Fashion Is Culture/Culture Is Fashion
From the dawn of Siamese civilization, the sarong has been a lodestar of fashion and culture for Thai women.
Reaching back almost a millenium to the ancient days of Sukothai and the Kingdom of Lanna (now northern Thailand), Thai woman have proudly worn a formal sarong to the most important occasions of her life-weddings, funerals, Buddhist ceremonies, anniversaries, birthdays. At her final end, a Thai woman is often cremated wearing a favorite sarong.
That’s not to say Thai women don’t wear sarongs for daily wear and work. They do. But they will have at least one formal sarong for special occasions.
Why is the sarong-which is the world’s oldest garment-still such an important part of contemporary Thai fashion? Certainly a sarong’s simplicity, comfort and utility are important factors. But the real answer can be found in the old saying: “Fashion is culture and culture is fashion”.
The Thai Sarong: An Anatomy Lesson
A Thai sarong can be made from three distinct and separate fabric pieces: a waistband; a mid section called a pa sin (ผ้าซิ่น); and a bottom portion called a “teen” (ตีน) or “teen jok” (ตีนจก). These three pieces can be sewn together to make a Thai sarong.
But, the only mandatory part of a traditional Thai sarong is the pa sin. In fact many of the finest Thai sarongs are only pa sins with no waistband or seperate bottom “teen jok“. The word “sarong” is understood everywhere and is used to refer to a pa sin.
Thai language lesson: “pa” means fabric.
The Pa Sin (ผ้าซิ่น)
Pa Sins can be woven from either silk or cotton. They can be made from mudmee weaving, a brocade, or a plain, twill or satin weave. The varieties of weaves and styles are endless.
The designs of the pa sin are also endless. There are traditional designs that villages have been weaving for centuries, and there are modern designs that are newly introduced into Thai weaving culture. You can still discern which village or region a specific pa sin was woven by its design, colors and weaving techniques.
The Pa Teen Jok (ตีนจก)
The teen or teen jok is the bottom part of the sarong. It’s specifically woven to be the bottom portion of a Thai sarong. Often it is the most complicated weave of the sarong and therefore can be very costly-more costly than the pa sin.
The word “teen” (ตีน) is a northern Thai word which means bottom. In the context of a Thai sarong it means the bottom piece that is usually sewn on.
If by cultural ignorance, you used a teen jok as a waistband, everyone would snicker that you’re wearing your sarong upside down. Never mess with tradition!
The word “jok” (จก) is northern Thai dialect and refers to a weaving technique where a supplementary weft thread is woven into the warp by using a small metal pik. In the old days, the weavers would use a porcupine quill. This style weaving is very slow, meticulous and takes great skill, but it produces some of the most complex and beautiful fabrics in The Kingdom.
The village weavers of Mae Chaem in Chiang Mai Province produce some of the finest cotton teen joks you’ll find anywhere. I purchased two for 4,000 bt. each (about $130 US) to give you an idea about prices for high quality teen joks.
The waistband is the least important part of a traditional Thai sarong. Most sarongs will not have a separate waist band, and the pa sin itself will wrap around the waist.
Waistbands, when they are sewn onto a sarong, are always cotton because cotton fabric holds its tuck far better than silk. Waistbands are usually a single color, and are woven in plain weave with no design.
Thai Sarongs = Formal Wear
Westerners think of a sarong as something you wear at the beach or casual attire worn while sipping a Mai Tai. To the contrary, a Thai woman understands her sarong to be her “go to” clothing for important events.
A formal sarong is often woven from silk, although many villages throughout northern Thailand produce formal cotton sarongs with complicated brocaded weaves. (My Thai wife wore a special Thai sarong at our wedding made from handwoven brocaded Lamphun silk.)
Whether the occasion is a wedding in a poor, rural village or high tea at a royal palace, a formal sarong is appropriate attire. Commonly Thai formal sarongs made from complicated brocading techniques are kept as family heirlooms.
Casual Thai Sarongs
Until the beginnings of the 20th Century (1900) a sarong was the only article of clothing a Thai woman wore from the waist down. Yes, women wore chong krabens, but that is essentially an elongated sarong wrapped to resemble a pair of trousers.
See my blog post: “Thai Traditional Fabrics: 3,000 Years in 15 Minutes“.
Everyday sarongs, as opposed to formal sarongs, are always cotton and never have a teen jok. They are cotton pa-sins, often made from mudmee or plain weave fabrics, that are inexpensive and worn for work or relaxing much like we Westerners wear bluejeans.
For more info about mudmee weaving please see my post: “Mudmee Fabric: A Cultural Treasure of Thailand”.
The Traditional Sarong Outfit
Thai women usually pair their formal or fine sarongs with either a Western style blouse, a short formal jacket or an Asian style tunic. The blouse, jacket or tunic can be made from the same fabric as the pa sin to create a coordinated outfit.
An ornate gold or silver belt can also be worn to give emphasis and texture to the waistline.
