THE DUSIT THANI BANGKOK recently offered a wonderful opportunity to admire Siamese and Thai fashion craftsmanship at its pinnacle, as applied to the attire of the royal court from the dawn of the Ayutthaya Period to recent times.
Dr Surat Jongda served as curator for the exhibition “Timeless Legend”, borrowing from various sources, such as the private collection of fabric historian Paothong Thongchua. He loaned a century-old shawl of silk that gleamed with gold and silver thread.
Worn over a lace blouse in the British Victorian style, it actually helped form a classic Siamese outfit in the days of King Rama V when paired with jongkraben, the shiny silk wrap that was worn draped as trousers.
The royal wardrobe has always featured ornate embroidering.
From Puthipong Piencharoeng’s collection came a necklace of precious stones also about 100 years old and an ornamental gold headdress.
Other contributors were clothing-design masters such as Dr Veeratham Trakulguenthai and Adhit Dhirakittiwat, and Peeramon Chomdhavat, founder and artistic director of the Arpon-Ngam Dance Theatre.
Surat characterised his “fashion show” as a form of “time travel divided into three acts – Assumed Devaraja, Brilliantly Rattanakosin and Siam Renaissance”.
“Thais traditionally believed the king was a devaraja, semi-divine, and the kings of the Ayutthaya period would wear clothing of meticulous needlework and refined embroidery, decorated with precious gems,” he said.
“The typical ensemble of the nobility in those times featured three elements – the clothing, the jewellery and the headdress – together signifying the wearer’s social status. Then, when Siamese society began encountering the West, the clothing designs changed.”
Surat pointed out that, even if the fabric deteriorates over time, the patterns and print motifs can be preserved. Conservationists consult the national archives and study old paintings.
Every boy’s rite of passage on reaching adolescence was the trimming of the topknot in a Brahmin ceremony.
“There you can see the Theppanom patterns with their angels or deities performing respectful gestures, the lotus-like Poom Khao Bin pattern often found in old Sukhothai architecture, and the Pikul flower motif.
“The Hang-Kra-Rok pattern, which entails twisting together two strands of silk, was popular among men during the reigns of Kings Rama V and VI.”
The monarchs of classical Ayutthaya would wear jongkraben made with fabric from India adorned with Siamese patterns and prints. The torso was usually clad in two layers of clothing and decorated with elaborate accessories. The headdress would in its shape and design take the likeness of a deity, one such example of which was found buried at Wat Ratchaburana.
Ayutthaya princesses were wound in a large, single piece of fabric that was completed with necklaces, bangles and belts to indicate their class. The children of royalty and ladies in waiting too were dressed just as beautifully, the latter often wearing pleated shawls.
When Phraya Kosathibodi visited Paris 400 years ago as an envoy of King Narai of Ayutthaya, the French were mesmerised by his delegation’s costumes. A painting of the scene shows the Siamese ambassador dressed in a white outer gown of Persian influence with a cloth wrap around the waist and the tall headdress known as a lompok.
Accessories worn by princesses in Ayutthaya reflected their class.
Act II of Surat’s exhibition moved into the early Rattanakosin Period, which inherited the late Ayutthaya styles of attire, but the first kings of the Chakri Dynasty wore even more-ornate embroidery and decoration. The royal headdress now bore feathers in the French fashion.
Queens were exquisitely gowned with complex ornamentation. Court women in the reign of Rama II wore sarongs with a wrap covering the upper torso. Under Rama III, men tended to go barechested and women took a fancy to fabrics from China.
The “Siam Renaissance” collection completed the history of Thai court attire with the tale of Rama IV’s ambassadors to Britain and France being pleased that precious Siamese items previously presented as gifts were by then on display in foreign museums.
Western fashion assured there would be reciprocal influence. Men shaved and kept their hair short. Women adopted the jongkraben, topped by layered blouses and pleated shawls, and they too wore their hair short.
The fabrics came mainly from India but were decorated with traditional Siamese patterns. During Rama V’s reign, Victorian lace became quite popular among noblewomen and the men wore suit jackets with high collars. Both genders favoured silk jongkraben trousers in plain tones, and white stockings or socks.
Thai manners of dress became increasingly “modernised” in the Western sense – tuxedos for men and lace blouses and skirts for women. Rama VI, seeking a more “civilised” image for the country, overtly discouraged his subjects from wearing Western dress over a sarong, just as he disdained the habit of chewing betel nuts.
Arriving in recent times, the exhibition found Her Majesty Queen Sirikit initiating dramatic Thai-centred changes in the way people dressed. She championed Thai silk and by personal example showed how elegant clothing made with it could be.
Rulers of the Ayutthaya Period were revered as semidivine and dressed the part.
There were eight “Thai Prarajaniyom” styles designated for specific occasions, and one of them was dubbed “Thai Dusit” style.
Peeramon Chomdhavat of the Arpon-Ngam Dance Theatre has been conserving embroidered traditional costumes for more than 20 years. The Thai Dusit evening dress, he explained, had a sleeveless top of golden silk, hand-embroidered with sparkling crystals. A flounce enlivened the front of the skirt and all the material bore a Pikul flower motif.
No survey of Thai attire is complete without reference to the theatrical khon costume, the most elaborate and well crafted of all. Surat has for 10 years worked on the khon shows presented annually by the Queen’s Support Foundation, and he has a treat ready for next month’s performance.
The audience will, for the first time in a century, see actors onstage wearing Nakhon Si Thammarat brocades. Reviving this magnificent article of clothing required special training in weaving for more than 40 members of the Baan Thammang Handicraft Centre Amphoe Chienyai and Baan Trok Kae Handicraft Centre Amphoe Cha-uad in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
This kind of care and attention is of course beyond the capabilities of most people, but Surat gets a kick out of just seeing young people – who usually can’t afford silk – wearing a T-shirt screened with the traditional patterns and print motifs. “I see that and I feel happy already,” he laughs.