The aesthetics of the Korean noblewoman

by Yoko Haruhara

Korean aesthetics can be summed up in one word, mot. Used frequently in casual conversation, the term refers to stylishness, elegance and the state of being chic.

“Mot: The Beauty and Style of Joseon Dynasty Korean Women,” currently being hosted by the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, provides a good visual definition of the term. The exhibition is comprised of 210 works from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), including costumes and accessories, ceramics and furniture on loan from the Amore Museum of Seoul, South Korea. All of the artifacts were personal items that belonged to Korean aristocrats, giving us an intimate view of their lifestyle.

Speaking to The Japan Times, Korean curator Moon Sunjoo of the Amore Museum said, “I would like Japanese visitors to the exhibition to experience the pure aesthetics and the beautiful, highly developed craftsmanship that was enjoyed by Korean noblewomen. This is the first occasion on which these artifacts are being shown outside of our country.”

Upper-class weddings during the Joseon Dynasty were important events, marking the occasion of a binding contract between two families. Couples were brought together after the close consultation of parents and go-betweens with fortune tellers, who took a careful astrological reading based on the prospective couple’s names and birthdays.

The marriage ceremony itself was a formal affair held in the courtyard of the bride’s residence in front of a painted folding screen. The screen prominently displayed an “auspicious” red peony motif that symbolized the love the couple would share. One such screen from the late 19th century is on display in the main exhibition room of the museum.

Among the dazzling works of embroidery in the exhibition is a 19th century Korean hwarot wedding costume. Also referred to as a flower robe, this type of garment was originally worn by the queens of the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935), but by the Joseon Dynasty, it was commonly worn as a ceremonial wedding garment.

Korean embroidery’s fine craftsmanship and attention to detail has long made it one of country’s leading traditional arts. As a result of the Confucian ideology enforced during the Joseon Dynasty, women were mainly relegated to the domestic sphere, and embroidery was considered one of the few appropriate activities they could take part in at home. Women prided themselves on their embroidery skills and handed them down from generation to generation. Ultimately, the sewing tools of a needle, a pair of scissors, thread, spools, a thimble, a ruler and an iron came to be called a woman’s “seven friends.”

The light-green silk robe on display is embroidered across the front and back with auspicious motifs — phoenixes, pairs of birds and butterflies that represent the happiness of the couple, and the most prominent decorative element, again the blooming red peony. Wide colorful bands on the sleeves in bright pink, red, yellow and blue ward off evil spirits, and as a finishing touch, the cuffs are embroidered with the Chinese characters for longevity, wealth, and good health, sewn in silver and blue threads.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a collection of 13 norigae pendants dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. A striking example of a handicraft that reaches the level of high art, these pendants were an item of wealth and status that were worn both for ceremonial occasions and in everyday life.

Still in vogue today, the norigae is an ornamented silk rope that is looped at the top, knotted in the middle, and has long tassels at its base. It is fastened under the bow of the jacket to accentuate a woman’s robe and is typically adorned with jade, coral, pearl, amber and malachite stones.

For example, one norigae on display is a pendant made of yellow tassels. The entire pendant — its loop, knots and tassels — is constructed from one continuous silk rope. A large green malachite gem is set in a gold-plated wire leaf and vine that is hooked just below the tassel’s knot. A delicately designed butterfly box in silver is attached to the upper part of the pendant, concealing a small perfume container for deer musk perfume with a sliding cloisonne lid.

Ornamental knives were another important accessory used by women of the Joseon Dynasty. The practice of carrying the knives originated in the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), when men of the court wore them as a symbol of loyalty to the king. The custom evolved so that in the Joseon Dynasty women carried them as symbols of their determination to protect their chastity.

The knives, typically made of silver, were generally 15-cm long, with a finely crafted handle, a blade and a decorative scabbard. Small enough to fit into the palm of one’s hand, they were mainly for appearance and were tied to a belt or carried in a purse. The knife on display at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum is a beautiful example; the scabbard has incised letters reading “Zangsaeng-bulno,” a felicitous wish for long life and immortality. And just in case that’s not enough protection, it also holds a set of silver chopsticks to test food for the presence of poison.

“Mot: The Beauty and Style of Joseon Dynasty Korean Women” is an excellent opportunity to see outside of Korea the best of the country’s aesthetic achievements. Coming from the aristocratic culture of the Joseon Dynasty, these items represent the highest level of Korean hand-crafted decorative household items, and more broadly, perhaps, the finest mot the country has to offer.