A woman can also add to this outfit by draping a “sabai” over her shoulders. A sabai is a shawl that dates back at least a millenium in Thai apparel history.
Securing a Formal Thai Sarong
Formal traditional sarongs can be heavy (Thai silk is not a lightweight fabric-read my tutuorial!) and need to be well secured around the waist without causing unsightly bulges at the waist area. The fabric is too heavy to simply tie it like you would a cheap beach sarong.
A Thai formal sarong is secured in two basic ways to avoid the unsightly waist bulge. The first and most modern way is to have skirt hooks & eyes sewn into the sarong’s waist that custom fits the woman. Often a short zipper slit is also used along with the hook & eye, just like a modern woman’s skirt. The second manner (the traditional manner) is to use a front “pleat fold” to take up the extra fabric and then tuck the pleat-fold into the waist at the stomach.
It’s very common in Thailand that after purchasing a formal sarong (a standard bolt of fabric in Thailand is 1.6 meters long and is referred to as a “sarong bolt”), the owner takes it to her seamstress to alterate the sarong to fit her waist and sew in the hook & eye fastener.
Do Real Thai Men Wear Sarongs?
In Thailand, especially in rural communities, many men commonly wore sarongs until around the mid-20th Century (1950’s). Nowadays very rarely. If you visit Myanmar or Laos, it’s not uncommon to still see men wearing sarongs for every day work.
BUT! Thai men do often wear a sarong called a pa kao ma (Translation: white horse fabric). A pa kao ma is always a cotton plaid sarong woven in assorted colors, slightly smaller than a standard woman’s sarong. A pa kao ma is not worn in public-it’s what Thai men sometimes wear around the house to relax in.
A pa kao ma is easy to spot because of its plaid design. They’re usually very cheap-under a 150 bt. (less than $5 US). You can find them at street markets, fabric stores and sarong shops. They’re often handwoven and make great souvenirs.
I usually wear my pa kao ma after an evening shower or as a wrap while at the beach.
A Brief History of the Sarong
The simple sarong is the first woven fabric garment to clothe a human being. It reaches back roughly 10,000 years or more to Neolithic times (the Stone Age). Nothing predates it.
We know this because wrapped clothing (a sarong) far predates sewn clothing. Sewn clothing first appeared during the Bronze Age or about 5,000 years after the first looms began producing fabrics. When the first stone age looms began to produce fabric around 8,000 B.C. (maybe even earlier), the weavers-whether they planned it or not-were producing a rectangular piece of fabric that could be used among other things as a wrap-around garment.
A rectangular bolt of fabric had many uses to Stone Age societies. A sack to carry things in. A shade to protect yourself from the sun. Part of a costume to distinguish a religious elder. A ground mat. A blanket to wear over your shoulders. And finally as a waist wrap or garment.
The utility of a rectangular bolt of fabric as a body wrap would not have escaped the Stone Age mind. Ancient looms routinely produced fabrics with a width of 36-40 inches which is conveniently the dimension between ankle and waist.
Many historians and dictionaries will claim the sarong started in Indonesia. Wrong. Only the word “sarong” came from Indonesia (the Malay Peninsula); the garment itself belongs to the very beginning of weaving-10,000 years ago.
The word “sarong” is a Malay word which means to sheath. A sarong is a simple sheath.
Call the sarong a “lava lava” (Somoa), “lungi” (India), pareo (Tahiti), “lamba” (Madagascar), “izaars” (Arabian Penninsula), “kikois (East Africa), “sulu” (Fiji), or “pa sin” in Thailand. A sarong is a sarong in any language.
I place the “modern” Thai sarong to begin sometime around 1,000 A.D. in the chronology of Siamese fashion history. By the mid-13th Century (1250 A.D.) the Kingdoms of Sukothai (the beginning of the modern Siamese state) and Lanna (Northern Thailand) had formed. We know from recorded histories that women commonly wore sarongs-royalty and the wealthy wore silk sarongs imported from China and India, while commoners wove and wore cotton sarongs.
The modern sarong is woven to be worn as a wrapped garment, while prehistoric sarongs had many uses-only one of which was to wear as a garment. Modern sarongs are denoted by their defined rectangular shape where the length is twice as long as the width (from the weaver’s perspective). The modern sarong is a colorful garment as the use of natural dyes became well developed during the Sukothai and Lanna eras. Weaving techniques were also well developed and weavers could produce complicated brocades and patterns for their sarongs.
Such was the state of weaving during the 13th Century in what is today Thailand from which the modern Thai sarong sprouted.
It’s A Wrap
A Thai sarong is a combined font of culture, fashion, utility, economy and history. It cannot be understood by simply seeing it as just another garment. It’s not. Thai sarongs literally wrapped themselves around “Thainess”-the Thai soul or way of life.
In Thailand today, there remains a robust demand for sarongs of all types-from sarongs fit for an evening at the Royal Palace to simple cotton muslin sarongs to wear around the house. If anything, this demand has only gotten stronger with time.