There is no person more important in the history of Thai fabrics, Thai silk, and Thai weaving than Queen Sirikit.
She was a change agent of profound consequences. This petite and strikingly beautiful queen not only effected the haute couture of the upper crust of Thai society, but much more importantly, the fashion wear of Thai woman both poor and middle class.
She also made relevant again traditional Thai textiles, which sadly in the 1950’s, were dying a slow death due to an ever shrinking market demand.
Let me leave no room for doubt about the importance of Queen Sirikit’s contribution to Thai fashion and Thai fabrics with the following analogy:
Queen Sirikit is to traditional Thai fashion & fabrics what Elvis Presley was to rock & roll.
Both A Royal Life & A Soulmate to Rural Women
The Queen was born August 12th, (Mother’s Day in Thailand) 1932. She was educated in Europe and is fluent in both French in English.
Her father was an important Thai government official, serving as ambassador to the Royal Court of St. James (England) and ambassador to France. It was during her studies in Europe that she met the young bachelor king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama 9), and they married on April 28th, 1950. Shortly thereafter, she became Queen of the Kingdom of Thailand at the age of eighteen.
Queen Sirikit had an intuitive sense of the power of fashion. She understood that as Queen, what she chose to wear would have a significant impact on Thai culture and fashion. Therefore, she began to design her apparel using traditional Thai fabrics such as Thai brocaded and mudmee silks.
By the late 1950’s, she had turned her attention to the rural village woman of Thailand where traditional Thai silk fabric was handwoven. These silk weaving villages produced what many textile connoisseurs considered the finest fabric in the world. The villages also produced their own silk yarn (for more info please read: Making Silk: Thai Sericulture) for their weavers to use.
Sadly, silk weaving was in decline throughout The Kingdom during the 1950s. There was little market demand for handwoven Thai silk and so the village silk weavers were abandoning their complex craft.
She began travelling to these isolated villages, especially in Essan (northeastern Thailand) to rally the village women to continue weaving their silk. She encouraged farmers to engage in sericulture and produce high quality silk yarns for the weavers to use.
But what good is Thai silk without a market? After all, that’s why village weaving skills were being forgotten-nobody was buying their fabric anymore. In the 1950’s, demand had all but vanished. These were the dark days of Thai silk. This legendary fabric appeared destined to become a relic of history.
Queen Sirikit created a world market for Thai silk, beginning in 1960. She not only brought pride, recognition and encouragement to the weaver’s of Thai silk, she created a market for their exquisite Thai silk.
This post tells the story of a young, beautiful queen who changed the course of traditional Thai fashion and thereby breathed life back into the Thai silk trade.
Fashion Politics: The Royal World Tour of 1960
The young King and Queen of Thailand embarked on an extended international tour in 1960, visiting 40 cities mostly in the United States and Europe.
This was NOT a mere social tour of a royal jet-setters as has been erroneously portrayed in many fashion blogs and histories. The 1960 tour was actually serious business with the respect and recognition of Thailand as a country at stake.
Thailand in 1960 was far from the modernized country it is today. In 1960, the Thai gross domestic product was only $2.7 Billion (US). (Today the Thai ecomomy is a powerhouse with GDP of over $455 Billion (US)). Japan had occupied Thailand during World War II and essentially forced the Thai government to side against the U.S. and its allies. While Thailand’s post WWII government was wholly pro-U.S. and Europe, world leaders knew little of this isolated country that referred to itself as a Kingdom.
It was onto this world stage that Queen Sirikit appeared; and she didn’t disappoint.
The Power of Fashion
Queen Sirikit began preparing for the world tour well in advance. She knew instinctively that she and the King must be well received and respected by world leaders and the movers and shakers they were soon to meet. The prestige of her country was intimately linked to her and the King.
She realized that her current royal wardrobe was not sufficient for such a task. She needed a wardrobe that was both contemporary AND Thai. Oh sure, she could simply have her trusted dressmaker, Urai Luemruang (1920-1987), make her a wardrobe of impeccable Western couture that was sophisticated and fashionable, but that wasn’t enough for the Queen. She demanded a wardrobe that represented traditional Thai culture, yet with modern sophistication. For that she turned to the rural weavers of Essan and Lamphun for the finest silk textiles in the world.
