Getting in the proper spiritCan national costumes be fashionably correct ― or, for that matter, incorrect?
Lee Soon-hwa, a designer of hanbok, the Korean traditional costume, thought a lot of examples of hanbok she’d seen were so inauthentic, in style and color, that she decided to show modern Koreans the real thing.
Having seen polyester and nylon numbers worn by performers in Korea’s ubiquitous folk festivals, Ms. Lee grew frustrated. But it bothered her even more deeply to see actual shamans dressed in garishly bright robes.
“I realized shamanism is the life and spirit of Korea. It’s more cultural than religious,” said Ms. Lee, who was raised Catholic.
Ms. Lee began to search for the heritage of the Korean shaman’s costume. After a few years of study and research, she created garments she believed were faithful to the originals, and gave a public presentation.
Her fashion show in the Novotel Ambassador Hotel in Gangnam last month was small, but well-received by foreign diplomats and Korean government officials present. Impressed, the South African Ambassador, Sydney Kubheka, suggested she export the silk she used to his country.
Wearing an unusual mixture of clothes ― a pale-gray wool sweater over a long green skirt inspired by hanbok ― Ms. Lee exudes a fierce energy so strong that she could be mistaken for a shaman herself.
When she decided to revive the shaman’s wardrobe, she followed the tradition of Sanamgut, a regional shamanistic ceremony practiced in Seoul, Incheon and the Gyeonggi province area as rituals and fashion differ from region to region.
What surprised her was that real shamans were not at all knowledgeable about their own traditional garb.
“Their ceremonial gowns were so wrong,” said Ms. Lee, who has been making hanbok for decades. “After years of making the real things, I had a gut feeling that something was not right and out of place.
“But there were no solid records of any kind, as the custom has been orally handed down from one shaman to another.”
Her research was based on a few ancient documents and visits to museums, as well as interviews with important shamans who had been designated cultural assets by the Korean government. She observed a number of shamanistic ceremonies.
The result was the spectacular reproduction of 12 costumes, each of which was worn during a different stage of a Sanamgut ceremony.
During the ceremony, which can last hours and often days, a shaman, most often a woman, changes her outfit 12 times. Each outfit symbolizes the physical presence of a different spirit ― a famed general, a scholar, a bride, a child.
Through offerings and prayers, the shaman summons the spirit and enters a state of delirium, serving as a medium between the spirit and the mundane world.
“The outfits resemble ordinary clothing, but they are brighter and colorful, as they are designed to attract or summon spirits,” Ms. Lee said. “Some gowns are not actually worn, but just hung over the shoulder.”
In her research, Ms. Lee came across a privately-owned painting depicting shamans in full regalia hundreds of years ago. She made an exact copy of what she saw in the painting.
“The shamans’ costumes were bright, but they were not garish or gaudy,” she said, spreading a floor-length gown on the table in her small boutique in southern Seoul.
Naturally dyed and hand-stitched, the gown was made of pea-green silk, and its square sleeves were adorned with thick stripes in red, orange, yellow and blue.
She pulled out more from an antique-inspired Korean chest ― scholar’s robes, in two slight variations. Both robes were smooth and white as fresh cream, with bold black bands at the sleeves and at the front. One gown had a more ancient look, with sleeves that hung like flags. The other had a smaller sleeve opening and slits in the back panel.
“See? These robes clearly belong to the same social status of the same period, but the wearer could express his personal style,” Ms. Lee said.
Before opening her boutique, Gahwa Hanbok, in 1986, Ms. Lee was a 29-year-old housewife with children. One day she made her choice. Everyone around her thought she was out of her mind. “Seamstress used to be considered one of the lowliest jobs,” she recalled.
Because she wanted to better understand the world of hanbok, she began to study the historical aspects of Korea’s ancient fashion, through books, records, paintings and museums. To understand the anatomy of ancient clothing, Ms. Lee used to secretly unravel original royal garments she had borrowed from museum archives.
She started as an apprentice to designers. When her own business took off, she held private shows to inspire both private customers and scholars.
Today, her regular clients include hanbok designers and boutique owners from all over the peninsula, for whom Ms. Lee’s designs are the season’s fashion guideline. Every season, silhouettes, color combinations, proportions and embellishments change, and for hanbok enthusiasts, fashion is important.
For example, the jeogori, or top, has become longer than before. “It used to be so short that I couldn’t lift my arm,” said a middle-aged customer, who was eager to have her brand-new hanbok designed by Ms. Lee. “These days, the jeogori is so long that you don’t need shoulder straps to hold the skirt.”
After wrapping up the shaman collection, Ms. Lee feels she’s ready for another chapter. She now wants to create a modern line using hanbok elements and become commercially successful, like the hanbok designers Lee Young-hee and Park Sul-nyeo. With support from the Korean government, she plans to show her shaman costumes in various cultural festivals.
She also wants to explore the possibilities of the monk’s habit.
“Originally, Buddhist monk’s habits, when first brought to Korea, were bright, close to crimson red, but in early days Buddhism had been oppressed,” she said.
“For monks on the run to survive, the color and design had probably assimilated plain clothes worn by ordinary folks at the time. Once they went into permanent hiding inside temples, the monk’s outfit remained the same to this day, because there was no more need to change,” she said.
You’ll know Lee Soon-hwa has made her mark on Korean fashion if the Buddhist monk look becomes the next big thing.
by Ines Cho