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Exhibition visit: Lee Young-hee’s Stuff of Dreams, at the Guimet

With more time being spent at home, LKL has a bit of time to catch up on the writing backlog. Here’s a visit we made to Paris at the beginning of March, a couple of days before the exhibition closed. In fact, looking back, it was the last Korean cultural event we enjoyed prior to the COVID-19 lockdown.


The Guimet, France’s National Museum of Asian Arts, recently benefited from a huge donation of textiles and costumes from the collection of hanbok designer Lee Young-hee (1936-2018), thanks to her daughter Lee Jung-woo. This makes the museum the home of the largest collection of Korean textiles outside of Korea.

The Guimet’s exhibition L’étoffe des rêves de Lee Young-hee. Séoul-Paris (4 December 2019 – 9 March 2020) was a welcome opportunity to see a major part of that donation before it goes into storage.

Lee Young-hee had a long-standing connection with the international capital of fashion, presenting her collections at Paris Fashion Week every year, twice a year (apart from fall/winter 1998) from 1993 to 2004.

In her early years in the dressmaking / fashion industry, Lee worked with “Seok Ju-seon, an ethnologist, collector, and great specialist of Korean clothing”. Professor Seok (1911 – 1996) was an assiduous collector of costumes and accessories, and donated a collection of 3,300 items to Dangook University. Lee Young-hee’s donation of around 1,300 items to the Guimet follows that example.

Lee Young-hee: workshop installation
The installation that greeted you on entering the exhibition, showing the range of subtle colour gradations in Lee Young-hee’s collection of fabrics now at the Guimet

After an initial installation that introduced the collection, including a large number of rolls of fabric and some traditional tools related to dressmaking, the exhibition was divided into three sections: Lee Young-hee’s recreations of historic costumes; her contemporary hanbok collection; and her haute couture range that featured in the Paris fashion shows.

Hanbok Reconstructions

Lee Young-hee learned her dressmaking skills and other techniques such as traditional dyeing from her mother, a seamstress. She opened her hanbok shop in Seoul in 1976. Alongside her production of everyday wear she researched, with support from Seok Ju-seon, the history of Korean clothing and “devoted herself to bringing back to life the clothes of the past, giving rise to reconstitutions of old garments now become rare, altered, or even lost”. Such researches were based both on actual garments that had survived to the present, and contemporary paintings (such as Shin Yun-bok’s Miindo and official court records). In her reconstructions, she:

“pursued a twofold goal of beauty and historical authenticity in the choice of materials, techniques, colours, and motifs.

These reconstitutions played an essential role in her work. In the 1980s she presented them in fashion shows usually in the first part, before her modernised hanbok and contemporary creations.”

On show at the Guimet was a full range of traditional costume, from ceremonial robes for the king and queen, via costumes for court and military officials, courtesans, dancers and court ladies, to everyday garments for the lower classes. The latter looked the most comfortable, being of simple cotton and giving the body plenty of room to breathe, and in simple tones of white, beige and grey (the latter being Lee Young-hee’s favourite colour, though this was more in the context of its ability to harmonise with other colours in her contemporary hanbok collections). All of the costumes perhaps are now familiar to us from historical dramas on the TV or movie screen, but up close one appreciated the supreme attention to detail, and the use of the different fabrics.

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The Contemporary Hanbok

In her contemporary hanbok collection, Lee Young-hee respected the traditional shape of the garment and continued to use traditional materials – silk and ramie. But she experimented with a broader set of colours as well as decoration.

Jeogori from Lee Young-hee's contemporary hanbok collection
Jeogori from Lee Young-hee’s contemporary hanbok collection © Maison de Lee Young-hee. All rights reserved

Understandably, many of the exhibits at the Guimet were in glass display cases making it difficult to get up close, but again one could appreciate the supreme craftsmanship. One of the chima was decorated with embroidery that recalled traditional ink painting, while a couple of the jeogori referenced traditional jogakpo patchwork techniques. Others featured bolder modern decoration.

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Haute Couture

Entering the final section of the exhibition, visitors were presented with three striking creations in scarlet and black. In the heat of the moment I neglected to note down their details, and sadly they were not included in the exhibition catalogue. This is a little surprising given how different they are from the remainder of the collection, both in terms of colour and style: the least hanbok-like of anything in the show.

Other than this arrestiong trio, the majority of the haute couture items showed their Korean heritage either through their chima/jeogori form or through the materials and techniques used. One of the skirts used a patchwork technique with a design that seemed to hint at hangul lettering; another had a more traditional jogakpo design. Her 2010 Haute Couture collection showcased the ramie (mosi) linen-like fabric woven in Hansan, Seocheon County in South Chungcheong Provice. The craft of making this fabric in Hansan was listed at UNESCO the following year.

Lee Young-hee raised eyebrows back home in Korea when she unveiled her Spring/Summer 94 collection at the October 1993 Paris fashion show (her second): hanboks consisting only of the chima, with no jeogori, leaving arms and shoulders bare. But the designs with their gorgeously rich colours and their “flowing, weightless” lines, found favour in Paris and were christened “Costumes of the Wind” by Laurence Benaïm, a journalist for Le Monde.

Lee Young-hee's "Costumes of the Wind".
Lee Young-hee’s “Costumes of the Wind”. Image: JoongAng Ilbo

You can see photographs of most of the outfits presented in the exhibition in the comprehensive catalogue available from the Guimet online shop or Amazon. Most of the photographs are of catwalk shows and thus give the costumes life and movement. A sample of one of the images is shown in a post on the Guimet’s Instagram account lower down this page. But here are some of my inadequate photos of the exhibition.

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If the Guimet exhibits this collection again, don’t hesitate to pay it a visit. This show was unmissable. You can also occasionally see a hanbok by Lee Young-hee in the V+A’s Korea gallery.

L’étoffe des rêves de Lee Young-hee. Séoul-Paris was at Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, 4 December 2019 – 9 March 2020. With thanks to exhibition curator and head of the Guimet’s textile collection, Helène Gascuel, for guiding us around the exhibition, (and to Beth for organising, and Jane for her company also). Acknowledgements also to the information provided alongside the exhibits, helpfully provided in English as well as French and Korean, from which most of the factual content and the quotations in the above article is drawn.


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