In the “Journey” books, I’ve struggled a bit to describe the typical dress of the men of Southeast Asia, particularly Siam, in the nineteenth century. I’ve seen plenty of descriptions and illustrations, but how to describe it? It’s a bit more than a ‘loincloth’ but not quite trousers. As luck would have it, in my other role as a travel writer I recently came across a rare nineteenth century photograph of a commoner. Most of the few surviving photographs from this era are of court figures, or extremely posed vignettes of Siamese ladies (probably the soft-core porn of its day), so I thought the photo at right was a real find.
That’s not a spear the man is holding, it’s an oar. He’s probably a rower or boatman. The photo was found in Phitsanulok, in the lower part of of Northern Thailand. The ‘breeches’, as I’ve chosen to call them, are actually made from just a single long piece of cloth, which is wrapped around the waist, then pulled between the legs and tucked in. The length depends on the width of the cloth. Laborers might use a narrower piece to give more freedom for the legs.
The cloth tied around the waist is not so much a belt as a general-purpose utility scarf. Still in common use today, the pa-kao-mao is an amazingly versatile accessory. It can be used as a grocery bag, a towel, a turban to keep the sun off, and hundreds of other uses.
Interestingly, this form of traditional garment is still in use as formal wear around court, and at fancy restaurants and hotels. These days, though, the fabric is almost always Thai silk, and the breeches are usually complimented by a white jacket.