Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Siamese Dress

Nicolas Gervaise (circa 1662-1729) was born in Paris and was ordained a priest before he was twenty. He joined the Société des Missions Etrangères, and in 1683 was sent as a missionary to Siam with the Bishop of Heliopolis, Mgr. Pallu. He returned to France about 1686, became a curé in Brittany, and then moved to Tours, where he wrote his Histoire Naturelle et Politique du Royaume de Siam, the Description Historique du Royaume de Macaçar, and a life of St. Martin. He went to Rome in 1724, was made titular Bishop of Horren, and went to what is now Venezuela with a group of missionaries, where he was killed by Carib Indians in 1729. (Michael Smithies.)
Mural painting at Wat Bang Khun Tien showing a man and woman in typical Siamese attire.

In the kingdom of Siam there is no trade more unprofitable than that of tailor, for the common people have no need of such a man. The whole dress of a man consists of two pieces of silk or cotton material. With one piece, which is about two ells long and three-quarters of an ell wide, they cover their shoulders as with a scarf, and with the other, which is of about the same length and breadth, they encircle the waist, and then tuck in the two ends very neatly at the rear, thus making of it a kind of breeches which reach down to just below the knees. This garment is called in Siamese Pa-nonc, and in common parlance, Panne or Pagne. A Mandarin’s Pagne is much more ample and richer than others. It is usually made of cloth of gold or silver, or else from those beautiful hand-painted cloths of the Indies, commonly known as Chit of Masulipatam. Underneath, these gentlemen wear short trousers of some good material which reach down below the knees, and the bottoms of which are artistically embroidered with gold or silver. In the hot season the only jacket they wear is of muslin, cut like a dressing-gown, which does not extend below their trousers. But in the North Winds Season they wear a close-fitting garment made of Chinese brocade, or of some fine European cloth, which closes up in the front by means of ten or twelve filigreed buttons of gold or silver, placed at a distance from one another. The sleeves which are very wide, are buttoned like our old doublets used to be, and above this garment they wear in the form of a scarf (after the manner of our knights), a piece of gold or silver brocade, or a piece of painted cloth as beautiful as can be found in the country. In Siam shoemakers are scarcely any more necessary than tailors. Everyone walks barefooted, with the exception of the mandarins, who sometimes use slippers of a Moorish pattern. Also, they go bareheaded as the rest do, unless, on certain days, they are obliged to appear in ceremonial dress before the King: for then they wear a pointed hat made after the style of our sugar-loaf. At other times they content themselves with having their slaves carry behind them a hat (which resembles those in fashion in France during the last century), and also, their sword and their bousette (a small gold or silver box in which they keep their betel).

The dress of the women does not vary much from that of the men. Their p’anung (it bears the same name) seemed to me a little larger. They let it hang down almost to the ground like a petticoat. Its color is generally black, the color which they regard as being the most beautiful and worthy, and it is often embroidered in gold and silver. A small piece of muslin covers the bosom, and the rest of the body is bare. The better-class ladies are distinguished, amongst them as amongst us, by a certain grace that demands the respect of all who see them. Their fingers are laden with rings, diamonds and various precious stones. They are usually fair in complexion than those of lower birth, because they go outside less often. But the better-class men, who are as dark as the rest, attribute this difference to the merit acquired by the good works they did in their former lives. Moreover, these ladies are very clean, although they always walk about barefooted. They go bareheaded and wear their hair as short as the men do. In order to make it more glossy, they rub it with an oil called Naman hom, that is to say, “oil of sweet smell.” The men, as well as the women, use it, for there is no discourtesy equal to that committed should a husband go to see his wife, or a wife her husband, or a child his father and mother, without having first perfumed the hair with this sweet smelling oil. Men having a flat nose or flat feet are most welcome by the ladies, for they believe that these men must be worthy, since in their deformity they resemble their great God, Sommonokodom [Buddha]. Like the men, the women are medium-sized, and among them there are found hunchbacks, although it seems that they are all deformed. It is a pity to see such a scanty care bestowed by parents upon their children. As soon as a child comes into the world, they go and wash it in the river, after which, without a single swaddling cloth, it is placed in a little bed where it remains until it is six months old, when it is weaned. It is then taught how to eat rice. Many children, who cannot get accustomed at so early an age to this Spartan code of life, die within a few days or months after their birth, and it by great luck that, of every ten or twelve born, two or three are saved. At their birth they are given by their parents a name altogether different from their family name, and no-one but the King has the right to alter it, as he does do when he elevates them to some government post which demands distinction. The names given to them by their parents are usually ridiculous. These, for example, are thought to be the prettiest: Ceou, that is to say, Crystal; Boune, which signifies “he who has made merit;” Pet, precious stones; Thon, meaning “gold.” The Siamese ladies cannot bear to see our white teeth, for they believe that the devil has white teeth, and that it is shameful for a man to have teeth like those of beasts. Scarcely have the men and women reached the age of fourteen or fifteen years than they set about making their teeth black and shiny, and this is how they do it. The person whom they have chosen to do them this service, causes them to lie down on their back, and keeps them in this position for the three days during which the operation lasts. First of all, he cleans the teeth with lemon juice and afterwards rubs them with a certain fluid which makes them red. On the top of this he puts a coat of powder made from burnt cocoanut which blackens them. But the teeth are so weakened by the application of these drugs that they could be extracted painlessly, and would fall out if the owner risked eating anything solid. During these three days, the patient lives on cold broths only, which may flow gently down the throat without touching the teeth: the least breeze may hinder the effect of this operation. That is why those who undergo it, keep abed and take care to cover themselves, until it is felt that the operation has come to a fortunate conclusion by the hardening of the gums and the stopping of the swelling of the mouth which assumes normal proportions. The same fluid that is first used for the reddening of the teeth is also used for reddening the nail of the little finger on each hand. It is only for high-class people to wear large finger nails and to redden that of the little finger. Working people cut them and are hereby distinguished. The modesty of our most humble houses does not equal that of theirs, for in the rooms of their finest palaces they have neither table, chair, nor tapestry. The only things to be seen are a few Chinese cabinets, some badly arranged pieces of porcelain, along with a few Persian carpets covering the floor; and several small pillows made of silk material are in the corners of the room with mats of rushes or rice-straw. One of these mats serves as a bed when they stretch it out, and they cover themselves with a p’anung. During the night they sleep with all their clothes on, as in daytime, unless they think they may soil them; for, then, they change them, and take others not so valuable. Sheets are not used by them, and those who are cleanest and tidiest have only a light mattress of cotton on a small bed of rushes, along with a bed-net of muslin.

Nicolas Gervaise, The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam A.D. 1688, translated by Herbert Stanely O'Neill.

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