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The Siamese Fashionista

I’ve read in the Insider’s Guide to Bangkok that wearing traditional Thai dresses is on the rise again. They also mention the Siamese Fashionista group that wants to inspire Thai people to wear traditional dresses in everyday life. Hence, it may be regarded as an attempt to go back to the roots as far as clothing is concerned. In Thai, this group is called ‘Taeng Thai Sabai Ngam Siam Phusa Niyom’ and its members set examples of dressing in a traditional style.

The Siamese Fashionista

Siamese Fashionista group*

Siamese Fashionista group*

Personally I am very much interested in the amazingly beautiful Thai dresses and of course, I love them. If you are a devoted reader of my blog, you will probably know my articles about ‘Traditional Thai dresses’ part I and part II. If you have missed this, maybe you would like to check this out since it provides info about the different kinds of national Thai dresses today. Additionally, this kind of clothing may be regarded as an expression of the Thai concept of ‘siwalai‘ (i.e. civilized standards) 🙂

Traditionally inspired dress (photo credit: Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, FB page)

Traditionally inspired dress (photo credit: Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, FB page)

However, over the centuries there were different kinds of traditional Thai dresses. Hence, there was also the ‘fashion’ to go bare-chested. This was usual for men but for housewives as well. Nonetheless, today we can distinguish between eight different styles of Thai national dresses for women and there are also respective dresses for men. They are said to have originated in the mid 20th century and were developed by H.M. Queen Sirikit.

Patriya Na Nakorn in traditional Thai dress (photo credit: Amat Nimitpark, FB page)

Pattriya Na Nakorn wearing Chut Thai Chakkri  (photo credit: Amat Nimitpark, FB page)

Today, there is a campaign by the Ministry of Culture which tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally. Some malls and stores also support this ‘trend’ by offering discounts, coupons and even free stuff to people wearing traditional Thai clothing. However, the Siamese Fashionista does not want this to be merely a fleeting trend but rather promote that Thai clothing should become a common part of everyday wear.

Naam & Chanca (photo credit: bk.asia-city.com)

Naam & Chanca (photo credit: bk.asia-city.com)

Two members of the Siamese Fashionista group are Cheewachon “Naam” Piyason and Chada “Chancha” Wannapong. They formed this group because they felt that there is a discrepancy between Thai people’s general patriotism and the fact that they seldom wear traditional clothing.

Wearing jongkraben, wrapped trousers*

Wearing jongkraben in daily life, traditional wrapped trousers*

They also started this group to invite people to wear these kind of national dresses in public and not be afraid of it. Nowadays it seems that traditional clothing is only reserved for special occasions. Thus, Thai people are not used to wearing these kind of dresses anymore. The group also wants to show young Thais that traditional dresses are not particularly expensive or hard to find. Hence, Chancha said that she bought the fabrics for a low price and made the dresses herself. She also finds that accessories like jewellery are not necessary.

National clothing for children (photo credit: Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, FB page)

National clothing for children (photo credit: Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, FB page)

The group’s aim is to preserve and maintain the way Siamese people dressed in prior centuries. As I understand it, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles offers activities promoting Thai traditional clothing for adults and for children. In addition, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Amazing Thailand) also encourages people to wear these kind of dresses and the N’Sukjai doll is the inspiration.

Traditional Thai men's dress (photo credit amazing Thailand, FB page)

Different kinds of traditional Thai men’s clothing (photo credit: Amazing Thailand, FB page)

Traditional Thai dresses seem to come into vogue. Thus, for instance, celebrities like Pattriya Na Nakorn and actress Davika Hoorne present these dresses in glossy magazines.

Davika Hoorne in WE Magazine (photo credit: Davika Hoorne Fanclub, FB page)

Mai Davika in WE Magazine (photo credit: Davika Hoorne Fanclub, FB page)

Summing up, I think Siamese Fashionista a very useful group since their aim is to give young Thais an understanding of their ancestry and the way they dressed. Thus, it remains to be seem if this is only a trend or if traditional Thai clothing will actually become a dress that anyone can wear on any occasion 🙂

Your, Sirinya

*photo credit: SiameseFashionista, FB page




Dara Rasami – A ‘Foreign’ Princess at The Siamese Royal Court

Dara Rasami (in Thai: ดารารัศมี, also spelled ‘Rasmi’), born in 1873, was a Princess of Chiang Mai and a descendent from the Chet Ton Dynasty. Her parents were King Inthawichayanon and Queen Thipkraisorn Rajadevi of Chiang Mai. Dara Rasmi Na Chiang Mai, as she was officially called, became a princess consort of Siam by marrying King Chulalongkorn (Rama V of Siam). They had an only daughter called Vimolnaka Nabisi who, however, died at the young age of only 2 years 8 months.

Later, the Princess was promoted to the rank of High Queen ‘Chao Chom Manda Dara Rasami’.

