CLOTHES AND FASHION IN THAILAND: SILK AND CHATUCHAK WEEKEND MARKET

CLOTHES IN THAILAND

Traditionally, working clothes have been made of cotton, which is comfortable in Thailand’s hot climate, while silk was worn during festive and ceremonial occasions. Beetle-winged embroidery and mudmee—an ancient fabric dying technique—are associated with Thailand. In rural Thailand some women wrap themselves in a single piece of cloth and some men wear a sarong to cover the bottom half of their body and wear nothing on the top.

Seemingly all school students, and even university students, wear uniforms. A large number of people are in the civil service or otherwise work for the government. Many of them wear uniforms that indicate the type of work they do and their rank.

Thais are tolerant people and almost any clothing style is acceptable. Some Thai dress smartly and fashionably. Others dress in jeans and shorts and shabby clothes. As far as foreigners are concerned, wearing shorts and jeans in Thailand is okay, but don't wear clothes with holes or go without a shirt. Women in shorts skirts, jeans or tights and men in short pants and informal clothes are common in the cities but may offend some people in the countryside. Keep in mind also that shorts, exposed shoulders and short skirts are may be regarded unacceptable in some temples. And, despite their reputation for having an anything-goes attitude, Thais don’t like the public nudity or topless bathing displayed by foreigners.

In 1999, two Thai women were killed when they were struck by lightning and the metal underwire in their bras conducted electric charges to their hearts.

Thai Silk

Silk has been made in Thailand for over 2,000 years. Thai silk and traditional yarns are world famous, particularly the colors of turquoise, gold, red and yellow. Traditional Thai silk is woven on simple wood and bamboo looms and dyed pink, magenta, lime and azure by hand. It has a raw, but beautiful "humps and bumps" texture unlike smooth machine-made silk from China and Japan.

The Thai silk industry has traditionally been located in the north, with weaving traditionally done by women. The most unique style of Thai silk is Mat Mee, a tie-die silk tradition native to northeast Thailand. Produced from tie-died silk thread, the fabric is hand woven into a variety of beautiful designs , with intricate patterns and subtle colors.

Today, over 20,000 people are involved in the Thai silk industry. In recent years machines have been developed that can reproduce the "humps and bumps" texture, but some is still made by hand.

Jim Thompson and Thai Silk

James H. W. Thompson was a successful American businessman (and a former American spy) who is credited with single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry. His traditional teak house is one of Bangkok's premier tourist attractions.

Thompson was born in Delaware in 1906 and worked in New York as an architect. A former member of Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the precursor of the C.I.A.), he arrived in Thailand at the end of World War II with the mission of organizing hill tribes in norther Thailand to fight a guerilla war against the Japanese. After the war he became an O.S.S. station chief in Bangkok, and retired shortly afterwards in 1946, but stayed on Thailand and became captivated with silk trade in northeast Thailand which was in serious of decline as result of competition from machine-made textiles.

In 1947, Thompson organized a group of Muslim silk weavers, most of whom had other jobs and barely clung to their silk-weaving skills, in the Ban Krua area of Bangkok. According to legend, Thompson convinced one weaver, who was working as a plumber, to make a sample piece of cloth. Thompson flew with the cloth to New York and through a friend of friend was introduced to the editor of Vogue , who immediately fell in love with the material and convinced the designer Valentino fashion it into a dress that was prominently featured in the magazine, creating the initial surge of demand for Thai silk.

Thompson founded the Thai Silk Company Ltd. in 1948 and became a rich man purchasing cloth made by the Muslim Ban Krua weavers in their homes. After a time other weavers entered the profession. Thompson tirleessly promoted Thai silk, sending samples to fashion houses in Paris, Milan and New York, building up a large international network of clients,

In March 1967, Thompson disappeared while taking a walking during vacation in Malaysia's Cameron Highland. To this day, people aren't sure what happened to him. Was he kidnapped? Murdered by business rivals? Or eaten by a tiger? Some speculate he got lost on the jungle, fell in a cave, or was captured by Communist insurgents. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his sister was murdered in the U.S. the same year. A theory that gained some traction in the 1990s—and for which there is some evidence—suggest that Thompson was accidently run over and killed by a Malaysian truck driver, who hid his remains.

