This blog post was written by Gloria Shin, the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for Spring 2020. Gloria is currently a first year M.A. candidate at Simmons University studying Library Information Science. Her work at Boston Children’s Museum focused on cataloging the Korean collection as well as processing an archival collection on the Boston Waterfront Learning Project. Though finishing her internship during a world-wide pandemic was an unexpected challenge, Gloria is grateful for the opportunity to have shown children the wonders of exploring collections material while at Boston Children’s Museum. After graduation, she hopes to continue museum work as an archivist.
If you have been furiously binging Netflix shows during the quarantine like I have, you may have come across the Korean historical zombie-thriller Kingdom. The show is set in the late 1500s during Korea’s Joseon (조선) period, which lasted from 1392 – 1910. One of the most distinctive parts of the show is the variety of hats, a constant halo around the head of almost every male on the show. Seeing the unique, conical top hats on screen immediately transported me back to the Museum’s collection storage room, where I had spent hours inventorying the Korean collection. It was in one of the drawers that I came across several of the Museum’s own Korean top hats.
In early photos of Korea from the late 1800s, it is difficult to ignore the distinct dress of the Korean people. Cameras captured images of urban areas filled with a sea of white, the color of daily-wear clothing for many Koreans, atop which floated the omnipresent black hats. One of the first Americans to travel extensively in Korea was Percival Lowell (a native Bostonian!). In 1883, Lowell accompanied the first Korean delegation to the United States back to Korea. His two-month long sojourn through the country led to the writing of his first book, Chӧson, The Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea, in which he described the culture and people he encountered. It is obvious that the ubiquitous presence of hats made an impression on him. In his book, Lowell included a section specifically dedicated to the hats worn by the Korean people, writing: “… as tribute to a land which would need no other distinction than that of being known as the land of hats” (p. 332).
Headgear has long been an essential part of Korean dress as an indicator of social status. Some of the earliest depictions of Korean hat-wearing can be found on the murals painted across the walls of tombs from the Goguryeo (고구려) Kingdom (37 BC – 688 AD). In the Joseon period, hat-wearing took on a new importance with the spread of Confucianism and its emphasis on propriety in dress. By the time Lowell arrived on the Korean Peninsula, hats were synonymous with Korean menswear. Evidently amused by the constant hat-wearing, Lowell (1885), in his typical cheeky, Victorian-era manner muses, remarked: “In prehistoric times the thing [hat] may have been susceptible of removal; but now, long since, it has grown to its present position, and no Korean can in decency appear without it, except only to make room for some other hat” (p. 336).
The term gat (갓), is the umbrella term for the wide variety of traditional brimmed hats worn both outdoors and indoors by Korean men during the Joseon period. Gat varied by color and shape according to social class and occasion, but the most representative of the Joseon period gat, was the heukrip (흑립). Though the heukrip can be further subdivided by material and color, the quintessential heukrip is characterized by its wide brim and cylindrical top, usually made of horsehair and bamboo strips painted in a black lacquer (the catalog cards for the Museum’s hats describe the top as having a “flower-pot” shape). It was typically worn over two other items: the manggeon (망건), the headband used to hold the topknot styled hair in place, and the tanggeon (탕건), the inner skullcap used to support the gat, which could also be worn alone.
The first mentions of the heukrip date back to the late 1300s, and the hat went through several aesthetic changes over the centuries before finalizing its form during the Joseon period. These changes to the hat’s form can be tracked through records such as the Gyeongguk Daejeon (경국대전), the complete collection of Joseon laws – first compiled in the 1400s but added to and amended through the 1800s. Some changes over the centuries concerned the width of the hat’s brim, the height of the hat’s crown, and the use of precious stones, such as amber, in the hat’s straps, to denote social class. The 1903 publication of the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection mentioned a popular legend in which gat of ancient Korea were mandated to have much wider brims to prevent conspirators from drawing close and whispering to one another. In the strictly hierarchical society of the Joseon period, only noblemen could wear heukrip; however, by the late 19th century, these restrictions were relaxed, and aristocrats and commoner alike could be found wearing the conical, black hat.
Creating gat involves 51 individual steps. Traditionally, there are three craftsmen, each tasked with a different aspect of gat-making: creating the gat’s crown, creating the brim, and assembling the two parts together with any additional accessories. The crown is made from woven horsehair shaped around a cylindrical block, while the brim is made from weaving thread-like bamboo strands together into a disc shape with a hole in the center to fit the crown. The greater the number of bamboo strands in the brim, the higher the quality of the gat. Before fitting the two pieces together, thin sheets of silk are glued to both the brim and the crown and are inked with black lacquer. During the Joseon period, one gat could take several months to make.
After Korea opened its ports to the West in 1882 and the subsequent reforms targeted at modernizing Korea, the gatdeclined in use. An 1895 edict required all men to cut their hair, removing the traditional top-knot style. This effectively pushed the adoption of Western style hats such as Panama hats and fedoras. Though the gat is no longer part of the daily-wear for modern Koreans, the tradition of gat-making has been kept alive. Recognizing the importance of the hat to Korean culture, the Korean government has sought to promote and preserve the art of making these traditional hats. As of 2014, there were five masters of gat-making as designated by the Korean government.
From its continued presence in Korean cultural events, to the recent spotlight of Kingdom, the gat continues to hold fascination centuries after its initial rise to prominence. Even Lowell (1885) seems to have predicted as much, having written, “When our museums shall have realized the importance of a systemized collection of hats, Korea will become the collector’s paradise…” (p. 335).
I think it is safe to say that the importance of the gat has been duly noted and will continue to be safeguarded in the Museum’s collection for years to come.
Click here to try our at-home hat making activity, “If Hats Could Talk,” inspired by this blog post.
Arirang Culture. (2014). In Frame S2-Korean Traditional headgear, Gat 한국의 전통 모자 갓 [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bj6hF9qFns
Choi, E., & Park, H. (2012). Gat, traditional headgear in Korea. (Hwang, E., Trans.). National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage. (Original work published 2012).
CULTURE: Textile. (2016). Culture Heritage I The making of the Korean Gat [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG9vflksZqA
Korea Tour Information (n.d.) Gat, traditional headgear in Korea. https://koreatourinformation.com/blog/2013/12/05/gat-traditional-headgear-in-korea/
Jenings, F. H. (1903). Korean Headdresses in the National Museum. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, 46, 145-167. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/smithsonianmisce451903smit
Lowell, P. (1885). Chӧson, The Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea. Ticknor and Company. https://archive.org/details/chosnlandmornin00lowegoog/page/n11/mode/2up/search/museums
Neff, R. (2020, January 5). The politics of hair. The Korea Times. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2020/01/715_281346.html
Poh, T. (2020, May 11). Decoding the Symbolic Hatting of “Kingdom”. The New York Times Style Magazine: Singapore. https://tsingapore.com/article/kingdom-netflix-hat-symbolism
Yeo, Y. (2019, February 18). Breaking down the hats and hairstyles of “Kingdom”: The hit Netflix series has viewers curious about Joseon-era accessories. Korea JoongAng Daily. https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3059581