The Royal Tailor (2014) Sews Up Korean Historical Fashion


How could I resist a Korean historical drama about dueling court tailors? Unlike many Korean serial dramas, The Royal Tailor aka Sanguiwon (2014) is neither a romance nor a action/marital arts story — instead, it’s a movie about two men who conflict over needle, thread, and politics. Awesome!

The Royal Tailor 2014

Tailors hard at work.

While the story is set in the middle of the Joseon period (probably the early 18th century), it opens at a modern-day museum where a fashion history display is being opened about the ‘revolutionary’ designs of the Joseon court tailor Jo Dol-seok. Then the film goes back in time to show Jo Dol-seok himself, a technically brilliant craftsman who runs the Sanguiwon, the royal wardrobe department. Jo Dol-seok is in charge of creating robes for the new king as he comes out of mourning for his elder brother, the last king.

The Royal Tailor 2014

This tailor is contrasted with Lee Gong-jin, a brash, young designer who hangs out at the giseang house (essentially, with the courtesans / female entertainers) and makes wildly inventive and unusual gowns for the ladies. His creations attract the attention of the queen, who was married to the deceased king and has been passed along to the new king (who she had been in love with all along; OK, there is some romance in this story). Lee Gong-jin begins creating adventurous new gowns for the queen so she can win the king away from a new mistress — who is getting gowns from the official court tailor, Jo Dol-seok.

The Royal Tailor 2014

The older Jo Dol-seok sews while the younger Lee Gong-jin watches. Check out the rainbow of thread spools behind them!

Much of the film is a back-and-forth competition between the older Jo Dol-seok and the younger Lee Gong-jin as they put different styles of hanbok, the Korean clothing of the period, on court women. This ensemble consists of an upper garment, jeogori, and skirt, chima. Traditionally, these had been rather baggy, but the new style (in the film, invented by Lee Gong-jin) is for a much tighter and shorter jeogori and a bell- or jar-shaped chima. The effect is visually dramatic and striking.

The Royal Tailor 2014

While the two tailors are pitted against each other, they also form a genuine friendship based on recognition of each other’s unique talents. Lee Gong-jin seems to look up to the older tailor as a father figure. They even share a fantasy dream sequence! In the end, Jo Dol-seok is the name that’s remembered at the modern museum, as the film closes with the same framing device it began with. But we’ll know that’s not what “really” happened. (Note: none of this happened, it’s a fictional story — aside from the fact that fashions did change during the Joseon era.)

The Royal Tailor (2014)

Lee Gong-jin furiously drapes an amazing gown for the queen on this two-dimensional dress form.


Costumes in The Royal Tailor

I will admit to knowing next to nothing about Korean historical costume except it’s pretty. And The Royal Tailor makes it look very, very pretty! Costume designer Cho Sang-kyung was inspired by the clothing worn during King Yeongj’s rule (1724-1776), although the film does not name a specific king or year. She and her team made over 1,000 hanbok for the movie, which cost about 1 billion South Korean won (approximately $909,000 USD). The show-stopping gown the queen wears during the banquet scene is embellished with some 3,000 pearls!

The Royal Tailor 2014 The Royal Tailor (2014) The Royal Tailor (2014)

While the story is fictional, the clothing and production design appear influenced by historical Joseon fashion and art. I see similar clothing shapes in the playful, sometimes erotic sketches of everyday life by painter Shin Yun-bok, born in 1758, and also known by his pen name of Hyewon. His work features men and elegantly dressed women at the giseang house, just like Lee Gong-jin and his lady friends.

Shin Yun-bok

Detail from a larger Shin Yun-bok painting on Wikimedia Commons.

The Royal Tailor (2014)

The women at the giseang house in The Royal Tailor.

Shin Yun-bok

Three different women painted by Shin Yun-bok. The tight jeogori and jar-shaped chima they wear are clearly illustrated.

The Royal Tailor 2014

The queen in a promo image.

The Royal Tailor 2014

The ‘new’ style gown Lee Gong-jin designs for her.

The Royal Tailor (2014)
The Royal Tailor 2014

Even the queen sews a little bit in this film (there’s a lot of sewing!).


Interested in some Korean historical sewing?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

9 Responses

  1. toranut97

    Thanks for opening my eyes to a whole different aspect of costume drama! And this is from a person who lived three years in Japan and loved the NHK historical shows!

  2. Elizabeth

    I absolutely LOOOOVE this film. If you ever feel like watching more gorgeous Korean historical movies (albeit with a bit more sexy times) check out “The Treacherous” (on netflix) “A Frozen Flower,” “The Concubine” and “Empire of Lust.”

  3. Melinda

    Me and my hubby loooove to watch these korean historical series, these are so entertaining, never heard of this one, hopefully some tv station will bring it to my country too :)

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    Gosh. They’re works of art.

    I have share relationship with Amazon. Is the series on Hulu, Netflix or Starz?

    The queen’s pearl gown just beat out a Heian robes as most gorgeous Asian Costume – Category: Japan, China or Korea.

  5. Rori

    Finally you tackled Korean historical costumes! It’s rare to see you reviewing Asian drama given that they put effort in making historical clothing look good (and sometime accurate).

    I know you reviewed Empressess in the Palace, but i suggested checking out Empress of China. That show was the most expensive produced with the highest budget ever, reportedly said with over 3000 costumes. Although not accurate, but they are absolutely gorgeous to look at.

    Also check out Genji Monogatari: Sennen no Nazo movie to look for historical Japanese costumes, specifically Heian ones. Very pretty to look at.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      It’s not our area of expertise, but we’re interested! So when we can find more films/TV shows from different parts of the world on Netflix & Amazon, we’re adding them to our queues :)

  6. Roxana

    There are some movies where plot be damned! You just eat up all that gorgeous eye candy! 😉 But this sounds quite interesting in a quiet, scholarly way.