|From Korea In Its Creations, by Lee O-Young, translated by John
That which best manifests the nature of a building is its roof. Likewise,
of all the different clothes man wears, that which best expresses the character
of the person wearing it is the hat.
Both the roof and the hat are at the summit, closest to the sky, and both
of them serve the purpose of protecting us from sun and rain. Let us turn
it around once: the roof is the building's hat, the hat is a person's roof.
One architect even theorized that a roof in any one culture closely
resembles the hats worn by the people of that culture. There is no difference
between the turban of the Moslem and the onion-shaped roof of his mosque.
And in European culture that hat worn by Napoleon's troops recalls to us
the classical triangular stone roof supported by its rows of pillars.
Anyone who sees the undulating eaves of the Korean thatch-roof house sees
in them the floppy brim of the reed hat worn by our travelers in the old
days. Our point may be made even more clear if we suggest a juxta-position
of the reed hat and the thatch-roof house with the sombre head gear of
the patrician class - the kat - and the dignified tile-roof buildings of
Korea's version of Confucianism, which came to dominate our society from
the end of the fourteenth century, gave the kat a feature unique among
hats of the world. While it resembles a roof, it does not serve the roof's
function of protecting. From a practical point of view, on the face of
this earth there is nothing more impractical than the kat. This headpiece,
woven in a very loose and airy warp and woof from the hairs of the horse's
tail, stops neither rain nor sun nor wind nor cold. In truth, a much more
attractive aspect of this wondrous hat which, for all its lack of protection,
one can wear without actually wearing, is the way it shows off the head
under it. The topknot and the horsehair band inside are silhouetted as
clearly as the form in a lace curtain window.
This is not to say, though, that the kat is for ornament. On the kat you
see neither the resplendent gems nor the brilliant colors of great wealth
or high authority. This black kat, even when worn at its usual casual tilt,
is the ultimate expression of moderation and restraint.
But this is not to say that the kat is anything ponderous or oppressive,
like some helmet or ceremonial hat designed to maintain a Spartan or sublime
frame of mind. On the contrary, the unique feature of the kat, more than
anything, is in its feeling of lightness. We might say it is the lightest
of all hats known to us.
The kat is used neither for practical reasons nor for ornamentation. The
act of wearing the kat, and the kind one wears, expresses an idea, a spirit,
and identifies the one wearing it. We have the adage, "Put on your kat
and await your doom." This means that the kat bares to all the world your
self, your mind and soul. Since the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty in
the fourteenth century, the kat has announced the social position and the
activity of the one wearing it.
In the nineteenth-century social critique, "The Legend of Ho Saeng," we
find an episode in which the hero tries to comer the market on the kat
so that he can at least temporarily deprive the aristocrats and Confucian
scholars of their mark of distinction, by which, in turn, he hoped to excise
the problems inherent in the strict formalism of Confucianism. With this
episode the author seemingly denounced not only Confucianism but the
kat along with it. Rather than this being any insult to the kat, though,
he inadvertently highlighted the kat's moral power.
The kat's message is manifest in the firm and straight consistency of the
hair of the horse's tail. It is soft, not hard like steel. The kat's silken
black sheen nevertheless manifests the strict integrity it attests to.
The material is itself the embodiment of the Korean spirit.