The current exhibition at the KCC gives us an historical overview of the methods used by Korean womanhood to beautify themselves. Clearly it’s not possible to exhibit the original ancient cosmetics themselves, but the containers used to store them have survived: from Silla and Baekje kingdom earthenware powder bowls and oil jars, via beautifully inlaid celadon ceramics cases from the Koryo dynasty, to silver containers from the Empire period, there is a wide variety of these trinket-sized artefacts. Ornately crafted bronze mirrors and mother-of-pearl inlaid mini chests of drawers complete the range of toilet accessories on show, and hairpins and other adornments such as norigae (tasseled pendants) give an idea of the way a restrained Joseon costume could be livened up.
Perhaps more interesting are the cosmetics and perfumes themselves: information in the booklet accompanying the exhibition, supported by a display case in the exhibition itself, discuss the range of cleansing and cosmetic products used.
Least appetising (and not on show) was the pig fat used to protect the skin from winter cold or summer sunburn. And lead-based white face-powder was downright harmful. Cinnabar (mercuric sulphide – or dragon’s blood) was used as rouge by the less well-off, while the wealthier used safflower, the active agent of which looks like saffron.
Face scrub is not a modern invention: Joseon dynasty ladies used to grind mung and other beans to perform this function. Less effective was the use of ground rice as face-powder: it tends not to stick to the face very well. And to distinguish herself from a kisaeng – who in the Joseon dynasty used white face powder – a yangban woman would add clay to the mix to give her face a bit of colour.
Joseon dynasty eyebrow pencil was made of flower ash and soot mixed with oil and applied with a brush (or charcoal from burnt cork for a budget alternative), and eyebrows were sometimes plucked to give a shape described as “willow-leaf” – presumably long and thin with pointed ends.
During the opening night of the exhibition there were demonstrations of making traditional Korean perfume. If the aroma wafting around the building was anything to go by, Joseon dynasty womanhood smelt strongly of cloves, but other extracts were used as well.
An informative exhibition which is well worth a visit.