Book: Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery by William Warren (Houghton Mifflin, 1970)

Men’s and Women’s Clothes in Thailand

Men wear a loose shirt or jacket and sarong or trousers. When working in their fields they often wear black calf-length trousers and a black shirt with a scarf tied around their heads. The clothes worn for festive occasions tend to more brightly colored than those worn when working.

Women in traditional Thai dress wear a wrap-around sarong skirt called a prasin with a tight-fitting, long-sleeve jacket. In some northern areas a sash, or sabai, is worn over the left shoulder. Vendors and merchants wear brightly-colored prasins and loose-fitting, hip-length jackets, with blue being a particularly favored color. Women working in fields often wear black jackets and straw hats that look like inverted fruit bowls—or the broad, conical ones favored in Vietnam—as protection from the sun.

Thai Fashion

Bangkok hosted an International Fashion Fair in 2000 and staged its first fashion week in 2005. Thai fashion designers include Thakoon Panichgul, Sirivannavari Nariratana and the Tiyagon Group. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Rojjona Phetekanha was Thailand best known model. Known by the nickname of Yium she was discovered at Bangkok food stall in 1994 slurping noodles. Although many Westerners considered her exotic and alluring, many Thais thought she had an ordinary northeastern face.

In the fashion world Thailand is known mainly for it silk and street stalls brimming with cheap, knock-off designer goods, Wearing platform shoes was quite fashionable among young women in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Police suspected they may have been involves in some traffic accidents. There was some discussion about banning them.

The textile and clothing industry is the biggest manufacturing employer in Thailand, with more than 800,000 workers. Thailand exports about $3 billion of ready-to-wear clothing. It is manufacturing center for famous international fashion houses such as Espirit, Guy Laroche, Giordano and Polo Ralph Lauren. Thailand is trying to develop its own domestic brand names to be sold on international market.

See Textile Industry Under Industry

Strong Points of Thai Fashion

Daisann McLane wrote in the New York Times: A “sense of classicism, simplicity and attention to the quality of the fabric is a hallmark of the kinds of clothes being made by Thais today, says the artist and clothing designer Richard Tsao. Tsao, a Thai of Chinese descent, divides his time between Bangkok and New York. His exquisite jewel-toned ruched ladies' jackets are made by hand in Bangkok from six meters of handmade silk; he brings them to New York City, where they are sold at the museum shop of Manhattan's Asia Society. [Source: Daisann McLane, New York Times, December 2, 2004]

"In Thailand we grow up with tailors," Tsao says. "Knowledge of fine silks, of fine fabric is something that I absorbed from my mother, who loved clothes, and taught me what quality silk was. I think we care about that, still, even though most fashion nowadays is so mass produced." Thailand's rich traditions of arts and crafts are the key to its contemporary fashion scene, according to Tsao. "Hong Kong and Singapore are really more artificial city-states. Thailand has so many arts and crafts, and the Queen's patronage of the traditional crafts has brought them back to life in recent years," he says. [Ibid]

The high level of craftsmanship and relatively low labor costs in Thailand mean that a designer can do things that are impossible in other parts of Asia. "It takes a week to produce only 50 yards of the silk I use. It takes one seamstress an entire day to make a single one of my jackets," Tsao says. Tsao's designs sell for around $300

Thailand’s Effort to Break Into World Fashion

Nick Cumming-Bruce wrote in the New York Times: “In a region already replete with fashion events - in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Sydney - Bangkok is staging its first Fashion Week and hopes to overtake the lot. "We are looking ahead to see Thailand as the leader of the fashion industry in the region in three to five years," said Somchai Songwatana, chief executive of At Bangkok, whose Fly Now garment brand has already won plaudits in London this year and who is helping to organize the event. [Source: Nick Cumming-Bruce, New York Times, August 11, 2005]