In 1959, the Queen gathered together experts in the history of Siamese royal apparel, top Thai designers and of course her dressmaker Urai to begin to develop the outfits needed for the world tour.
This team, always under the demanding critique of the Queen, developed an extensive wardrobe for the Queen. Just as important, the Queen also began designing a series of traditional Thai dress that all women, rich or poor, could wear to important occasions of their own lives.
Pierre Balmain: The French Connection
Pierre Balmain was the founder of the Paris fashion business House of Balmain. The Queen choose him to design and make her most exquisite couture gowns for the 1960 tour.
How and why the Queen chose Balmain as her “go-to” designer is somewhat an open question. There is no single reason as her choice was no doubt a combination of his design style, personality and practical abilities.
The Queen had studied in Paris at the time that Balmain was an up and coming young designer, and so may have been familiar with him. Balmain’s fashion house also had the ability to timely accomplish the large task of designing, fitting and finishing a complete royal wardrobe. It was also said that the King was impressed with Balmain’s couture sketches and confidence.
Maybe the most important reason the Queen choose Pierre Balmain was because her personal dressmaker, Urai Luemruang, recommended him. Urai, had earned the respect of the Queen as a skilled dressmaker and her recommendation would have been given great weight by the Queen.
Balmain traveled to Bangkok in 1959 which cemented a personal and lasting relationship between the two.
The Queen’s measurements were taken in Bangkok and sent to Balmain in Paris. Balmain kept an assistant in Bangkok for the necessary fittings as her wardrobe literally took shape.
The Queen best described her relationship with Pierre Balmain as follows:
“I owe so much to Pierre Balmain.” she said. “When our first state visit was planned, we knew nothing about how to dress in Europe or America. When to wear a hat, the correct gloves and handbags things like that. M. Balmain made the trip from Paris to Bangkok, selected Thai fabrics for his designs and attended to the smallest details.”
Pierre Balmain successfully completely the Queen’s wardrobe-day wear, evening wear, and haute couture-6 weeks before the King and Queen departed Bangkok on the 1960 tour.
The Queen Turns High Fashion Upside Down
As mentioned earlier, Queen Sirikit didn’t just want a mere wardrobe of haute couture gowns for the 1960 tour; she wanted haute couture gowns, evening wear, and day wear that were imbued with Siamese tradition and culture.
For this, she turned to the lonely, isolated villages in her Kingdom, scattered throughout the northeast region commonly referred to as Esaan. These are some of the poorest villages in Thailand. But this is where some of the finest Thai silk can be found, especially mudmee silks.
She also looked to northern Thailand, specifically Lamphun, where the finest silk brocades were woven, especially metallic thread brocades. Lamphun had been a historical source of brocaded silk for the Royal Court and its silk weavers were now called upon again for their legendary fabric.
The Queen, along with her team of designers began choosing traditional Thai silks to be sent to Paris to make her wardrobe.
These silks were all handwoven on old wooden looms. The silk weavers had passed down their skills from grandmother-mother-daughter over the centuries and the patterns woven were the village patterns from Siamese traditions long ago.
The finest silk woven in The Kingdom, handwoven by poor village women, was sent to a leading Paris fashion house for haute couture design. The world was about to be introduced to Thai silk like never before.
The Queen’s “Unfashionable” Decision
Fashion inexorably flows from top to bottom. What the rich and famous “trend setters” wear and the top fashion designers produce, is often followed by similar low priced apparel that we the masses wear. It doesn’t matter if the movie star wears denim or silk, the fashionistas will obediantly follow behind.
The poor simply don’t dictate fashion trends.
Queen Sirikit broke this stubborn rule of fashion by sourcing her fabrics from the poor silk weaving villages. Fabric is the most elemental aspect of fashion. Choose the wrong fabric or pattern and your apparel design will fail.
The silk weavers of The Kingdom with their mudmee and brocaded fabrics with tradtional village patterns and colors became a central element of the finest haute couture, evening wear and day wear of Paris.
This raised eyebrows with some of the fashionistas in Bangkok. Mudmee especially was a fabric worn by poor village women. Was it really proper for the Queen of Siam to wear such common fabric? The young Queen faced skepticism. Years later, the Queen commented about her decision to use mudmee silk for her public wardrobe:
“They asked me what I would do with these mat mii silks. Why would the Queen want such ordinary fabric? I said I would wear it, because I found it beautiful. They warned me that people in Bangkok would not appreciate mat mii. I told them I believed that was not true. I believed that people in Bangkok would value mat mii. And I was right.” (Quotation from: In Royal Fashion: The Style of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand.)
