Advanced Style: portraits of very old women in Seoul

Reproduction of Hong Ilhwa painting of an old woman in colourful headdress smiling

This postcard on my desk is keeping me company: an old woman’s smile is not swamped by a composite costume. Painting (c) Hong Ilhwa, Gallery Dam, Seoul, September 2018

Why are people afraid of old women expressing themselves with makeup (and wild fashions)? asks Korean Artist Hong Ilhwa.

I wandered into Gallery Dam in Seoul with Maggie Rainey-Smith and found an exhibition that enchanted me. Hong Ilhwa has painted the heads of extremely old women adorned with head gear combining symbols and fabrics from many different countries. The hats are so expressive and exotic and flashy that they should smother the personality of these extremely old women. But they don’t. Look at the beaming smile and the shiny eyes so full of life in the postcard above. I would happily live with this old woman’s portrait day after day as my companion, my inspiration, and my responsibility. However, better it is seen by many people day after day in a public space.

What the artist says: we condemn old women for doing what young women do

Other paintings by Hong Ilhwa show old women in vivid makeup.
For the complete text and more images, see Culture M Magazine. Here’s an excerpt.

Curiosity is the engine of artwork

Curiosity is the engine of my artwork. When people say my painting of an old lady putting on makeup look quite scary. It is not because my painting exaggerated the old lady but somehow people feel quite differently about an old lady doing the exact same thing as a young woman does.

When an old lady gets plastic surgery, people look at it very negatively and start pouring out their judgmental opinions. When an old lady dresses glamorously and puts on colorful make up, people shake their heads in disapproval. The reaction for young people is quite the contrast. Why is expressing one’s character and taste in fashion so forbidden simply because you are not as young?


The young see the old as a different species

Now that young Korean women are almost universally gorgeous, elegant, trim and shiny and perfectly groomed, where does that leave the old women—out in the wilderness, out in the cold, out on a limb? Even in my unsophisticated little world of New Zealand, ageing brings a shift in identity that can be disturbing. What must this change feel like when you are surrounded by impeccable youthful beauty?

It’s hard enough for any young woman to imagine herself hitting fifty. When you’re young, such disbelief is normal and maybe necessary. Makeup is part of one’s arsenal against the rumour of old age. But when the young are so extremely beautiful, their grandparents’ generation must seem as if they belong to a separate species… aliens.

Which is the clincher: we don’t change species as the years go by. Ergo, we will never be old. Ergo, old ladies wearing makeup are weird.

Right. I’m going to put lipstick on my 78-year-old face right now.

Please, please, don’t take this as a criticism of young Korean women! They have given me nothing but friendship and kindness, and they live in a society with intense pressures and a long, complex history. I couldn’t hope to walk five inches in their shoes, let alone a mile. On the other hand, I’m told that feminists in Korea rebel by going barefaced (what a word!), refusing to wear make-up. That makes sense too.

The art work on the postcard is (c) Hong Ilhwa and was seen at Gallery Dam in Seoul, September 2018. Text and photo by Rachel McAlpine cc by 2.0.

30 thoughts on “Advanced Style: portraits of very old women in Seoul

  1. cedar51 says:

    Well I do a couple of things, people my age are not supposed to do…I get a #4 buzz cut all over my head; I listen to mainly heavy rock music/loud; I don’t wear any makeup (now); I don’t [now] have a car or a TV (possibly these last 2 things are not really on that list)…

    1. You are being you. That’s good.

  2. Awesome words so well written, Rachel and she looks so beautiful. All this age is stupid and human made. The young just want to portray that when one become old they are old but it is all in the mind. So nice to see her laughing. Great post.

    1. Good to hear your thoughts, Kamal.

      1. Welcome Rachel.

  3. Sadje says:

    Lovely post. A very complex issue, touching nearly all cultures. I would wear makeup even when I am 70!

    1. Thanks. Yes, it’s surely a personal choice: our bodies, our selves.

      1. Sadje says:

        Sure. The society has no right to place arbitrary limits in regard to appearance.

