When I was young, a poem piqued my curiosity about silk. Sailor Poem, written by Eleanor Farjeon, an English author, starts as follows: “My sweetheart’s a Sailor, He sails on the sea. When he comes home, He brings presents for me; Coral from china, Silks from Siam, Parrots and Pearls, From Seringapatam…”Never mind where Seringpatam was. I wondered why Thai silks were so sought-after, because at the time most Thais didn’t wear silk, let alone use items made from it.
In the past, sericulture — the process of creating raw silk by raising silkworms — was practiced by farmers during the dry season, when they would not have to tend to their rice fields. Now it’s done year-round, and the luxurious silk items that used to be worn chiefly during formal ceremonies are as abundant as Thai smiles. Across the world, lustrous silk pieces appear in fashion and enhance interior décor. They are not only collected for their beauty, but also for their historical, social, and cultural significance. Silk sumptuously wraps around our lives like a gigantic cocoon.
The name most often associated with Thai silk is Jim Thompson, a former CIA agent turned entrepreneur who disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. To many, the enigmatic Thompson seemed to have single-handedly revived the industry. Even I have bought some of his accessories and souvenirs as presents over the years. In fact, I used to join the masses queuing up for garage sales at the main store. However, true credit for bringing Thai textiles to the fore belongs to one of history’s icons of style, HM Queen Sirikit.
Through her Support Foundation, as well as her various projects, HM has helped improve the lives of silk weavers from far-flung villages nationwide. She has also directed consumer attention to high-quality Thai products. A multitude of annual sales and fairs see silk-lovers rushing en masse to purchase the best and finest silks selected by HM’s foundations, especially the award-winning pieces emblazoned with Royal Peacock logos.
HM’s latest project saw the foundation of the Museum of Textiles on the grounds of the Grand Palace. The museum highlights her many endeavours and houses some of her royal costumes from the past, some in classic Thai style and others Western. Haute couture luminaries, such as Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, and Givenchy, made some of the most magnificent of the collection. With designers like that, it is no wonder HM Queen Sirikit frequently landed on the International Best-Dressed List.
In line with popular sentiment, I used to think that Thai silks were too clingy to wear in the subtropical Thai climate. They were also hard to take care of and not suitable for daily wear. I watched my parents don silk like armour before they would attend formal functions, such as religious rites at temples, weddings, receptions, funeral wakes, and cremations. My father would dress up in a “Seua Phrarajathan” made from ikat silk, a dead ringer for the ones worn by former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, while my mother would appeal to traditional feminine sensibilities in pastel or gemstone shades of silk tube skirts matched with lace blouses.
When I was eleven, my mother gave me my first piece of silk from Jim Thompson. I had it made into a shirt and wore it until it was threadbare. I was officially converted. Since then, I have fallen under a silk spell. Similar to tailored suits, silk apparel feels soft and supple on skin. The material flows alluringly. It is iridescent, light, comfortable, and versatile. I use silk and ethnic clothing for all kinds of occasions. For decades, my “uniform” has been a shirt worn with a pair of silk fisherman’s trousers. The look has come to define my signature style. For official events, I wear a silk shirt-jacket that looks a lot like the attire my father used to wear. As they say, one eventually turns into one’s parents. It’s only a matter of time.
Recently, younger generations have reinterpreted Thai national costumes for their fashion repertoire. Patriotism is stylishly expressed in silks and accessorized with gold jewellery for a splash of contemporary flair. This most recent national costume craze occurred in 1997, when the regional economy crashed. After being bombarded by designer fashion in the 80s and 90s, we revisited our roots and rediscovered the beauty of silk — of wearing something Thai again. High society ladies and hipsters have begun to shop and appear at parties dressed to the nines in classic Thai style, be it jongkrabaen (similar to the Indian dhoti), jeepnhanang (a tube skirt with a pleated front), or sarongs.
While the backlash against high design doubles as a celebration of Thai culture, still I wonder. Will this trend will be as ephemeral as the life cycle of the silkworm?