What is traditional Thai dress and how was it worn?

15 June 2015
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What is traditional Thai dress and how was it worn?

Some of our customers ask us whether Thai harem pants are really worn in Thailand. Some ask us whether they are not more Indian than Thai and others ask us whether these are traditional types of clothing for Thai women. 

traditional thai dressTo answer these questions we need to delve into the history of Thai fashion and indeed Thai history. A lot will depend on how we define traditional and how far back we want to go. In other words, how many years, decades or centuries do we need to roll back before reaching what we consider traditional.

According to official sources the sinh skirt, sabai shawl and regal embroidered patterns are to be considered the correct traditional attire and should be worn proudly as a show of Thainess. In recent years there have been many scandals related to disapproval of some Thai women’s clothes, or lack of. In 2011, three girls went topless during the annual water festival, Songkran, resulting in condemnation from authorities and causing a furor which rumbled on for many weeks on social media. In 2015 the new military regime announced it would clamp down on so-called underboob selfies arguing that this was damaging traditional Thai culture and in the same year it requested that schools reintroduce traditional Thai clothing for students. The white tops and dark skirts/trousers currently being worn were not deemed sufficiently Thai nor sufficiently traditional. All of this begs the question; what are we to understand as traditional Thai clothing?

 

 

  

 traditional thai dress

If only it were so easy to define. These clothes, though undoubtedly Thai, were only ever worn by the rich and wealthy in the upper echelons of society. Even nowadays, few Thai women would wear such clothes unless attending a wedding or formal function. What then, were the rest of the population historically wearing?

It may surprise you to learn that in pre-Thailand times, when the country was called Siam, women going out in loose skirts and topless was normal, ordinary and did not seem to upset anybody. To denounce this as non-Thai today, could be considered therefore, to renounce the country’s history. Nor are we talking about a distant past, the Siam era was no more than than 100 years ago.

Below are some photos of old Siam in which we can observe various women dressed in loose clothes reminiscent of the harem pants we sell as Thai pants today. A simple, light way of dressing ideally suited to the hot and humid weather of large parts of Thailand.

traditional thai dresstraditional thai dress

However this history was erased as Thai leaders attempted to “modernise” the country. Part of this so called modernisation was aimed at getting the general population, to dress more formally. The reign of King Rama V and the changes enforced by Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram in the 1950s made sure traditional Thai dress slowly disappeared from daily life. 

Below is a piece of official government propaganda, explaining what civilised and non-civilised dress looks like:

 Government instructions on how to dress

As we can see men’s fashion was pushed towards a Western ideal of trousers and shirt whilst women’s loose comfortable pants were replaced with Western style long dresses and shirts.

So it is clear that whilst some have been imposed more than others, there cannot be a single nor unique idea of what constitutes traditional Thai dress. And to suggest otherwise would seem to deny the very notions of both Thai history and Thai tradition.

 

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