What were the fashions and lives of Koreans who lived in the 1950s and 60s like? By the 1970s the nation would come to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes, to become the Miracle on the Han River, but in the period immediately after the 1950-53 Korean War, the country was still working overtime to rebuild itself.
A fantastic archive of old Seoul can be found in the photos of late Han Youngsoo, a pioneer in the fields of Korean fashion and commercial photography, and a member of the New Line Group, the first realist photographer’s association in post-war Korea. Han’s snapshots of the city in the 1950s and 60s offer us a timeless look at Korea through a lens of hopeful realism, showing people’s lives against the backdrop of a still war-scarred urban landscape.
You might expect photos from this period to look melancholy, the people glum, dressed shabbily, barely looking at one another. But in Han’s works we see people truly alive, heads held high, going about their business, and trying to look their best.
We can find, for example, a man in a fedora and matching suit, a woman dressed in a midi-skirted suit, a young girl dressed in a sleeveless dress and rainboots walking between newly constructed buildings while looking at the mannequins on display in an imported clothing store, and a boy seen from above, dawdling along a pavement in high-top baseball shoes with his t-shirt tucked into his pants.
Here we see children at play, well-dressed fashionistas out for a walk, and ordinary people going about their business on the street. Despite the distance of intervening years, we feel somehow close to Han’s subjects. His images captured the raw energy of Korea’s rebirth after the war through his original and modern angles.
“Seen from today’s vantage point, his photographs come as a surprise,” wrote Christopher Phillips, former adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New Jersey, on the occasion of an exhibition of 38 prints of Han’s works in 2017. “With their impeccable composition, flawless timing and scrupulous attention to social detail, they suggest the work of a long-lost Korean cousin of such early Magnum photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour (Chim) and Marc Riboud.”
To keep his photos alive after his death in 1999, the Han Youngsoo Foundation was set up. It not only preserves his images, but finds new opportunities where they can be exhibited and published, to enthrall and inspire new generations of viewers.
Old S(e)oul reborn in a fashion collaboration
Now the works of Han Youngsoo and Samsung C&T Fashion Group’s traditional casual brand Beanpole have come together in an interesting and attractive collaboration. In selecting 10 photos with the Han Youngsoo Foundation and printing them on a unique range of fashion items, Beanpole has both revitalized Han’s legacy and brought urban landscape to its 2020 summer clothing lines. Of course, so many of Han’s photos merited inclusion in project that it was hard to pare down the selection to ten. The only regret is that more could not be used.
What led Beanpole in particular to approach the Foundation to use Han Youngsoo’s photos is its rebirth as a sustainable brand for a new generation, announced last year. Since marking its 30th anniversary in 2019, Beanpole has undergone a complete makeover, rewriting itself based on Korean visual and cultural heritage, working together with fashion director Jung Ku-ho. To achieve this feat, Beanpole in March last year concluded a two-year consulting contract with Jung, who was the creative director of women’s wear label KUHO for ten years until 2013. Speaking about his latest collaboration, he said, “Korean identity was reflected onto the Beanpole brand – with ‘Rewrite’ as our slogan. We rediscovered our history and stories, places, writings and designs, and incorporated them in a modern way into our brand and service.” It is this classic value and sophisticated aesthetic that Beanpole saw and chose to incorporate.
In translating Han Youngsoo’s legacy into a run of t-shirts, short-sleeved shirts and silk scarves in a range of colors, Beanpole has reached back into the past while walking proudly forward into the future. The collaboration reminds people of today the vitality, energy and zest when contemporary Korea emerging from the fog of war.
All 13 collaboration items can be found at SSF Shop, Samsung C&T Fashion Group’s online shopping mall.