Princess Dara Rasami

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

Recently promoted to the rank of High Queen, Dara Rasami poses for a formal portrait in her hometown, Chiang Mai. Note that she wears a phasin [skirt] made from a Burmese court textile calle*

King Chulalongkorn’s marriage to the Princess of Chiang Mai was mainly a strategic alliance. In the 1860s and 70s Siam became increasingly concerned that the British might colonize the Kingdom of Chiang Mai since they had already taken neighbouring Burma. In addition, there was also a rumour that Queen Victoria intended to adopt Princess Dara. Hence, the Siamese court became alarmed that the British wanted to take over Lanna. Consequently, the King’s brother, Prince Phichit Prichakorn, was sent to Chiang Mai to forward the King’s proposal to the princess. In 1886, Dara became a concubine to the King, entering the Siamese Royal Court.

Dara Rasami in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

Dara Rasmi in front of her dresser, unwinding her hair. All images courtesy of the National Archive of Thailand*

However, the princess who came from Chiang Mai was not really accepted at the Grand Palace but rather disparagingly referred to as a ‘Lao Lady’. She and her retinue were also teased that they ‘smelled of fermented fish’. Nonetheless, Dara and the ladies in her entourage were not to be deterred by these circumstances. In fact, they stuck to their northern style clothing and long hair. Thus, they did not adapt their appearance to the fashion of the Siamese court where the ladies wore short hairstyles at that time.

A princess with 'exotic appeal' and ethnic distinction*

A princess with ‘exotic appeal’ and ethnic distinction*

As a matter of fact, Dara’s appearance, her way of clothing and her extremely long hair, differed greatly from that of the Siamese ladies at the court. Thus, her ‘foreignness’ or ‘exotic appeal’ is strikingly on display in a series of photographs taken by Erb Bunnag who was also a royal consort.

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

The Bunnag sisters, royal consorts, notice that they all wear a short hairstyle*

Dara is portrayed in front of a dressing table and mirrors which evoke an atmosphere of intimacy. The viewer gets the impression that he is in the private sphere of the princess. It is also interesting to note that Dara’s face is often reflected in the different mirrors and thus seen from different angles, a fact that she did not seem to be aware of.

Dara with loose hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

Dara with loose, floor-length hair and face reflected in different mirrors*

These photographs stress the ‘foreignness’ of the princess and point out that she is different and does not really fit into ‘the otherwise ethnically homogenous environment of the Siamese royal court’ (Leslie Woodhouse). It is primarily her amazingly long hair that signals Dara’s ethnic distinction from the Siamese ladies. This fact is particularly on display in these photos. In a broader sense, this presentation also indicates what can be considered siwalai (‘civilized’), adjusted and what not.

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

Long hair as a signal of ethnic distinction*

In other words, Dara is presented as feminine, however, her way of dressing and styling does not seem to be in accordance with Siamese ‘siwalai’ standards. Thus, it is hinted at her ethnic inferiority. Nevertheless, she stayed more than two decades at the court but a few years after King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910, Dara asked King Rama VI for permission to go to Chiang Mai for retirement. Her wish was granted and she returned to her hometown in 1914 where she continued her royal duties to the Lanna people. She died at the age of 60 in 1933.

Here is a video clip summing up the most important stages in Princess Dara’s life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFR7mPQZjIM

Finally, we may say that Princess Dara Rasami can be considered a ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ concubine at the Siamese Royal Court. In fact, she had the status of ethnic inferiority which is also displayed in contemporary photographs.

Yours, Sirinya

(*photo credit: National Archive of Thailand, pictures retrived from quod.lib.umich.edu)

(Reference: Leslie Woodhouse, Concubines with Cameras: Royal Siamese Consorts Picturing Femininity and Ethnic Difference in Early 20th Century Siam, Volume 2, Issue 2: Women’s Camera Work: Asia, Spring 2012)




The Concept of ‘Siwalai’ in Late 19th Century Siam

You’ve probably come across the term ‘siwalai‘ (ศิวาลัย) in some way or other. Just think of the ‘siwalai‘ dress that we’ve dealt with in the context of traditional Thai dresses or the Siwalai garden (Suan Siwalai, สวนศิวาลัย) which is situated in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. The Siamese notion of ‘siwalai was first introduced in the reign of King Mongkut (r.1851-1868) and can be regarded as a modified version of the English word ‘civilized’.

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and is situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org)

Boromphiman Mansion is part of the Grand Palace and situated in Siwalai garden (photo credit: Andreas Hörstemeier, wikimedia.org)

The Notion of Siwalai

Thus, the meaning of this term ranged from etiquette to material progress in the sense of new bureaucracy, infrastructure, electricity, judicial system as well as dress codes, grooming and appearance. However, it is interesting to note that the Siamese quest for ‘civilization’ was primarily a transcultural process in which Western practices and ideas had been adapted, transferred and incorporated into the Siamese setting.

King Chulalongkorn and Family, dressed in Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

King Chulalongkorn and family, dressed in Victorian fashion, around the 1890s, photograph of a painting made more than 100 years ago (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

In other words, this led to the phenomenon that Western and Siamese aspects were mixed and combined together. For instance, this is shown in clothing: ladies of the court had assumed the hybridized fashion of combining Victorian lacy, high-collared blouses with traditional jongkraben pantaloons (wrapped trousers). Queen Saowapha (also written ‘Saovabha’) who was the chief consort of Chulalongkorn also wore this kind of mixed fashion.