Hurray for the Queen!
An Enduring Fashion Legacy: A New Take On Tradition
Queen Sirikit, along with her team of Siamese fashion historians, designers and Pierre Balmain designed a series of traditional dresses for Thai women to wear. The design work for this collection was done in the 1960’s and totaled 8 distinct styles of contemporary/traditional Thai formal wear.
The Queen, while living a life of royal privilege, never forgot the women of her country, especially the rural woman who lived in small villages. They too had important occasions to attend-weddings, birthdays, funerals, religious events, anniversaries-where formal Thai traditional wear was appropriate.
Back in the 1960’s, fashion attire for Thai women was a hodge-podge of Western apparel with a sarong used more out of an economic necessity than anything else. The eight dress designs put tradition back in style, but with a contemporary flair.
Several of the Queen’s eight designs were within the reach, both cost-wise and from a dressmaking standpoint, of an average Thai woman, rural or urban.
The effect of the Queen’s dress collection is very apparent today. You need only board a Thai Airways flight to see the attire of the stewardesses is almost straight from the Queen’s designs. Stay at almost any good hotel throughout The Kingdom and again you’ll see the staff uniforms are heavily influenced by her 1960’s designs. Attend an important Thai social occasion and many of the women, rich or poor, will wear outfits taken from the Queen’s designs.
On a personal note, I have purchased bolts of Thai silk from all over Thailand. Along with my Thai wife, we have taken the fabrics to local dressmakers in Chiang Mai, Lamphun and even rural Pasang. My wife brings the dressmakers a photo of the Queen’s dress design that she’d like to make from the fabric. Every dressmaker is more than familiar with the Queen’s eight designs and have their own patterns and nuances for making the apparel.
The SUPPORT Foundation
The Queen founded the Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques Foundation (It goes by the acronym SUPPORT) in 1976. The foundation’s purpose is to give rural villagers alternative ways to earn supplemental income in addition to their farming.
Although the foundation has many avenues for increasing income for villagers, much of its work is to develop and train villagers in their traditional village handicrafts.
Through the foundation, traditional weaving skills have been taught or improved through its sponsorship of education. SUPPORT finds, trains and financially supports village experts on weaving Thai silk (and many other handicrafts) especially mudmee weaving. These experts then pass along such knowledge to the next generation.
The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles
The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles open in 2012 and is the culmination of her life work in fashion design using traditional Thai fabrics.
The museum features many of her most elegant gowns by Pierre Balmain and also the eight traditional dresses along with memorabilia from the 1960 tour. The museum staff is always curating new expositions about Thai culture and especially Thai textiles.
Probably the museum’s most important function however is as both a research institution about Thai textiles, but also a repository for the preservation of historic garments of the Siamese Royal court.
The museum can store 10-15,000 items in a temperature/humidity controlled environment. This is crucial because of the extremely fragile nature of historic garments.
The museum is located on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok in the historic Ministry of Finance Building, constructed during the reign of Rama V in 1870. The price of admission is part of your entrance fee for the Grand Palace. Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily.
The museum has a wonderful gift shop where you can see and purchase from a large selection of Thai mudmee silk. In my tutorial about Thai Silk, I urge readers to go to this museum so they can see first hand how authentic, quality Thai silk, especially mudmee, looks and feels. Don’t miss the opportunity while in Bangkok.
A Personal Note
For almost two decades, I have traveled to the lonely villages of Essan going on “fabric safaris” in search of Thai silk. I also frequently visit Lamphun and am more than familiar with their stunning silk brocades woven by hand.
At every turn in my Thai silk “safaris”, I have seen first hand the importance of Queen Sirikit and her love of Thai fabrics. I shudder to think what would have become of Thai silk without her dedication to this legendary fabric.
In my humble opinion, there is no one more important to contemporary Thai silk weaving than Queen Sirikit. No one.
In Royal Fashion: The Style of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand by Melissa Leventon and Dale Carolyn Gluckman. (2nd Edition 2014)
Fit For A Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Creations By Balmain by Melissa Leventon. River Books Press (November 21, 2016)