HOME TO THE largest collection of Thai art and artefacts in the country, the National Museum Bangkok is today hosting a truly magnificent display of rare, intricately embellished costumes once worn by members of the royal family, high-ranking officials and various ethnic groups.
On loan from 20 museums nationwide, the 180 stunning pieces in “Elaborate Vintage Textiles and Clothing” fill the museum’s Issaravinitchai Throne Hall with the richest of colours. Emphasising both court and tribal art, the exhibition pays tribute to Her Majesty the Queen Sikirit’s lifelong efforts to revive the production of indigenous textiles and preserve Thailand’s diverse textile heritage.
At the heart of the hall is a scarlet costume worn by King Mongkut embroidered with oak leaves and fruits in flat metallic gold thread. It dates back to 1859.
“The exhibition mainly focuses on the embroidered textiles housed in national museums throughout the country. His Majesty King Mongkut’s richly embroidered costume is believed to have been tailored and embroidered in Europe. The pattern of the crown on the collar as well as the oak leaf design on the facing and back are similar to several textiles given to the King by the French government as a gesture of friendship.
“The embroidery technique is complicated and tight and the metallic gold thread is oxidised, so it turns black with time. The inner translucent cloth, however, is embroidered with a pikul flower (bullet wood) pattern and we believe this was done by Thai artisans,” says curator Yutthanawarakorn Saengaram.
Opposite is a portrait of King Chulalongkorn embroidered with multi-coloured silk thread that was painstakingly created by Thanpyuing Plian Bhasakaravangsa in 1900. In addition to her obvious embroidery skills, Thanpuying Plian was also recognised for her culinary talent and penned the original Siamese cookbook “Mae Krua Hua Paah”.
The embroidered clothes in the exhibition were widely favoured by members of the Siamese court, particularly the high-ranking ladies of honour. Silk and high-quality cotton were the most popular fabrics and often woven with coloured silk stripes or other materials such as gold or silver-wrapped thread, pearls, glass beads, crystal and jewelled beetles. Embroidery usually took the form of flowers and branches as well as classical Thai patterns.
“The cost of a piece of textile varied according to the fabrication techniques applied and the materials, which included silk, cotton, hemp, satin and wool. The royal garments were pricey, as they were made of imported textiles and required skilled royal artisans to weave the already elaborate cloth with gold-thread or with a printed design that used the gold line technique known as pha khien thong,” the curator adds.
On display is a stunning example of pha khien thong, worn as a tube skirt by members of the royal family, as well as an elaborate pha nung yia rabap, a fabric of Indian silk with gold stripes and brocade worn in the same fashion and greatly prized by the ladies of the court. There’s also a beautiful pha song sapak – a noble lady’s shawl made of silk and woven gold cloth embroidered green beetle wings and crystal beads.
Other interesting pieces include the pha krong thong – gold lace netting – which was used as translucent shawl by noble ladies, a lace bag with four gold tassels and braids embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped thread, and the pha khem khap,
which was made by weaving silk with gold and silver stripes and enhancing the fabric with horizontal stripes in varied colours and diverse motifs. It was used by commissioned officers as a bag to store their royal certificate.
At first glance, old scriptures appear to be little more than sacred writing but a closer look reveals that each Buddhist Khom letter was painstakingly embroidered with gold
thread on silk and spelt out the rules of the Sangha. The gilded wooden cover was painted with blue and red pomegranate tree motifs.
An elaborate shoulder bag was embroidered with gold and silk thread and featured a small piece of knitted gold thread that was embroidered with flat-round metallic beads. Equally beautiful are the shoulder bag and cigarette box with metallic filaments of gold embroidered on velvet,
The exhibition also accords space to the embroidered costumes of khon (masked drama). Among the highlights are the shawl and collar decoration worn by the principal female players of both khon and lakhon (Thai traditional dance drama). The shawl is made of satin silk and embroidered with gold and silver thread then braided with crystal beads. For its part the collar decoration is heavily embroidered with silver thread in floral and conical motifs and enhanced with sequins.
A long sleeved shirt made of yia rabap cloth belonging to the late Prince Kaeo Navarat – the last ruler of Chiang Mai – was the status symbol of a high-ranking official. The governors in the South, however, normally wore pha yok thong – the silk cloth with gold-wrapped thread.
Apart from the richly embroidered clothes and textiles of royal families and aristocrats, the exhibition also showcases the traditional woven textiles of each region, which are unique in both their materials and weaving techniques. Pha yok mai phum riang, for instance, is a woven silk brocade that combines plain natural cotton with a supplementary weft silk on mixed silk in the traditional pattern of thep phanom – a deity with clasped hands in a gesture of worship. It’s named after Phum Riang sub-district in the southern province of Surat Thani.
Pha sin matmi from the northeast province of Udon Thani uses a hand-weaving technique known as tied dye or Ikat. The black cotton background is adorned with white motif and the bottom is woven with supplementary weft.
The textile art of the ethnic groups in all regions of Thailand differ according to their ethnographic territory. Pha sin kham khoep – woven cotton with supplementary weft of gold or silver silk – is typical of the Tai Lue people in the northern province of Nan while pha na mung – woven cotton adorned with multi-coloured thread motifs – decorates the mosquito net in the bridal chamber of Tai Khrang couples in Chai Nat’s Baan Nuen Kham district.
Several techniques used for preserving old and damaged textiles bring a tour of this fascinating exhibition to a close and show how the Tai Yuan’s pha sin from the National Museum Chiang Saen’s collection was cleaned by covering it with mesh before vacuuming with a low pressure cleaner. Metal thread that has turned black is cleaned by first rubbing it gently with calcium carbonate or limestone powder before using a low pressure vacuum cleaner to remove the powder.
“Elaborate Vintage Textiles and Clothing” continues until January 31 at Issaravinitchai Throne Hall of the National Museum Bangkok.
Tickets are Bt30 for Thais and Bt200 for foreigners. The museum is on Na Phrathat Road, next to Thammasat University.
Find out more by calling (02) 224 1370 or search for “National Museum Bangkok” on Facebook.