A woman’s hair and dress is so important it’s a matter of national security.
By Philip Cornwel-Smith
Whether in formal fabric or spaghetti straps, Thai women remain among the best-groomed people on earth. Visitors marvel at how prettily they frame their typical blessings of smooth skin, fine features, petite figure and lustrous hair. Even the poorest look spotless. All maintain immaculate hair—from matronly bun or practical bob, to long, shampoo-commercial locks.
In this social hierarchy, style starts at the top. And the top part of top people is the hair helmet. Few Thai things mesmerise the foreigner more than khunying hair. Experts dispute its origins, though as star hairdresser Somsak Chalachol declares: “We’re among Asia’s best in phom klao (gathered-up hair). We’re very meticulous. We’ve benefited from a relatively solid hair-dressing culture.”
Solid hair-dos indeed appear in temple murals with the long tresses of male and female royalty plumed up through narrow coronets. Underlying phom klao is the sacredness of the head. Raising the hair’s height implies superior qualities. Thus long-haired women often sculpt a lacquered frontal ‘swan flick’.
As important as hairspray is white make-up. Paleness raises status. Keeping out of the sun is vital, and Thais spend 1 billion baht annually on skin whitening products, even for armpit and genital bleaching. Typically advertised by half-Western or Chinese models, these can at best only restore the skin’s natural shade, and some can be poisonous. To look truly pale requires powder. Lots of it. Thus women of all ranks may smear their faces with talc or with nam ob, perfumed lotions (like Mong Leya or Quina brands) containing dinsor phong, a white clay from Lopburi now used in Thai spa therapies. It both heals and cools.
Meanwhile, Thailand has become a world centre for cosmetic surgery, and not just for anti-ageing. Countless aesthetic clinics meet the demand for a narrower farang-length nose with a bridge, or eyelids with a fold.
In clothing, conventions went further, since the state played stylist. Around World War II, the Phibunsongkhram regime tried to replace Thai jongkraben (sarong leg-wrap) and uncovered shoulders with skirt-suits, hats, and shoes, until Queen Sirikit commissioned couturier Pierre Balmain to create seven national costume designs in the 1960s that remain stunning templates for day and evening wear today. Simplified for everyday wear, and with a higher hem to save cost, this glamorous costume has morphed into a suit of silk armour for business women since the shoulder-padded 1980s profile.
Many who were raised under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s draconian ‘cultural mandates’ still adhere to his conviction that dress is a matter of national security. His rules of Thainess amplified King Chulalongkorn’s idea that appearing siwilai (civilised) could defend against the colonialists’ justification of conquering supposedly ‘uncivilised’ peoples. Senior ladies should be sa ngaa ngam (gracious, elegant) and young women are expected to rak suay rak ngam (love to be pretty). Controversy comes when women choose to be sexy.
As in the West during pop’s early decades, blaming the clothes becomes a way of blaming the youth. While the media promotes imported labels without questioning how hi-so women pay such prices, youngsters get condemned for prostituting themselves to afford the same brands.
Contradictions abound. Young women are now encouraged to be modern, but scolded when they’re up to the minute. The government wants Bangkok to rival Milan as a fashion city, but cracks down on the very fashion features—like bare shoulders and cleavage—that are integral to the international catwalk elite that Thailand seeks to join.
The official tone implies a return to past standards of Thainess. It more closely resembles bourgeois primness, which the West initiated when it went through the industrial and social changes that Thailand’s now experiencing.