Keepsakes from Princess Deokhye, the Last Princess of the Korean Empire

National Palace Museum of Korea

The story of the tragic life and death of Princess Deokhye, the last princess of the Korean Empire, is now widely known by the Korean people. In 2015, a collection of garments she wore as a member of the Korean imperial family was displayed to the public at the National Palace Museum of Korea.

The National Palace Museum of Korea houses a small and colorful item of baby clothing in its collection. This light-green dangui (formal female wear for official occasions) is single layer and colorfully decorated.

It's comprised of bright green silk interwoven with cloud and seven-treasure patterns and features an embossed, crimson breast tie.

This dangui belonged to Deokhye Ongju, or Princess Deokhye (1912 - 1989), the famous daughter of Emperor Gojong of Korea. (Note: The title gongju for “princess” was reserved for daughters of the queen, while daughters of concubines were referred to as ongju.)

Princess Deokhye was born when Emperor Gojong was 60 years of age and was the center of his affection - so much so that he established a kindergarten in the Royal Palace for her sake.

Emperor Gojong died when Princess Deokhye was only seven years old, and she was sent to Japan under the pretext of studying abroad. Thereafter, the Princess has suffered from illness and loneliness, facing hardship from marriage, divorce, and the disappearance of her daughter.

While living in Japan, Princess Deokhye left behind many belongings in addition to the dangui. In June 2015, these items returned to Korea via donation to the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration by a Japanese organization.

The shoulders, chest, and back of Princess Deokhye's dangui, now housed in the archives of the National Palace Museum of Korea, are decorated with round bo (patch) that are reserved only for women of royalty.

The bo prominently feature golden dragon embroidery symbolizing the emperor, clearly indicating this this attire was only for the imperial family.

Because the dangui of women not included in the immediate royal family (e.g. royal concubines, ordinary women, etc.) were prohibited from featuring bo or extravagant, golden decorations, a dangui with bo - especially dragon-themed bo - is a clear indication of the status of an imperial woman.

The high class in Princess Deokhye's royal attire can also be seen in the various patterns of her dangui.
This dangui was summer attire, featuring an abundance of cloud and seven-treasure patterns on delicate sheer silk that is see-through. The fine silk, crimson breast tie, and white sleeves all feature characters symbolizing longevity and fortune for Princess Deokhye.

As seen in the remaining photos, even a young baby princess wore dangui that featured dragon-themed bo at official ceremonies to reflect the majesty of the royal family. As seen in the remaining photos, even a young baby princess wore dangui that featured dragon-themed bo at official ceremonies to reflect the majesty of the royal family. This artifact is one of the rare examples of royal baby attire.

Among Princess Deokhye's returned belongings was a long red skirt that formed a set with her dangui. As the daughter of the Emperor, the Princess wore a long skirt featuring brilliant gold patterns with her dangui.

The skirt is made of silk woven with floral patterns referred to as saenggosa. The hemline features a golden pattern of lotus and pomegranate plants and seeds with the phrase "baekbokdanam (百福多男)," which translates to "be blessed and may your children flourish."

The patterns of ceremonial skirts reserved for imperial women include the dragon for empresses, bonghuang/fenghuang (mythological bird) for the queens and crown princesses, and plant and character patterns for princesses.

The patterns perform the practical function of expressing the status of imperial women while simultaneously enhancing decorative beauty.

Princess Deokhye's attire, housed in the National Palace Museum of Korea at Kyungbokgung Palace, feature articles of clothing made with wishes of prosperity. Sadly, however, these clothes also tell the stories of a troubled nation as well as the hardships of the owner's difficult life.

Credits: Story


Kyungjee Park

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