Queen Saowapha, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Queen Saowapha in 1902, clothed in part Siamese, part Victorian fashion (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

For this reason, ‘siwalai’ might be regarded as a technique that could provide Siam with equally civilized standards to the West. Nonetheless, additionally to its display of civilized standards to the West, it also served as a local legitimization for the symbolic powers of the Siamese elite. That is to say that there was a gap between a ‘siwalai’ Westernized public domain and a private domain which remained Thai and local. However, generally we may say that the quest for civilization served as a project for self-confirmation as well as of constructing occidentalized images of Siamese prestige. Thus, we may also claim that Siamese siwalai never had the intention to imitate all features of Western civilization.

It is more the case that distinctively Western features were adapted in order to create something new that was nevertheless completely Siamese. Hence, things and aspects labelled as civilized were considered as prestigious and authoritative. Referring back to the example of fashion, the following clip shows how Western fashion was adapted to fit in a new Siamese style considered as ‘civilized’. What is more, it is also interesting to note that today the Siamese Fashionista group tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally again.

Finally, we may claim that siwalai was in fact a kind of elite mimetic resistance to the West and not an attempt of farangization and westernization respectively. What do you think about this topic?

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)




Traditional Thai Dresses Part I

Ever since I was little, I have been fascinated by the amazingly gorgeous traditional Thai dresses. The Thai national or traditional dress is called ‘Chut Thai phra ratcha niyom’ (ชุดไทยพระราชนิยม) in Thai which means ‘Thai dress of royal endorsement’. This kind of dress (chut Thai) is commonly worn on formal occasions as national costume.

traditional dresses at Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Traditional Thai dresses at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, Thailand*

Today we can distinguish between eight different styles of Thai national dresses. They are said to have originated in the mid 20th century. In fact, when HM Queen Sirikit accompanied the King in state visits to Western countries in 1960, she realized the need for a modern national costume. Thus, Queen Sirikit had research conducted concerning historical records of royal dresses. Consequently, eight official designs were developed and also promoted by HM Queen Sirikit herself.

I will focus on traditional (national) Thai dresses for women but of course there are also national attire for men. I have divided this article into two parts, simply because there is so much material and information. Hence, I think it is better to have smaller ‘bites’ 😉

Traditional Thai dresses

Traditional Thai dresses featured in this post (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Traditional Thai Dresses

1. Chut Thai Chakkri

Chut Thai Chakkri is a very formal and elegant dress. This kind of garment is usually produced by using the Yok weaving technique. A special feature of the Yok weaving method is that it creates additional thickness within the fabrics without adding extra threads. In the Chakkri Style, the ‘Pha-Sin’, that is the ‘Pha-Noong’ or skirt, is a full length wrap skirt. This skirt has two pleated folds in front which are called ‘Na- Nang’.

chakkri style Thai dresschakkri style Thai dressChakkri style dresses*

Traditional Thai dress, Chakkri (photo credit: Amat Nimitpark)

Traditional Thai dress, Chakkri (photo credit: Amat Nimitpark)

2. Chut Thai Boromphiman

Like Thai Chakkri, Thai Boromphiman is also a formal evening attire. It can be worn in formal ceremonies and royal functions. The Boromphiman comprises a long sleeved round necked buttoned blouse which is tucked beneath the ankle length ‘Pha-Noong’ skirt with its front pleats (‘Na-Nang’). The blouse and the skirt are sown together so that they form a one piece traditional dress. The Boromphiman is made of brocaded fabrics in order to create a very luxurious appearance.

thai boromphiman dressthai boromphiman dressBoromphiman dresses*

3. Chut Thai Siwalai

The Thai Siwalai is a formal evening gown similar to the Boromphiman and the Chakkri. The only difference between these Thai traditional dresses is that the Siwalai has a shawl draped over the long- sleeved blouse. This shawl is also called ‘sbai’ in Thai. Chut Thai Siwalai is worn in royal ceremonies and other formal occasions. By the way, the term siwalai was derived from the English word ‘civilized’.

thai siwalai dressqueen sirikit in thai siwalai dress

Thai Siwalai dress & HM Queen Sirikit in Thai Siwalai dress around 1950*

4. Chut Thai Chakkraphat

First of all, it is important to mention that ‘Chakkraphat’ means emperor in Thai language. Hence, Thai Chakkraphat is an official and conservative traditional dress with a shawl similar to Chakkri. Nevertheless, it appears even more put together than the Thai Chakkri dress because the shawl is thicker, richly embroidered and decorated with beautiful ornaments. It can be worn in royal or national ceremonies.

thai chakraphat, thai traditional dress of queen sirikit of thailandthai chakkraphat dress

Thai Chakkraphat dresses*

In the following part, I will feature the remaining four styles of traditional Thai dresses. Hence, stay tuned if you like these amazingly beautiful garments! Or click here to check it out immediately 🙂 It is also interesting to note that today the Siamese Fashionista group tries to encourage young Thais to dress traditionally.

Yours, Sirinya

(*All photos in this post are from the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles unless otherwise stated, a further source about traditional dresses in Thailand is here)