How Korean culture and fashion took the world by storm
The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hallyu! The Korean Wave brings you the best K-pop outfits, a re-creation of the Parasite set, and an interactive dance challenge
image Team Woo
words Eve Walker
From innovative K-beauty trends, to arresting cinema and series like Parasite and Squid Game, BLACKPINK’s world domination, and the explosion of Korean hotdog spots – it’s safe to say the world is hungry for more Korean culture. Last weekend, Hallyu!: The Korean Wave arrived at the V&A in London at last after two years in the making.
South Korean culture has gained noticeable traction in the past decade, but in actuality the term hallyu (Chinese for Korean Wave) was coined in the 1990s. The impeccably curated exhibition explores how the cultural landslide evolved, debunking the myth that the Korean Wave is a new thing.
Upon arriving at the exhibition, visitors are met with the first section “From Rubble to Smartphones”, which gives an insight into the historical context of the country. The show starts by highlighting how hallyu grew from the muddy waters of war in the late 1950s and blossomed into the cultural phenomenon it is today, with the catalogue touching on the paradox of the “cutting edge technology [that] now coexists with centuries-old shamanistic and Confucian rituals” in South Korea today.
Perhaps the most moving piece in the whole exhibition is Kyungah Ham’s What you see is the unseen / Chandeliers for Five Cities. Ham’s politically charged works are cut up and smuggled into North Korea, where embroiderers work on seperate pieces before smuggling them back to the South to be stitched together.
The image depicted here is of a fallen chandelier, which represents how Korea’s bright future was shattered into pieces when the country was divided after the Second World War. Wedged in between displays about the country’s painful past and the rest of the exhibition which explodes with joy and colour, the use of liminal space for the placement of this piece replicates the border between the divided nation, leaving a bittersweet taste in your mouth.
Next we’re taken to “Setting The Scene”, which showcases the best of K-drama and film. Expect the likes of the iconic costumes from Squid Game, as well as a hand-written letter from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and photographs from the set of the 2020 indie Minari. The show stopper in this section is for sure the re-creation of the bathroom from the Oscar-winning film Parasite, which the V&A worked on with Lee Ha-Jun, the production designer and the art director of the film. Project Curator Yoojin Choi tells Woo how Ha-Jun previously said he didn't want the film to be re-produced in any capacity, believing it should live exclusively in the movie, but “he made an exception” for this show. And we're so glad he did. From the cracks in the tiles down to the products stacked in the shelves, the result is uncanny.
“Global Groove” celebrates the energy of glamorous K-pop idols and their die-hard fans, creating a concert-like atmosphere. Playful patchwork outfits worn by G-Dragon and Taeyang and designed by K-pop stylist and visual director Gee Eun are particularly mesmerising, seeing the stitching together of key garments, album covers and mementos collected by the idols throughout their careers. In the red room, multiple screens show music videos as speakers blast out K-pop bangers, inviting you into the fandom (if you’re not part of it already). This is more explicitly demonstrated through the addition of dozens of light sticks which are used by K-pop fans as a way to interact with bands during live performances, as each colour is associated with a different group.
Fandoms are key to propelling Korean culture, with Yoojin Choi telling us the magnitude of their impact: “they reshape the culture of fandoms. From translating lyrics overnight, or adding subtitles to K-dramas, to taking on philanthropic work by raising money for COVID centres, their passion is really incredible”.
You can even have a boogie in a booth with an interactive dance challenge to boot, created in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture Lab. A camera captures your moves so you become part of a wall display. Rhythmless friends, don’t fret – if you’d rather not be included you can opt-out of being recorded and dad-dance to your heart's content.
Finally, visitors reach the last section “Inside Out”, which takes a deep dive into the coveted K-beauty and fashion, looking at the history of their origins and the crossover with different cultures. The stand-out in this section is the peony gown designed by Central St Martin’s graduate Park Sohee, which was worn by Miley Cyrus. A pioneer of sustainable fashion, Sohee uses deadstock and recycled textiles to produce small quantities that swerve mass production, embodying the best of Korean innovation.
Yoojin Choi explains to Woo that Hallyu! is “one of the first exhibitions of its kind, showcasing the really dynamic and colourful culture of South Korea”, going on to express her joy in “non-western culture having a wider global influence. It's the beginning of different countries rising to take centre stage.”
Hallyu! The Korean Wave is at the V&A in London until 25 June 2023
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