[EXHIBITION]Accessorizing, the Joseon wayLong, long before leather belts, plastic buttons or nylon zippers came along, Koreans knew how to fasten and accessorize their ancient garments.
The crafting of vegetable-dyed silk threads, delicately hand-woven for form and function, is popularly known as maedeup, or Korean macrame. Vivid in color and intricate in design, maedeup gave life to traditional Korean garb, which was minimal in design and neutral in colors.
In the royal court of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a group of craftsmen produced assorted maedeup items to meet daily demand, but today the skill and fashion once popularized in high society throughout China, Japan and Korea for centuries has survived only through a handful of artists who wish to revive the dying tradition.
The exhibition “Kim Hi-su: The Traditional Ornamental Knots” in the prestigious Park Ryu Sook Gallery in southern Seoul displays the artist’s first collection of classic maedeup. Kim is one of few artists in Korea who are enthusiastic about preserving and reproducing the traditional ornament of Korean fashion as fine art. The 36-year-old Kim has trained under the tutelage of the Korean maedeup master, Kim Eun-young, who has been designated an Intangible Cultural Property in Korea. The younger Kim has participated in events promoting Korean traditional costume and has won prestigious national awards.
A maedeup can be as simple and easy as a strand of thread serving as a fastener of a pouch, or as complex as a mysterious, ancient puzzle, involving elaborate knotting and weaving of twilled threads and hand-carved pendants made of precious stones. Most of the works displayed at the gallery are ancient accessories worn by noblewomen. In Korean noble society, a norigae, or a charm made of beautifully matched macrame, tassel and gem stones, embellishing the Korean costume, or hanbok, was an understated yet definitive sign of a true lady.
Many of the norigae Ms. Kim made are reproductions of antique ornaments for special occasions. One of the masterpieces, designed for a Korean queen, bears carved coral, jade and amber, each the size of an adult fist. She based her designs on historical records and original literature found in museum archives and worked closely with a master of ancient costume. She used motifs such as butterflies, lotus and peony blossoms, bees, gourds and bells, which signified fidelity, prosperity or long life in the old days.
Pointing at such exquisite pieces, Ms. Kim said, “Someone had to continue this priceless tradition and hand it down to our next generation. This is just the first stage for me.”
To complete the more than 70 works in her first collection took Ms. Kim nearly two years. “I fell in love with the meaning of each norigae, which is so personal to the wearer,” she said. One delicately embroidered norigae, for instance, was worn as a lucky charm at night by royal concubines who wished to be summoned by the king.
Ms. Kim is also keenly aware that most of the original Korean maedeup works may belong in a museum, but no longer in a modern woman’s wardrobe. To attempt to modernize the ancient accessories, she has included a few items that can be practical today. Chokers with butterfly pendants and evening purses adorned with pearls and gold embroidery look more archaic than fashionable, but a colorful collection of personal wine glass charms is a clever translation of the age-old tradition.
Mr. Kim is inspired by feedback and comments from gallery visitors and critics. When she is ready for her second collection, there might be a whole new way to accessorize, say, a John Galliano evening gown.
by Ines Cho
The exhibition runs until Oct. 18. Park Ryu Sook Gallery is located in Cheongdam-dong near Gucci’s flagship store. For more information, call 02-549-7574-6.