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Decoding the Symbolic Hatting of “Kingdom”

By Terence Poh

“For season two, I wanted to express a dark and depressed time, as zombies had spread nearly everywhere,” says costume designer Chae Gyeong-hwa. The villain Cho Hak-ju is seen in a wide-brimmed heukrip while plotting against the crown prince.
 
Courtesy of Netflix
“For season two, I wanted to express a dark and depressed time, as zombies had spread nearly everywhere,” says costume designer Chae Gyeong-hwa. The villain Cho Hak-ju is seen in a wide-brimmed heukrip while plotting against the crown prince.

When the first season of “Kingdom” aired on Netflix, the clothing styles of the Joseon era fascinated viewers. International audiences had been exposed mainly to the Japanese and Chinese sides of Asian culture, so the historical period as portrayed on “Kingdom” offered a new perspective on Korean culture: In particular, the traditional hats, called gat, seen on the heads of royalty and noblemen, sparked obsessive interest among fans. “Unlike other fusion dramas, I began the design process for ‘Kingdom’ season two believing, ‘what is classic is new,’” costume designer Chae Gyeong-hwa said via email. “We studied reference documents in university libraries, classic drawings, as well as collections of traditional portraits and self-portraits to find hats that were often worn in the olden days but weren’t as well known to showcase in ‘Kingdom’ season 2,” says Chae.

Humans have always taken to hats. Dating back to ancient Egypt, in around 3200 BC, the first semblance of a hat was found inscribed in a tomb painting located in the ancient city of Thebes, Egypt, and it was believed that hats were commonplace even prior to that. The fashioning of a hat serves many purposes.

Besides its age-old function of shielding people from the weather, a hard shell, especially one made of plastic or metal, protects workers from occupational hazards. Hats are also used in ceremonial or religious occasions — a mortarboard at a graduation event marks the end of one’s academic path; a peaked cap tops off a military uniform; and a kippah, worn by Jewish men only, is customary during religious ceremonies. Other modern uses of hats include hiding unkempt hair, or, when pulled lower, a set of puffy eyes. But ever-present is the hat’s role in human expression: to designate style and fashion, and to express identities, both personal and communal, in cultures and society.

Courtesy of NetflixThe crown prince, as played by Ju Ji-hoon, wears a wide-brimmed heukrip similar to that of his royal nemesis.
The crown prince, as played by Ju Ji-hoon, wears a wide-brimmed heukrip similar to that of his royal nemesis.

The sociologist Diana Crane’s book, “Fashion and Its Social Agendas,” offers much insight into the role of hats in the organisation of social structures. She theorised that, till as recent as the ’60s, “the article of clothing that performed the most important role in indicating social distinctions among men was the hat.” In the most prominent parts of the West, men wore hats to claim and maintain their standing in society, evident in how specific types of hats became closely associated with particular social classes: The top hat was first worn by the upper and middle classes in 19th century England; the bowler hat, originally created for gamekeepers and hunters, was quickly appropriated by the upper class for sports and eventually became an icon of the bourgeoisie; the peaked cap, worn first by military officers, came to be identified with the working class by the mid-19th century. More recently, designer hats in vogue, such as the beloved Balenciaga New Political cap or the Burberry Vintage Check bucket hat, have become a signal of wealth and street credibility. Elsewhere, the red “Make America Great Again” Trump hat, which marks the divisive line between fervent Trump supporters and the mocking other half that fashions it ironically, serves to express people’s social and political positions.

Set in the hierarchical, patriarchal society of the Joseon era, the “Kingdom” series saw hats as signifiers of social status. The gat is largely made of horsehair and bamboo, with a number of variations. According to Chae, the process of creating the bamboo gat was notably complicated: “We had to find a place where they handmade bamboo gats and had them – which are originally the colour of natural bamboo – coloured black. They are usually worn by soldiers, and up close, you can see the intricate weaving.” The hats seen in the show also stayed true to historical records, free from aesthetic modifications for the screen. “We tried to make them as close to the real thing as possible, based on extensive research. We did try to make some less heavy so that actors would be more comfortable when moving around. A hat called junrip is traditionally made with metal so it’s extremely heavy and hard, so we substituted the material with a softer material,” says Chae.

Courtesy of NetflixA timid Cho Beom-pal runs around, escaping from vampiric zombies, with a heukrip on his head.
A timid Cho Beom-pal runs around, escaping from vampiric zombies, with a heukrip on his head.

The crown prince Lee Chang wears a heukrip, which is exclusive to noblemen and the ruling class. Noblemen sport the heukrip in a wider brim than middle-class men, and it’s usually worn outdoors, or as a form of formal dress while hosting guests at home. For government officials of the palace, an official work uniform consists of a samo, a black hat with two rounded caps — a lower, more rotund front with a higher, nugget-shaped back — and two horn-like embellishments. The jeongjagwan, with origins in China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, is a layered crown-like hat worn by the villain Cho Hak-ju in his home — the higher the status, the more the layers, figurative of mountainous wisdom.

Military officers don the junrip, made of firm materials to protect the head against arrows when the soldiers weren’t suited up in armour. “The lower ranking officers’ hats were decorated with pig hair, while peacock feathers were used to embellish higher ranking officers’ hats,” says Chae. A variant, the jurip, is worn by the chief of the palace guards, decorated with a pheasant feather.

Women, on the other hand, are not seen wearing hats, whether dictated by the patriarchal society or by necessity as they stayed home, relegated to chores and child-rearing. The women of the upper class wore their long hair in ostentatious styles or decorated with precious trinkets. Most of the lower class, such as peasants, regardless of gender, also didn’t wear hats for practicality, if they weren’t prohibited from it.

Courtesy of NetflixBefore the virus infiltrated the palace, the lower class and peasants made up most of the infected.
Before the virus infiltrated the palace, the lower class and peasants made up most of the infected.

There is an old saying in Korea that goes, “yangban (noble class) men don’t run.” Chae tells me that “the gat was more of a symbol for the noble class that signified dignity and status, rather than serv[ing] a practical function.” Perhaps that’s why Cho Beom-pal, the timid foil to the crown prince, born of noble class lineage, scampers around during a crisis with a heukrip dangling haphazardly on his head; he almost always has a hand on it, holding on like his life depended on it. And, in contrast, the crown prince Lee Chang eschews putting one on for most of the series, as he’s saving the nation from a zombie epidemic.

In this new era of suffering, contagion thrillers like “Kingdom” take on renewed relevance. Throughout human history, as infectious diseases rampage through human populations, they often reveal cracks in the system. In the case of “Kingdom,” its social satire unravels the symbols of class and power; when crisis hits, even the undead fashion hats. “Class doesn’t matter in the face of an epidemic. The noble class can become a monster if bitten by a zombie,” says Chae. “I think the message was that social class has nothing to do with the value of life.”