The “Korea: A Land of Hats” exhibition opened on Sept. 10 at the Charles B. Wang Center, displaying over 500 years of culture through the works of several living master artisans from South Korea. Attendees were encouraged to wear hats to celebrate the opening ceremony.
The hat exhibition was created for foreigners in a contemporary perspective. It is based on the perspective of a foreigner in Korea in the late 19th century, Seung-Hee Yoo, the Museum Director said. It is supported by the “Traveling Korean Arts” project of the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange and the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism of the Republic of Korea.
Hats used to be essential items in everyday Korean wardrobe during the Choson dynasty (1392-1910).The size, shape and color of the hat can reflect the social status, age, marital status, season of the year, class, gender and occupation of the individual. Wearing hats was a practice of those from authoritative figures to merchants.
“Korea was occupied by Japan in the early 19th century and because of the occupation, Korean culture like this almost disappeared, but if the government stepped in when Korea was all freed and liberated, it would have disappeared altogether,” artisan Park Hyung Park said. “They thought it was important to establish Korean traditions.”
Prints and journal entries by Paul Jacoulet and Elizabeth Keith complement the exhibition. They were travelers who visited Korea in the 20th century and showed the Western perspective on Korean hat culture. There are also written publications from the collection of Young-Dahl Song and photos from the collection of Norman Thorpe that are on loan, used to supplement the gallery.
The exhibit was first displayed in 2010 at the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, South Korea’s largest museum specializing in cosmetics and preserving cosmetic culture of ancient Korean women. It was a temporary exhibit which lasted for 6 months.
The display is split into several categories: women’s hats, court official’s hats, men’s indoor caps, horsehair hats, top hats and hats from people of various classes and social statuses, such as those of noblemen, government officials and commoners. History and context are also provided. The four artisans who make up the exhibition are considered cultural assets.
“The artisans here, we don’t have an American concept of it, but in Korea, there’s something called intangible cultural asset,” Rachel Kim, student assistant and translator for the evening said. “The people themselves are national treasures. They’re super important. They receive funding from the government just to make these hats.”
According to a display called “Preservation of Cultural Heritage,” Park Chang Young is the master artisan and horsehair hat maker. He’s been sharing his skills with his son Park Hyung Park, continuing the hat-making tradition that has been passed down for five generations. Park Sung Ho, a master of formal headgear, displays his royal court hats for both men and women. Yu Seon Hee, a certified trainee for traditional Korean quilting, specializes in women’s headwear.
The type of materials used in the hat-making process are silk, horsehair and bamboo with tools made out of wood and metal to shape the hat.
Making a hat is a labor intensive task. Two artisans make a top hat, known as the Gat. The two month process consists of one person working on the crown of the hat, and the other person working on the brim. The exhibit says that the top crown is made of horsehair and the brim is made from thin strands of bamboo fiber. The artisans in the Gat part of the exhibit are in charge of creating the crown and putting the hat together. The hats displayed are mostly used by middle-class individuals.
“I like the more high ranking hats, what the officials would wear, the high ranking officers,” Michael Buckley, a junior mechanical engineering major, said. “They looks [sic] pretty neat. [I like] the culture and how it represents status.”
The opening reception was popular with both students and locals. The men’s hat-making workshop was sold out.
“The jeweled hats, of which the current one is used by the brides, is really pretty,” Fran Carpten, a retired teacher from Massapequa Park, said. The women’s ceremonial cornet was adorned with vividly colored embellishments in flower and fan shapes. She wanted to see what pertained to status in Korean society because she was interested in cultural anthropology.
On the wall, visitors to the exhibit could appreciate an inscription that highlights the cultural importance of hats to Korea: “Korea seems to be the land of hats: all sorts of hats are made there, and nowhere have I seen such variety: from the golden cardboard worn by the provincial governor to the most humble headband of the peasants,” French explorer Charles Varat wrote in “Deux voyages en Corée” (1892).
The exhibition ends on Dec. 15 and is being displayed in the Skylight and Zodiac Gallery.