“The fashion week is only one of a slew of projects under the label "Bangkok Fashion City," in which the government agreed to invest 1.8 billion baht, or more than $43 million, over 18 months. The project has involved a series of fashion shows in Bangkok in 2004 and includes a "road show" taking Thai garments and jewelry around Asian and European capitals before winding up in the United States in mid-2006. [Ibid]

“The Fashion City project aims to establish Thai designers in the world of international fashion and provide a platform to develop Thailand's garment industry in the high-value-added end of the business. Bangkok Fashion Week showcased the work of 30 top Thai garment designers. Success in promoting Thai fashion, said Somchai, the chief executive of At Bangkok, can provide the engine that helps Thailand's garment industry shift from making garments for big brands and foreign retail chains to manufacturing original Thai designs. [Ibid]

“But making Bangkok Fashion City a reality is not proving easy. Government ministers grumble that projects are running far behind schedule. Designers say government bureaucrats and the fashion industry have trouble talking the same language and the venture needs better leadership. Fabio Marangoni, president of Italy's 70-year-old Istituto Marangoni fashion school, pointed out other challenges. Thailand has high-quality textiles and fabrics but its fashion industry "lacks a distinctive style," he said on a visit to Bangkok last year. [Ibid]

“Although short on international experience, Thai designers say they are ready to take on fashion markets abroad. At Fashion Weeks overseas, "people are always amazed at the quality of the craftsmanship and the creativity of our designs," said Bhanu Inkawat, creative director of Greyhound, a leading Thai brand. Alongside the main event exhibiting Thailand's big fashion names, the organizers have planned a series of shows for young designers from some of the country's 29 fashion schools. [Ibid]

Rejection of Designer Labels in Thailand

Daisann McLane wrote in the New York Times: “Surachai Suwannamai, the owner and designer of Common Tribe, a men's fashion boutique in Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market, feels very strongly about designer labels. "I don't like them and I don't put them in my clothes for two reasons," Surachai says, as he hands one of his simple, loose-cut, black natural-cotton jackets to a customer. "First, I want people to buy my clothing because they love it, not for the label. And, second, because labels make you itchy." [Source: Daisann McLane, New York Times, December 2, 2004]

In label-crazy Asia, where no Tokyo or Hong Kong secretary's ensemble is complete without a little handbag bearing an LV or Gucci logo, a designer who talks like Surachai is practically a heretic. But not in Thailand. Bangkok, alone among Asian fashion capitals, is a place where the luxury brand logo takes a back seat to homegrown creativity. Here, high-quality silks, hand-woven cottons and elegant, hand-finished craftsmanship have pride of place over the market-driven, mass-produced international fashion that dominates elsewhere in Asia.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, for instance, the sleek Louis Vuitton boutique in Gaysorn Plaza, Bangkok's most upscale mall, had the look and feel of an abandoned museum. Meanwhile, at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, nearly 200,000 shoppers packed in to shop at what may be the only big outdoor public market in Asia where it's nearly impossible to find a fake Louis Vuitton.

Chatuchak Weekend Market: a Hub of Creativity in Thai Fashion

Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok is one of the largest open flea markets in the world. It features 8,000 stalls grouped into 26 sections with good buys on silk, ceramic, toys, jewelry, handmade paper, hill tribe stuff, leather goods, puppies, batiks, fighting fish, herbal aphrodisiacs, antique whisky bottles and shoes. The market is huge and confusing, it even has its own map. It is open from 5:00pm to midnight Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday until 10:00pm. Chatuchak is a nightmare to navigate, so don't plunge in without looking at a map of the market first. Nancy Chandler’s famous map is invaluable for sorting it all out.

