"I was married at 17, divorced at 19; I had nothing to lose...
You can't make it on your own with no spine. You need a strong will to live life your way..."


As she nears 85-years-old, iconic clothing designer Nora Noh decides to hold an exhibition of her work from over the years to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her emergence on the South Korean fashion scene. As she begins preparations for the event, she is approached by contemporary designer Seo Eun-young suggesting that they should work together to turn the exhibition into a full-blown retrospective.
'Nora Noh' tells the story of the two designers' often tension-filled collaboration to make the retrospective a reality, detailing in tandem not only Nora Noh's importance to the fashion industry as a whole but also the vital part she played in the changing of attitudes to, and of, women in post-war Korea; the modernisation of the Korean film industry and its increasing acceptance of Westernism during the Golden Age of the 50s and 60s; and even the gradual stepping away from patriarchal traditionalism in Korean society itself...



Before getting into this review in earnest, I have somewhat of a confession to make; albeit a fairly obvious one: I am not a person anyone in their right mind would ever describe as 'fashion conscious'. I likely wouldn't recognise an A-line dress if a lady walked by me holding a placard with "This is an A-line" written on it; the chances are 50-50 as to whether I could tell the difference between a pleat and an ironing crease; and the correlation or not between clutches and handbags, and/or vice versa, is pretty much a toss of a coin. As such, as I sat down to watch fashion documentary 'Nora Noh', I was not only wondering what if anything worthwhile I'd have to say, aside from cinematic aspects, but also whether my thoughts would perhaps be from a perspective so far removed from the narrative subject field as to be almost pointless.
However, in her directorial debut, director Kim Sung-hee has not only successfully created an in depth insight into the Korean fashion world that neither presumes prior knowledge nor the lack thereof, but has also threaded the ongoing present-day narrative with a history of the struggles in the life of an incredible woman whose strength of character and creative talent combined to play a vital part in the evolution of the very fabric of post-war Korean society, if you will; the narrative becoming easily as worthy as any biopic, in the process.


The first 15 minutes, or thereabouts, of 'Nora Noh' progress much as one would expect; the early stages of preparations for the exhibition/retrospective peppered with short photo-shoot segments and 'talking head' statements - from designer Seo Eun-young and several of Nora Noh's clients and customers from over the years - referencing some of the numerous landmark moments in this iconic fashion designer's illustrious career, from her holding of South Korea's first fashion show in 1957, to Macy's in New York devoting its entire ground floor to her designs, to her being behind the controversial move to dress singer Yoon Bok-hee in a miniskirt in 1967, and more.
Though these lauding comments give a general idea of the importance of Nora Noh to Korea's fashion industry and history, they are largely teasers for the ensuing story of the designer's incredible life told by the lady herself (more on this shortly) and far more telling at this early stage are almost passing mentions of Nora and Eun-young's somewhat critical perceptions of each other's generation (for example, Eun-young claiming that those of Nora's generation are "just growing old and reminiscing, clinging onto past glories" juxtaposed with Nora stating her belief that "Youngsters don't value my generation's stories or experience, and always start their replies with 'No'") as well as their differing attitudes to both fashion in general and the form the exhibition should take specifically. These differing opinions deftly foreshadow the tensions between the two that will grippingly underpin almost the entire anniversary event.

Within the present-day documentary, Nora Noh's life story (as previously mentioned narrated by Nora herself) is stunningly told; combining archive footage, stills and reconstructed scenes to tell a true-life tale as exciting as any factual, or indeed fictional, narrative a scriptwriter could ever hope to write:
From her marriage at 17 and her divorce just two years later leading directly to, and continually underlining, Nora Noh's lifelong 'nothing to lose' attitude; to her studies in the US and her embracing of Western fashion aesthetics enabling her to create ready-made garments (prior even to Paris) mixing modern and traditional fashions at a time when the Korean Government had just begun advising the adoption of such attire by the female workforce rebuilding the country after the War, instead of extravagant and cumbersome traditional garb; to her intelligent decision to affiliate herself with Yoon Bok-hee - a singer utterly idolised by Korean women in her heyday - and convince her to be seen performing in a Nora Noh designed miniskirt (a highly controversial style at the time as the accompanying newspaper headlines attest: "Don't be fooled by minis, the product of misogyny and perverted designers"; "Minis trigger sex crimes"; "Woman goes on Summary Trial for wearing Ultramini, 17cm above the knees"; etc.) each historical landmark in Nora Noh's career positively screaming of how utterly deserving she is of the numerous accolades she has received over the years and pointing to a woman whose total conviction held steadfast through struggles that would have made most run and hide; all perfectly linked by director Kim Sung-hee to the ongoing present-day retrospective creation.

However, unmissable though each of the above sections unquestionably is, for me personally (perhaps unsurprisingly considering my obsession with Korean film) the greatest highlight of the entire 'Nora Noh' documentary is the detailing of the designer's importance to the Korean Cinema Golden Age:
Video clips and stills from a myriad of classic Korean films of the 50s and 60s (full details/listings of which can be found at the end of this review) are combined with insightful interviews with veteran actresses Eom Aen-gran, Choi Ji-hee and Choi Eun-hee in which they each cite instances where Nora Noh and her fashions influenced not only specific films and cast/character portrayals but also served to gradually bring a change to Korean Cinema as a whole.
Numerous and well-placed these references are one and all, but one quoted statement (originally said by Eom Aen-gran's grandmother) about these hugely famous actresses sums up Nora Noh's importance to both them and the entire film industry, to a tee:
"Don't think you became famous just because of your looks; it's Nora Noh's clothing designs that made you a star."

Cast: Nora Noh, Seo Eun-young, Choi Eun-hee, Choi Ji-hee, Eom Aen-gran

Directed by: Kim Sung-hee


Not only is 'Nora Noh' an insightful documentary telling of the iconic designer's efforts to create an exhibition to celebrate her 60 years in the fashion industry, but it also equally stands as a history of post-war Korea; an overview of the changing place of women in Korean society, over the years; and a detailing of the influence one woman's fashion designs had on both the Korean film industry of the 50s & 60s and its stars. In depth throughout, 'Nora Noh' steps behind the veil of fame to celebrate the life of a deeply talented woman as strong in spirit as she is in conviction.


As mentoned above, the references in 'Nora Noh' to the designer's work in classic Golden Age Korean films are many, to say the least; sometimes appearing as film stills or movie poster images, other times consisting of one or more video clips. Details/listings for all the films mentioned can be found below:

Images (Movie Poster/Film Stills)

Korean Film/Video Clips

Dream (1955)
Crossroads (1955)
The Red and Blue Thread (1957)
A Female Boss (1959)
Chun-hee (1959)
Full Autumn (1966)
Horse Year Bride (1966)
When April Goes By (1967)

A Sister's Garden (1959)
A Romantic Papa (1960)
A Coachman (1961)
Mr Park (1963)
Kim's Daughters (1963)
Barefooted Young (1964)
Dangerous Youth (1966)
Black Pearl (1969)


All images © CinemaDAL, the Korean Film Council (KOFIC)
Review © Paul Quinn