  4. Pat Skene says:

    Thank you for this post. That picture will make me smile all day.

    1. Me too, and more.

  5. Claudette says:

    I go back and forth on this. I want to look well put together, but this takes time and effort (and face it, money). Do I want to spend the time? Make the effort? Where do I take the money from?

    When I’m depressed, anxious, sad, overwhelmed, I need this superficial self care…but that exactly the time I don’t feel like putting the effort in. I feel most comfortable in my yoga pants with my hair in a pony tail…

    I’m turning 50 this year and I’m completely discombobulated on how to navigate this age mentally. I don’t remember going through this at 30 or 40… what is expected of me? By whom? Why does it matter?

    Lovely post, as always. Food for thought. 😊 💞

    1. Food that is familiar to you, Claudette. Two key moments steered me towards my current state of disrepair. 1. When talk turned to “facelifts” long ago I thought in a flash about all the other bits that age visibly: hands, legs, arms, neck— and instantly rejected what is now called (hard ) “work”. 2. One day I realised I was capable of creating a posh and polished look in theory—I could see how it was done — but in practice I would always have some article of clothing that messed up The Look. I embraced that fact and let the whole idea go. Clothes are for fun and practicality not duty in my circles. So I’m lucky. I’m sure you will work it out or see that you have done already!

      1. Claudette says:

        Interesting. Thank you. I’m just not the type to go spend hours in front of a mirror… 😉 Or at the mall (shudder…). lol

        I will think about this. Thank you for your feedback.

      2. Good thinking! you know what makes you happy.

  6. Very interesting and great topic.

  7. If I can look as happy and trusting in the world as the woman in the photograph, at that age, I will think myself in heaven itself! So beautiful.

    1. What a role model!

  8. hilarymb says:

    Hi Rachel – a great post about growing old and how we are perceived. I’ve rather gone off the boil for looking well groomed – I’m clean and tidy! However the things I’d like to add to this … are I always smile and keep a positive outlook – turning what might be a negative into positive thought. When my mother was terminally ill – if I saw some driving stupidly … I’d think perhaps they’re in the same position I’m in – life has gone somewhat haywire … giving them room, not worrying etc, smiling as I open doors … just generally being caring about others … love your postcard – she’s wonderful. Cheers Hilary

  9. Fascinating post, and delightful painting. We all grow old if we are lucky, and it is refreshing to see the mature ladies of Korea still working it. My 90 year old lips feel the touch of lipstick daily.

  10. Wendy says:

    Gorgeous painting. Age only matters to the young. None of us imagine ourselves being 70 or 80 or 90 when we’re young. And what a serendipitous post. I have just watched a UK documentary, Cutting Edge, Fabulous Fashionistas about 6 ordinary (ordinarily extraordinary) women with an average age of 80, their outlook on life and their individual style. I recommend it. It’s wonderful. And the one thing they all share is, “Who cares what they think.”

    1. Thanks for the doco mention, Wendy. It’s an interesting choice of subjects, and I especially like the fact that none of them has had any plastic surgery. British…

      1. Wendy says:

        Yes, they’re being themselves. Shame most of us have to wait until we’re older before we have the courage to throw caution to the wind and be ourselves.

  11. Joared says:

    I’m a strong propent for natural aging — fascinating to see how the body changes even if not always with a result of my first choice.

    1. Natural aging! I’ve never heard that phrase before. I suppose it wasn’t needed in the past—like “organic food” it was tautology.

  12. I think older women are seen in very negative ways because we live in a youth culture that punishes women for pretty much everything. It also means that they are powerful, once they throw off convention and that makes them threatening and dangerous. That’s the part I love the most. Wonderful post.

    1. Yessss. Let’s be scary.

      1. I already am. LOL But I hope lots of other women are as well. 🙂

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Miriam, I am so pleased that this has triggered your own meditation on our aging bodies. Yes, let’s love them as they deserve.

  13. Ashely Rosa says:

    Very productive artist, love the first and third portrait.

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