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The Korean Cloth Tradition

By bringing their own vision to traditional Chinese methods, Korean textile artists added to the world's treasury of beautiful and practical objects.

IN defiance of their often embattled history, the Korean people have always been wonderfully creative and artistic, known for their ceramics, textiles, music, and painting. Throughout the centuries, they have remained true to their talents, their particular sense of color and form, despite internal wars and threats from neighboring countries.

They maintained a splendid silk industry - with its mulberry orchards, silkworms, and dying vats - and have encouraged embroiderers, artists with the needle. And all of these achievements have been invested with a striking flair for fantasy and extravaganza.

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As is true in most countries, special events and occupations, as well as special personages, demanded particular costumes. Bridal wear created its own necessities, as did military uniforms, and even peasants' clothes were not forgotten. Korea was also rather remarkable in devising a range of costumes for the scholar. The traditional Western concept of the learned man is often a somewhat grubby individual, unkempt, indifferent to his outward appearance, but this was not so in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Many who aspire to a niche in this category might feel more inspired if they were to sit down before a towering pile of books, or a typewriter, dressed in palest blue ramie (a linen-like material) with a full skirt and wide sleeves, the ensemble enlivened by long and handsome tassels. Going out into his quiet courtyard for his tea the fortunate literatus would put on a small feather-light black gauze hat, made of horsehair, with a crown so high that it could accommodate his top knot.

A recent exhibit mounted at the IBM galleries in New York City showed a considerable range of attractive clothes, all of them from the 19th century, though, being traditional, their inspiration went back far into history.

The Korean people continue to produce silks and brocades, cottons and linen, and there are even great embroiderers at work, usually women who learned their art from great-grandmothers and grandmothers who were wonderfully conversant with designs and patterns.

Their embroidery motifs, such as the cloud, the plum blossom, lotus, chrysanthemum, the swastika, the stork, were drawn from the rich legacy of Chinese symbols, which had had so great an influence on the Korean textile industry, as had Chinese culture in general. As with ceramics and painting, however, the Korean embroiderers took the Chinese tradition and moulded it to their own identity so that it had an essential character all its own.

Always color conscious, these artists worked within a framework called the five directional colors: blue symbolized east; white, west; red, south; black, north; and yellow, center. This system was drawn from ancient Chinese cosmology, and perhaps accounts for some of the brilliant tonal contrasts appearing in their designs.

The art is so old - going back, some claim, several millenia - that all sorts of fanciful conceits are accounted for within the tradition. This is particularly evident when artisans make tassels, ribbons, purses, and wrapping clothes.

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Ribbons are important in old Korean costumes, generally worn by women far down their backs, heavy, embroidered, wide. Small pouches of intricate design were also attached to women's belts and truly marvelous tassels, from the small to the very large.

There were even meticulously embroidered silked thimbles, each a treasure to see, scarlet with multicolored designs. The artists made shoes of cloth, handsomely embroidered, and remarkable hats, all small in the crown.

They also excelled, and excel, in the production of wrapping cloths for all occasions: squares, or (less frequently) oblongs of material to wrap up objects and gifts of many sorts for ceremonies and special occasions.

These lovely squares, often looking like subtle and transcendent patchwork, put our awful, hideous plastic bags to shame. Wedding presents, of course, had splendid wrapping cloths, and other occasions merited great attention to these useful adjuncts, which were of varied size, and sometimes had cords attached to the corners. As they had no special emphasis as to form; the makers could do what they liked in the way of juxtaposing colors, which were now bold, now of muted shades, an art both aesthetic and eminently practical.

The Japanese used to go in for wrapping cloths too at one time, and indeed it would be a delightful thing if the world could follow the old lead of this custom and the West take up the idea.

Korean costume designers and their clothmakers have added a great deal to the world's treasury of attractive objects and have enhanced our sense of materials. (Among these is gauze, which they loved and used extensively, both for hats and garments, even for wrapping cloths.)

They made the most of what they had, and everything they created was quite perfect in itself. This conveys a lesson to us all, quite apart from the beauty of the result.

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