On shopping at Chatuchak, Sylvia Hui of Associated Press wrote: There's so much on sale - clothes, jewelry, handicrafts, ''antiques,'' orchids, pets and even army surplus - that you could spend all day here and still not hope to have explored everything the market offers. As for those who aren't that keen on bargain-hunting, gawking at the mayhem and jostling with the locals is reason enough to visit. All the goods come at low prices that could go much lower, provided you bargain hard and prepare yourself for the claustrophobic sauna that the tiny inner alleys typically become after noon.... And here's a tip for good quality clothes and fashion accessories. Turn immediately left from the main gate. Heading farther left will take you to the corner of the market and the new Kamphaemg Phet MRT station. From there you should see central stalls labeled Sections 24 to 26, which offer silks, fabrics and lots of other home decoration choices. [Source: Sylvia Hui, Associated Press, September 3, 2006]

Daisann McLane wrote in the New York Times: Chatuchak “is the hub of a grass-roots Thai fashion movement that draws its energy not from international labels but from Thai designers. They are often self-taught and come armed with a concept, a strong aesthetic sense, and enough start-up cash to rent one of the nearly 15,000 closet-sized stalls spread over Chatuchak's 14 hectares, or 35 acres. (Depending on size, rents average from $500 to $1,000 a month). [Source: Daisann McLane, New York Times, December 2, 2004]

“A stroll through Chatuchak is like a fashion treasure hunt. You elbow your way slowly through its narrow lanes, called "sois," passing entire shops devoted to a single item — secondhand jeans, or silk pillow covers, or wicker birdcages. There's a lot of schlock, lots of copycat inexpensive trendy sportswear. But for the patient shopper, a fashion treat lurks around every corner: a loaf-shaped cotton handbag with wooden handles, encrusted in sequins, from Chiang Mai or a shop filled with flip-flops covered in Day-Glo paisleys, polka dots and Mondrian striped fabrics. And, occasionally at Chatuchak, there's something extraordinary, like the museum-quality heavy collars made from antique Thai stone bangles and bits of jade and semi-precious stones by a freelance jewelry designer, Veeraporn Nitiprapha. [Ibid]

Chatuchak Weekend Market: Spawning Ground for Thai Designers

Daisann McLane wrote in the New York Times: “Some hopeful designers last for only a few weekends at Chatuchak. But others, like Surachai, attract a following of both Thai and foreign customers. His line, Common Tribe, is going into its 11th year, and the boutique has been written up everywhere from Thai Airlines' in-flight magazine to Time Out's guide to Bangkok. [Source: Daisann McLane, New York Times, December 2, 2004]

Common Tribe's unstructured jackets, vests and pants, in a strict palette of black and natural off-white, strike a perfect balance of Eastern and Western notes. The pieces, priced between 150 bhat, or $3.80, for a T-shirt to 600 bhat for a jacket, are simple, almost modernist in form, and yet draw from elements of Thai and Southeast Asian traditional dress. The rustic, unbleached cotton that Surachai uses is the same cotton woven and worn by Thailand's northern hill tribes. The square metal buttons are antique Burmese coins. And the boxy, simple cuts of his drawstring and wrap pants can be adjusted by the wearer to suit his mood and body shape, much like the orange drapery worn by a Thai monk.

Surachai, who considers Common Tribe to be his hobby (his day job is as a university lecturer in advertising) says he used to do a different collection every year, but eventually settled on a handful of basic cuts because he believes — again, heretically for a fashion designer — "The perfect design need not change."

It's not easy to build a big business while producing artisanal fashion, which is why Thai designers like Richard Tsao and Surachai operate on a very small, one-man scale (Tsao's gross is $100,000 yearly). Rungcheewun Kumvichit, one of Chatuchak's biggest successes — she's the owner and designer of Thongpunchang Antique Textile and Contemporary Arts — says she is "not interested at all" in expanding beyond her small shop in the market. For the past 10 years she has cultivated a following of Thai, Japanese, and European customers for her antique silk scarves and sarongs.

Rungcheewun's background is in traditional Thai textiles, but several years ago she started incorporating the antique silks into one-of-a-kind contemporary jackets and blouses that sell for between $30 and $100. In her shop one Sunday, she demonstrated how she painstakingly adapted a 30-year-old yarn dyed (mudmee) silk sarong into an elegantly sexy Mandarin collared tunic without marring the original pattern. "I did not cut it, I did not destroy," she says. "An original design comes from inside, it has something from the heart," she says, holding the beautiful old Thai fabric up to the light. "It cannot be mass produced."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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