Joshua Sofaer

Hats Off

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Deoksugung (Deoksu Palace) just opposite City Hall, is one of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ of Seoul, inhabited by various royalty in the 5 century long Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). The changing of the guard is reenacted for tourists. This is quite different from the changing of he guard at Buckingham Palace, which however archaic and for the benefit of visitors, is nevertheless the actual changing of the actual guard. At Deoksugung actors play the part.

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The musicians are real enough and I loved the piercing sound of the double reed taepyeongso, which you can imagine as a very very loud oboe.

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For the most part, however, the beards were stuck on.

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This was my first full day in Korea and my first introduction to the plethora of hats in their social and cultural history.

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The guy on the left here (another stuck-on beard) is wearing a ‘Samo’ (translated simply as ‘official hat’) which was a formal hat worn with the normal-duty uniform by government officials from the late Goryeo period to the late Joseon period. Over 500 years and it never went out of fashion!

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Here is one in a glass case in the National Museum of Korea.

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And here, rather beautifully, is the ‘hat box’, or rather the ‘case of official uniform, official belt, official hat’. You put your uniform in first, then your belt, and your hat on top of that. Closing the lid everything fits perfectly.

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On scrolls in the National Palace Museum, you can see lines of rather comical officials, parading around on various duties. The ones at the back are wearing Samo.

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This is a portrait of Bak Mun-su (1691-1756) a Royal Secret Inspector, famous for protecting the Korean people from corrupt royal officials. No doubt he deserved his Samo.

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In the National Folk Museum (one of my favourite museums in Seoul) there is a recreation of a traditional upper-class Joseon period wedding. The groom here seems to be wearing a Samo but without flaps (flaps indicated rank). The bride is wearing a Jokduri (women’s ceremonial coronet) which is the formal bridal hat worn during the Joseon period.

In the background several men are wearing wide brimmed Heungnip, a formal hat made of horsehair, worn when conducting rituals.

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At the 10th Anniversary Special Exhibition of the National Palace Museum, a series of Royal Portraits are exhibited. Many of them have been damaged over the years, but are nevertheless considered, if not quite sacred, then kinds of national treasure. (There were plenty of ‘intact’ portraits but I actually preferred the imperfect half visible fire and water damaged ones.) In this portrait, the King can be seen wearing a Heungnip with a very high cap, so that the brim sits almost on top of the head.

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Here the King is wearing an Ik Seon Gwan, which was reserved for royalty.

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That is also the hat worn by King Sejong the Great (reigned 1418-1450) in the 9.5 metre bronze statue in central Seoul. King Sejong the Great profoundly affected Korean history with his introduction of hangul, the native phonetic alphabet system for the Korean language. Prior to its introduction, Korea adapted a version of Chinese characters but it was cumbersome and difficult to learn. Hangul is supposed to be one of the simplest and most effective alphabets in the world, and transformed a largely illiterate population into a literate one.

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A few more horsehair hats. On the left is a Sabanggwan and on the right a Jeongjagwan, a three-storied hat. Both from 18-19th Century.

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And I’ve thrown this one in but I don’t know what it is.

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Back in the Folk Museum and we can see some hats of the less wealthy, including this hardcore rain gear.

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And these beautiful straw hats which are amongst my favourite.

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Here are ‘Three Koreans’ in hats in a print from 1934 by Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960) a French woodblock artist who was known for a style that mixed traditional Japanese ukiyo-e and techniques he developed himself. Born in France, Jacoulet spent most of his life in Japan (right through the Second World War, where he survived in the countryside by raising chickens and growing vegetables). He must have made this after a short trip across the Sea of Japan.

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In the National Museum of Korea there are some very early examples of pretty splendid headgear: crowns, diadems, ornaments.

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These gold diadem ornaments for the Baekje queen feature symmetrical scrolling vine patterns and flame motifs. They were most likely attached to a silk hat worn at official ceremonies.

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And here are a similar set for the king, only his have spangles! One of the Three-Kingdoms of Korea, the Baekje ruled the South West of Korea from 18BC to 660AD.

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Wearing this thing on your head must have caused quite a stir at court.

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This gilt-bronze cap is of a type normally found in the tomb of rulers. A current reproduction proposes how it might have been cushioned on a red silk lining.

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Another gold cap from the Three-Kingdoms period is this 5th Century Silla example, composed of several gold plates engraved with symmetrical patterns. Experts suggest that it would have been part of a larger ‘crown ensemble’, again probably on some kind of silk base. It looks so contemporary to me. More like something from modernist abstraction than a 1,500 year old hat.

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And then there are the crowns themselves. The stories of the people they adorned maybe lost but it is easy to imagine the impact they would have had.

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This gold crown, excavated from Geumnyeongchong in Gyeongju is decorated with standing ornaments made in twig and antler shapes, symbols that mediate between heaven and earth.

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And from the Hwangnam-daechong Tomb in Gyeongju, this Three-Kingdoms 5th Century Silla designated National Treasure: A gold crown with ornamentation in the form of tree branches and deer antlers attached along the headband.

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It really is a beautiful and impressive construction.

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Hats were clearly a sign of status in Korea. This has, of course, been the case all over the world, with crowns, laurel wreathes, mitres and so on, all of symbolic significance. Personally I haven’t seen such an array of headgear in other historical cultures as I did in Korea. Only a tiny proportion of which is represented here.

I leave you with this 19th Century portrait of Buddhist Monk Cheongheo Hyujeong (1520-1604), commander of the monk army during the Imjinwaeran, the Japanese invasion of 1592. His extreme piety and humbleness is depicted by the complete lack of hat. His bald head a symbol of his duty to the nation above his personal ambition.

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