kim said.

Popular interest in traditional Korean costumes has been revived as younger people and foreign visitors borrow hanbok to walk about in Seoul and in other places such as Jeonju Hanok Village.

But for Kim, restoring royal garments is a work pursuing perfection as she tries to capture the aesthetical essence of the time. "Depending on the clothes, I spend about six months to two years in preparation and then try to turn what's on the text into physical attire," Kim said.

The exhibition, which will run through January 2017, will be followed by exhibits focusing on the royal clothes for men and children. For Chyung Mi-sook, director of the museum who co-curates the exhibition, a chance to illustrate ― to near perfect similarity ― the traditional clothing of Korea's past is part of her lifelong effort to restore dignity in the traditional culinary, living and dress culture lost during Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).

"The average Koreans these days, especially the young, do not know about traditional Korean dress. I wanted to show what it was like, for example, like what underwear our forefathers wore," said Chyung.

The Korea Furniture Museum on a snowy day / Korea Times file

"I want them to know that a country's food, clothing and shelter do not appear overnight. These things reflect our values and history, layers on layers of thousands of years," Chyung said.

If and when possible, Chyung said that she would like to take the royal attire exhibition portions for display in New York or France. "Who knows, perhaps about 100 years from now, they will be hosting a special exhibition on Korean royal garments by then," she said.

The museum itself is a standing exhibition every time you visit. Established two decades ago, Chyung has assembled 10 hanok, each taken from Changgyeong Palace in Seoul during its demolition in the 1970s. These came from the old house of the cousin of Empress Myeongseong in Mapo, the actual residence of Empress Sunjong, and even a commoner's house. Consequently, the museum displays court, gentry and even commoner-style hanok. Visitors need to book online at or call at (02) 745-0181 for groups. It is closed on Mondays and Sundays.

Source:The Korea Times

Related article
You May Also Like
Comment (0)