When Thai Style Became High Style: Transformation, Identity And Invention In Thai Royal Dress
The Westernization of the dress of Siam’s (as Thailand was then called) elite began during the 1860s. Undertaken by King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn, it was one element in a series of “modernizing” responses to the Western powers then carving up Southeast Asia. Over the ensuing decades, the dress of Thailand’s royal women transitioned from the region’s traditional draped and wrapped garments to fashionable Western dress, which had become widespread in urban centers by 1930.
The Costume Society of America’s 42nd Annual Symposium
May 24th -29th, 2016
The Full Cleveland: Dress as Communication, Self-Expression and Identity
WHEN THAI STYLE BECAME HIGH STYLE:
TRANSFORMATION, IDENTITY AND
INVENTION IN THAI ROYAL DRESS
The Westernization of the dress of Siam’s (as Thailand was then called) elite began during the 1860s. Undertaken by King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn, it was one element in a series of “modernizing” responses to the Western powers then carving up Southeast Asia. Over the ensuing decades, the dress of Thailand’s royal women transitioned from the region’s traditional draped and wrapped garments to fashionable Western dress, which had become widespread in urban centers by 1930. Thus, in the late 1950s, when King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, new to the throne and relatively unknown in the West, began to prepare for a state tour to 15 Western countries, there was no longer a characteristically Thai court dress for the Queen to wear. Her Majesty, realizing, that her clothes for this all-important tour needed both to be fashionable and communicate a specifically Thai identity, turned to the Paris couturier Pierre Balmain to develop a fashionable Western wardrobe that frequently employed handwoven Thai textiles. Simultaneously, she also worked with local dressmakers and advisors to create a modern version of the dress traditions of the nineteenth-century court that combined historic elements with Western tailoring. This new “traditional” style proved so successful, that Her Majesty continued to wear it after the tour. Eight variations were eventually created, which subsequently became a new national dress for Thailand.
The three interlocking papers in this panel will explore the following:
- The “traditional” dress of the Siamese court and its Westernization.
- The development of Queen Sirikit’s distinctive international image as a woman of taste and style in her Western fashionable dress.
- The creation of a renewed and modernized Thai court dress.
Body Politic: The Westernization of Thai Court Dress, 1860-1950
Dale Carolyn Gluckman
During the first half of the 19th century, Thai women’s court dress consisted of the untailored, draped and wrapped clothing worn by both sexes throughout South and Southeast Asia: a hip-wrapper (the smaller phaa sin or larger phaa nung) tied in various ways; and a breast-wrapper or shoulder cloth (sabai), also worn in several ways. Differences in status and wealth were indicated by the amount of fabric used, the richness of the cloth, and whether the cotton or silk fabric was self-produced, imported from India, Persia, or China, or specially commissioned from local weavers.
The dress of the Siamese court—both men’s and women’s—began to Westernize in the 1860s, in response to various political, social, and technological forces, not the least of which was a desire on the part of the king to maintain the country’s sovereignty by aligning its sartorial identity more closely to Western norms. Although Siam’s royal women lived sequestered from public view, the many surviving photographs taken of them professionally, by family members, and often by the women themselves, allow us to construct a picture of the gradual changes in their attire. Contemporary photographs regularly show women of the court in hybrid styles featuring Western tailored bodices worn with the indigenous hip wrapper, and accessorized with Western-style fans, stockings, shoes and jewelry. Over the ensuing decades, the balance shifted increasingly towards Western dress, and Western hairstyles. By the second decade of the twentieth century women of the growing urban middle class were also beginning to adopt Western fashions, following the lead of the court and the extended royal family and spurred, perhaps, by the greater availability of information through periodicals, photographs, and films. Beginning in the late 1930s and continuing into World War II, Siam’s Prime Minister Phibun Songkram also vigorously promoted Western dress among the general population by issuing several edicts that required even people in the countryside to wear it. By 1950, the process was virtually complete.
This paper will detail the evolution of the dress of the women of the Thai (Siamese) court and beyond and discuss the reasons and political circumstances for those changes. Mention will also be made of the sources of information on Western fashion and the mechanisms for acquiring clothing and accessories.
Fit for a Queen: Balmain’s Western Wardrobe for Queen Sirikit
In June 1960, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit embarked on a seven month-long state tour that began in the United States and continued through 14 European countries, ending in Switzerland in early January 1961. As the first Queen of Thailand to visit the West since the 1930s, Her Majesty had both the opportunity and the responsibility to communicate, to Western audiences, the modern style of Thailand’s Queen. Planning Her Majesty’s clothing for this complex trip began more than a year in advance, and Queen Sirikit and her advisors quickly realized that not only would she require a fashionable Western wardrobe for a variety of occasions and all seasons, but that the creation of such a wardrobe was beyond the skills of the Thai designers and dressmakers at the time. Therefore, the Queen looked to France, selecting Pierre Balmain, then at the pinnacle of his career, as her couturier. This began a 22-year-long working relationship between Queen and couturier that created a royal wardrobe that was both fashionably elegant and, often, distinctively Thai—so much so that Her Majesty was named three times to the International Best Dressed List, and ascended to its Hall of Fame in 1965. This paper will describe the development of her Thai-inflected Western wardrobe and the Queen’s working relationship with Balmain.
The Past in the Present: Queen Sirikit and the Invention of Modern Thai National Dress
Sarttarat Muddin and Piyanan Petcharaburanin
As noted above, “traditional” Thai court dress no longer existed at the time King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand commenced their 1960 state tour. In addition to a fashionable Western wardrobe that incorporated Thai elements, the Queen wished to have a modern form of royal dress that projected a distinctively Thai identity and was appropriate for a Queen. In the late 1950s, the Queen and her advisors examined historic court photos, 19th-century textiles found in the palace storerooms, and wall paintings in local temples. These formed the basis of experiments with different versions of modernized royal dress based on the simple, draped and wrapped attire of nineteenth-century Siamese court women but constructed using modern tailoring techniques. These were made by local dressmakers for Her Majesty, who tried them out on regional state visits in late 1959 and early 1960. The trial-and-error method resulted in five different ensemble styles that Her Majesty wore during the 1960 state tour. By 1963, Queen Sirikit had established eight styles of varying degrees of formality to be worn on different occasions. Ultimately, Pierre Balmain and François Lesage, designers of Her Majesty’s fashionable Western wardrobe, were entrusted with the task of making the most sophisticated of these cut and tailored ensembles for the Queen. The presentation will discuss how this innovation occurred and highlight the difference between Siamese uncut forms of dress and the cut and sewn construction of Western couture. Finally, it will look briefly at how modern Thai women have adapted these invented styles which are usually assumed, especially by foreigners, to be “traditional.”