Fashion icon Nora Noh honoured in art and film

LKL looks at two works devoted the life and work of Nora Noh:

  • A documentary by Kim Sung-hee (Nora Noh, 2013, South Korea, colour, DCP, 93′) and
  • An installation by Cho Duck-hyun (The Nora Collection, 2008, Graphite and charcoal on canvases, frames, wall papers, dimensions variable)

Nora Noh

To the current generation of Koreans, two names that stand out as dominating Korean fashion history: Lie Sang-bong and the late Andre Kim (1935-2010). Yet the first lady of Korean fashion, Nora Noh, doesn’t even rate an article in the English version of Wikipedia. This is a designer who in the 1980s was well known enough in the US to have a ground floor window display at Macey’s devoted to her work, and whose designs made the cover of Vogue in the 60s and 70s. It is suggested that she was on a par with Coco Chanel and Vivienne Westwood.

Nora Noh's window display in Macy's
Nora Noh’s window display in Macy’s – a still from Kim Sung-hee’s documentary

The shock at how Nora Noh has vanished from Korea’s public consciousness is expressed early in this 2013 documentary by Kim Sung-hee. Stylist Seo Eun-yeong, one of the chief characters in the documentary, explains how even in the fashion schools of Korea Noh is similarly invisible.

This documentary focusses on the efforts by Seo to right this wrong by putting on a retrospective show commemorating 60 years in the Korean fashion industry. Noh, now in her 80s, is also centre stage in the film: advising, supervising and sometimes disagreeing with Seo on the retrospective. And one fascinating aspect of the exhibition is that a lot of the dresses on display are historic creations for the celebrities and powerful ladies of the day.

Some of the garments
Some of the garments loaned by Noh’s former clients for the commemorative show – a still from Kim Sung-hee’s documentary

Noh’s early life story is a fascinating tale for anyone interested in Korean 20th Century cultural history. Born in 1928 and given the name Noh Myung-ja (노명자), she married in 1944 to avoid being conscripted by the Japanese as a comfort woman: married women were exempt from sexual slavery. When she realised that her in-laws regarded their latest family member as nothing more than a domestic servant she got herself a divorce. This in itself would have been shocking at the time, but Noh’s life story seems to be a continual tale of her breaking new ground, as a woman, and as a Korean. After her divorce, reflecting her break from the past and her determination to forge her own independent way, she renames herself after the similar character in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, Nora. Aged 19, she finds herself travelling to Los Angeles to study fashion. The year is 1947.

Nora Noh still at work in her 80s
Nora Noh still at work in her 80s – a still from Kim Sung-hee’s documentary

After her training in America, a number of factors combined to make it seem as if Nora was in the right place at the right time. It was after the Korean War, and South Korea was trying to break with the past. While there was certainly some conservatism in society, those who could afford it wanted the modern, western look that Noh’s designs gave them. And as younger women came into the workforce in the 1960s, Noh’s new ready-to-wear range was marketed as being much more practical and comfortable for the working woman.

Um Aing-ran as Hepburn
Um Aing-ran as Hepburn – a still from Kim Sung-hee’s documentary

Noh’s modern designs almost defined the style for the golden age of Korean Cinema. Actress Um Aing-ran (엄앵란) even insisted in her contracts that Noh would design her wardrobe for the film. Um is interviewed in the documentary, and we see footage of her wearing the Aubrey Hepburn look that Noh created for her. Noh dressed not only film stars but pop stars – Yoon Bok-hee famously wore Noh’s mini skirts, while the Pearl Sisters wore her flared trousers.

The famous picture of Yoon Bok-hee wearing a Noh mini
The famous picture of Yoon Bok-hee wearing a Noh mini – a still from Kim Sung-hee’s documentary

“It’s been my lifelong job to make clothes that give women freedom and confidence,” says Noh in the documentary. “I’ve tried through my designs to change the way women move and think and gain self-esteem.” In other quotes to camera which define Noh’s design philosophy, she says stressed that designs should be wearable, that clothes are not object of art and they should not overshadow the wearer.

The film’s strong point is exactly the ground where it sets its stall – focusing on Noh’s importance to the Korean fashion industry, her force of character in constantly making a stand against a conservative hierarchy, and her role in defining the look of an age. The fly-on-the-wall aspects of putting on a fashion show have passing interest for revealing some of the tensions between the individuals involved, but the real interest of the film is looking back at the past, and interviewing some of Noh’s clients (such as actress Choi Eun-hee). It does however skate over some of the personal details: while maybe not relevant from the perspective of her fashion career, it would be interesting to have had more time spent on her early years, particularly the period covering her divorce and subsequent trip to America, and some of the background to how she came to be interested in fashion in the first place. Some of the details are helpfully filled in by an interview by Claire Lee in the Wall Street Journal (linked below).

Installation view of Cho Duck-hyun's Nora Collection (2008)
Installation view of Cho Duck-hyun’s Nora Collection (2008) in the Saatchi Gallery in 2012 as part of the Korean Eye exhibition (photo: LKL)

But also these early years, and Noh’s spirit of independence, are captured in an 80th birthday tribute to the fashion icon by artist Cho Duck-hyun entitled The Nora Collection (2008). And unusually for an artist, but typically for Cho Duck-hyun, the work mimics a documentary style. With his meticulously detailed work with charcoal and graphite, Cho’s images of different scenes from Noh’s life look like documentary black-and-white photographs. Set in ornate coloured frames, and in a room with rich wallpaper, the collection makes you feel as if you are walking into a family archive or a gallery in a museum.

We have “photographs” of Noh’s childhood and schooldays; of her wedding day, of her time in America. And most of the photographs come in mirror-image pairs, as if Noh’s life could have gone in two opposite directions. Some of these images are fractured, or there are empty frames where you expect a picture to be, thereby exploring the traumatic decision that Noh had to make in breaking from her husband’s family to forge her own way in the world.

As with Cho’s other collections of this type (the Sir Peter Wakefield collection, the Lady Rothermere collection), the work is rich in historical detail. But much of it is lost on the viewer as there is little documentation to explain what is being shown. Cho’s parallel artistic endeavours in creating “fake” history make you wonder how much of what you are looking at is “real” documentary and how much is his imagination; and with little documentation to go on the viewer’s own imagination is called upon to make judgements. But just as Noh herself created the look of an age, Cho captures the stifling atmosphere of Korea under Japanese rule, and the greater sense of freedom in the 50s, in his work. And both Kim Sung-hee’s documentary and Cho Duck-hyun’s installation are fitting tributes to an icon of Korea’s modernity.

More of LKL’s photographs of Cho Duck-hyun’s work in the Saatchi Gallery are at the bottom of this post. And here is a trailer for the documentary, embedded from the KoBiz website.

Links:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.