Wearable Art?

Although I like to dress well--that is, in my own style--I'm no fashionista. I've never subscribed to Vogue nor watched "Runway." Neither am I a seamstress. When I designed a couple of my jackets a few years ago, I had someone else sew the pieces together so the sleeves were set in the right place!

What I greatly admire is the traditional clothing and accessories that are indigenous to cultures around the world. When I lived and traveled in Latin America, I collected and also donned items that were woven and/or embroidered by hand. What I find fascinating about such clothes is that they function as more than a body covering: they generally tell a story about the people's history or beliefs, identify what region they're from, what social class or tribe they belong to, and showcase beauty and skill. They are the original fiber arts.

  Reconstruction of bridal robe ( hwarot ) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), embroidered silk.

Reconstruction of bridal robe (hwarot) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), embroidered silk.

Unlike what's produced by the fashion industry, these creations are timeless in their culture rather than "in" for one season. That's why I was eager to visit "Couture Korea" at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, running until February 4.

  Reconstruction of woman's ceremonial robe and man's official robe from Joseon Dynasty   (1392-1897).

Reconstruction of woman's ceremonial robe and man's official robe from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

I've certainly seen hanbok (traditional clothing) during my trips to Korea. For many centuries, Koreans dressed in it in daily life, but today they reserve it for festive occasions, religious ceremonies, and national holidays. Otherwise, they go about in Western dress. Yet nowadays it's also common to see teens in rented hanbok strolling through palace and temple grounds and along city streets, posing for lots of photos or taking selfies. In a world of jeans and t-shirts, wearing hanbok has become a unique, fun, and perhaps nostalgic experience. Anyone who wears it gains free admission to the national palaces.

  Dressed in rented  hanbok , a young couple stroll through Insadong in Seoul.

Dressed in rented hanbok, a young couple stroll through Insadong in Seoul.

On the day I went to the exhibit, it was a special treat to view hanbok contextualized through the lens of couture as well as scholarly presentations by Minjee Kim, an independent dress historian in the S.F. Bay Area, and Lee Talbot, curator at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.  Hyonjeong Kim Han, Asian Art Museum associate curator of Korean art, is the visionary behind a show that not only informs visitors about an integral aspect of Korean culture and art, but also demonstrates how tradition is serving as inspiration for the latest couture. Anyone who has seen the traveling exhibition of Korean fiber art that I co-curated last year will understand my attraction to this theme of translating tradition into contemporary art.

  Reconstruction of women's jackets  (jeogori ) from   Joseon Dynasty   (1392-1897).

Reconstruction of women's jackets (jeogori) from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

While most people are familiar with kimono, few can say that about hanbok. Curator Han points out that its aesthetic is more about simplicity rather than "opulence or over display in the way it's presented." In addition, there's "important symbolism to the pieces and to each layer that's worn traditionally." I suspect that textile/fiber artists will soon find themselves using the interesting shapes as new forms for their designs, just as some have utilized the kimono outline. I appreciate the cheogori, jackets worn by women, which were modified from one era to the next according to then-current mores, as well as robes worn by men, particularly the translucent ones.

  Reconstruction of man's sleeveless robe from Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), ramie and silk.

Reconstruction of man's sleeveless robe from Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), ramie and silk.

  Reconstruction of King Yeongjo's outer robe ( dopo ), based on pre-1740 garment, silk.

Reconstruction of King Yeongjo's outer robe (dopo), based on pre-1740 garment, silk.

Moving through the gallery of traditional clothing (which also includes the cutest pieces for children of different ages), I learned some details that I hadn't come across in Korea, such as how courtesans set a new and daring fashion trend or how women wore many layers underneath the beautifully colorful outer wear. Marc Mayer, senior educator of contemporary art at the museum, skillfully employed technology to make such aspects more vivid.

  Children's vests, based on garments from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), silk.

Children's vests, based on garments from Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), silk.

Then I moved into the gallery highlighting contemporary fashion inspired by traditional Korean fiber arts. Fashion pioneer Jin Teok drew on embroidered bojagi (wrapping cloth), such as these, which are more than 100 years old.

IMG_7300.jpg
  By designer Jin Teok

By designer Jin Teok

Like Teok, Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, has been inspired by bojagi, but also by Korea's traditional craft of mother-of-pearl.

   Bojagi  (wrapping cloths).

Bojagi (wrapping cloths).

  By Karl Lagerfeld.

By Karl Lagerfeld.

  Designs by Karl Lagerfeld. Korean mother-of-pearl boxes.

Designs by Karl Lagerfeld. Korean mother-of-pearl boxes.

The final gallery includes contemporary Korean designers Im Seonoc and Jung Misun, who are innovating traditional styles with technology, even working with materials generally used for other purposes.

In all the galleries, you can actually touch samples of the textiles--everything from silk and ramie to neoprene. On videos projected on the gallery walls, you can watch models walking the runways wearing the latest designs influenced by Korean traditions.

Even if you're not a clothes horse, seamstress, or fashion designer, there's lots to attract fiber artists and non-artists alike. Among the many avenues--cuisine, gardening, architecture, and music--for becoming aware of people's lives in other times and places, clothing offers another entry point.

Questions and Comments:
If you're drawn to fashion, traditional or contemporary, what is it that piques your interest?
Which culture's clothing really commands your attention?
As an artist, do you find yourself moved by traditional items to create new work?