The Traditional Art of Beauty and Perfume in Ancient Korea

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Fig. 1 - Beauty set: hair pins, combs, tweezer © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 1 - Beauty set: hair pins, combs, tweezer © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

In keeping with my enthusiasm for cosmetics that make use of bio or natural ingredients, I thought that it would be interesting to explore the traditional Korean art of beauty and cosmetic culture in ancient times, more particularly as it was experienced from the medieval period until the turn of the 20th century.

If this topic may appear a bit geeky at first blush, I can point out that nowadays mainstream contemporary beauty brands do not hesitate to use ancient medieval recipes, like for example Lush with its “Angels on Bare Skin” facial scrub and Caudalie with its “Eau de Beauté” based on the legendary rejuvenating medieval rosemary lotion called “Eau de la Reine de Hongrie”.

I love Asian art, often travel in the region and I was delighted to discover this tradition, which as it turns out emphasized the use of gentle natural ingredients (flowers, fruit kernels, beans) rather than chemical concoctions like the infamous Blanc de Céruse composed of white lead which ailed and disfigured many a beauty junkie in modern Europe. This is not to say that chemicals are not beneficial or that natural ingredients are always the best alternatives!

An exhibition organized by the Coreana Cosmetics Museum entitled Parures, fards et onguents dans la Corée ancienne (Adornments, Make-up, and Oinments in Ancient Korea) was held last year in Paris on this virtually unknown topic in Europe and even the West at large…

Fig. 2 - An 18th century Korean beauty. Attributed to Kim Hong-Do (A.D. 1745- ?) © Seoul National University Museum

Fig. 2 - An 18th century Korean beauty. Attributed to Kim Hong-Do (A.D. 1745- ?) © Seoul National University Museum

Fig 3. - Celadon cosmetics containers, Koryo period (A.D. 918-1392) © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig 3. - Celadon cosmetics containers, Koryo period (A.D. 918-1392) © Coreana Cosmetics Museum


Fig. 4 - Rouge container in white and blue porcelain, Choson period (A.D. 1392-1910) © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 4 - Rouge container in white and blue porcelain, Choson period (A.D. 1392-1910) © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 5 - Powder dish, Choson period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 5 - Powder dish, Choson period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 6 - Water-dropper for preparing make-up, Choson period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig. 6 - Water-dropper for preparing make-up, Choson period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

The selection of cosmetics containers (fig. 3, and figs. 4-6), make-up tools, hair accessories and jewels which were exhibited (reproduced here with kind permission) come from the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, an affiliate of the Coreana Cosmetics Company which is currently one of the largest cosmetics companies in South Korea. The private museum was established in Seoul in 2001 by Yu Sang-ok, the founder and owner of the company. It currently holds the largest collection of artefacts related to traditional Korean cosmetic and beauty culture and includes 5,300 objects, ranging from the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. -A.D. 668) to the early 20th century. These objects were assembled with great care and passion by Mr. Yu.

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Feminine Beauty Criteria and Ideals

Thick glossy hair, a fair skin, thin eyebrows and small lips (Korean beauties of the time would probably shudder in horror at the thought of getting silicone injections today!) constituted the classical canon of beauty in medieval Korea (see fig. 2).The woman depicted on this 18th century painting by Kim Hong-Do actually wears a wig made of coiled braids which was the most common hairdo at that time. The frenzy for this accessory was such that King Chongjo prohibited by royal decree in 1788 the use of such extravagant wigs that were deemed contrary to Confucian values of reserve and restraint. It is interesting to note that comparable high-built hairdos, which were equally status-affirming, were also popular at the French court at Versailles in the 18th century.

The twelfth century source the Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Koryo Court (A.D. 1123) by the Chinese envoy from the Northern Song court, Xu Jing (A.D. 1091-1153), informs us about the make-up style of Korean women from the upper classes during the Koryo period (A.D. 918-1392). It is recorded that they favored light make-up, using powder but without rouge or blush, and drew eyebrows in the shape of a “willow leaf”.

The Kyuhapch’ongso dated from 1809, which was an instructional guide for everyday life for women of the upper classes during the late Choson period, which covered more than five centuries (A.D.1392-1910), records various techniques of manufacturing cosmetic products and fragrances, such as rouge for cheeks and lips, fragrances to perfume the body, oils to maintain long, black and glossy hair, as well as the descriptions of shapes of eyebrows, up to ten different ones!

Fig.7 - Celadon cosmetics oil bottle, Koryo period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

Fig.7 - Celadon cosmetics oil bottle, Koryo period © Coreana Cosmetics Museum

The Making of Cosmetics and Perfume

Facial scrubs were made with ginseng root, red bean, green mung bean or sponge gourd, while facial lotions were made of cucumber or watermelon and perfumed with scented plants. Sunflower seeds, cabbage seeds and castor-oil plant were often used to produce cosmetic oils. Peony flower oil was particularly favored by Korean noblewomen of the 19th century to make their hair sleek, an ideal of beauty.

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Owing to the lack of preservatives in ancient times, make-up was made in small quantities corresponding to daily needs and kept in tiny containers with a narrow aperture to prevent alteration, such as the Celadon cosmetics oil bottle shown here (fig. 7). The blue and white cosmetic set presented above (figs. 4-6) consists of a small pot which used to contain rouge, an octagonal dish for preparing make-up and a mini-water dropper used to dilute cosmetics. I marveled to see that these containers are only between one to one and half inches high!

Small pouches filled with fragrant herbs or scented with lightly diluted natural musk were carried both by men and women. In fact, court officials at the king’s service were required to carry such perfumed pouches during the Koryo period (A.D. 918-1392).

Historical records mention the existence at the royal court of artisan-perfumers called “Hyangjang” who bred musk deers in the palace precincts to produce perfume and incense. Clove, star anise and “nut grass” were the main ingredients used in producing perfumes.

Kisaeng women, by Yu Un-hong (1797-1859)

Kisaeng women, by Yu Un-hong (1797-1859)

Styles of Makeup

A simple yet elegant appearance, associated with a dignified demeanour and humble manners, were considered the epitome of beauty and elegance following Confucian ideals of the Choson period. While women from the upper classes could afford to use a higher-quality mixture of flower ashes, indigo plants and real gold powder to produce the dye for the eyebrow or the rouge make-up made of saffron flowers and cinnabar, less affluent people would use a piece of charcoal to highlight their eyebrows, as well as dried red pepper as a substitute for rouge.

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A white-powdered face was to be avoided at all cost since it was the makeup style of the lowly lives, the female entertainer or Kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the Japanese Geisha). They were women trained in the art of music, dance and poetry (fig. 8).

Respectable women were expected to wear light-peach-colored make-up when going out or receiving guests.

A postcard used by a French missionary in 1910

A postcard used by a French missionary in 1910. The caption reads: A Corean Singer & Maid -- The first was identified as a Kisaeng, from Chosun

New make-up styles and cosmetics were introduced in Korea in the late 19th century following the Treaty of Kanghwa in 1876 when Korean ports opened to foreign trade. European cosmetics, in particular French ones, were imported starting in the early 20th century and they were so popular that it prompted the creation in 1916 of the first face powder ever manufactured in Korea, Pak’s powder.

The famous kisaeng Hwang Jin-I played by South Korean actress Ha Ji-Won in a TV drama, from Chosun

The famous kisaeng Hwang Jin-I played by South Korean actress Ha Ji-Won in a TV drama, from Chosun

Acknowledgment: I wish to thank the Coreana Cosmetics Museum for providing information included in this article as well as the pictures illustrating this post.

Pictures © All rights reserved by the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, except where mentioned otherwise.

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