In Northern Thailand beauty takes on exotic new definitions, for traditional hill tribe women have a very different concept of what makes a girl pretty, even from tribe to tribe. Some traits are common to all, such as the lack of make-up, the use of silver ornaments and the general preference for bold, bright colors. But no style quite resembles any other, while within each style subtle variations express individuality. In addition, hill tribe women in general have drawn on a staggering array of decorative devices from both the natural world and the modern. The combinations startle the uninitiated visitors, but they soon find that their aesthetic sense, in the tribal environment, quickly accepts the local norms. And they leave with the feeling that traditional dress makes even tribal plain Janes look fetching.
When city women go shopping for clothes and jewelry they purchase ready-made items. Hill women make their own outfits, so they only buy the components. Some tribal women—the Akha, Hmong, Palong and Karen—weave their own cloth as well. Karen weavers lay in decorative patterns while the cloth is still on the loom. Lisu and Lahu sometimes weave belts and cloth for shoulder bags but buy the main costume parts in bolts of cloth of different colors. Yao do not weave, but like the Akha and Hmong are meticulous embroiderers.
The Akha, Karen and Palong grow their own cotton and spin their own thread. The Hmong raise hemp for their cloth, though in recent years also grow cotton. Karen weavers dye the threads first, but the Akha and Hmong weave it white and dye it with indigo afterwards, when the Hmong also apply designs by batik. Akha and Karen cloth is used for all parts of the costume, while Hmong cloth is only for the skirts. Once the cloth is dyed the next step is to assemble the costume parts. The appliqué and patterned stitch-work comes at this point, which can take months for a fully embroidered pair of Yao trousers or an Akha girl’s jacket, leggings, skirt-guard and shoulder bag.
Girls of all tribes become adept with spindles, needles and thread at an early age, not from any formal training, but just by copying what their big sisters and mothers are doing. In the most remote and cash-poor villages, where tribal people have to make their own clothes because they can’t afford to buy any, females of all ages spin thread whenever their hands are free and there’s enough light from the sun, the moon or an oil lamp. And they learn to weave as soon as their legs are long enough to reach the treadles on the loom.
Town girls are familiar with a much broader range of beauty models. They’ve been bombarded all through their formative years with the images of the world’s styles and instructed on the ingredients of attractiveness. They are offered the ability to adopt one look for today, another for tomorrow, one for the office, a different one for the big night out, one for the sober presentation, another for the festive occasion.
The tribal exposure to various interpretations is much circumscribed. No strong media influence exists in the traditional tribal girl’s world, which is instead heavily saturated with images of the immediate environment. A tribal girl doesn’t want so many “looks.” She wants to look like all the other women around her because that has been all that she has seen, except for maybe a few hurried glances at the town girls and other tribal girls in the plains markets. The only beautiful women she’s ever had a good look at have been fellow tribal women. It’s no wonder they all wear such similar costumes. To look beautiful in the Akha world is to dress in the most beautiful Akha costume it’s possible to make. To be a beautiful Karen girl is to wear the most expertly woven Karen dress she is capable of making.
As in the plains, tribal girls dress up more to impress other women than to attract a male. The big holidays and weddings are times to show off one’s skill and compare one’s work with those of others. Akha, Hmong and Yao girls will examine each other’s embroidery and if they see something new will at once try to figure our how it was done. They’ll observe what decorations were used and how they were deployed, inspiring ideas for their next great holiday fashion. Lisu girls will count the shoulder stripes on the blouses of their rivals to see whether they have more or less than their own, which is the Lisu girl’s measure of appliqué skill. The Karen may do the same with the brass bangles on the arms of fellow villagers.
The city girl has a plethora of jewelry selections. Tribal ornaments are of two kinds: silver items and products of their natural environment. Tribal silversmiths fashion the rings, discs, neck rings and chunky bracelets and bangles, generally from melted down British silver rupees, 92.5% pure. These coins also serve as ornaments, especially for the Akha, who attach them to headdresses and stitch them onto jackets and bags. The Hmong and the Yao do the same with French Indochinese piastres. The Lisu are particularly fond of silver. During festivals girls wear blouses covered front and back with silver studs and pendants, wile the occasional girl wears little silver fish in her headdress or suspends a larger one from a thick silver chain hanging down her spine.
Besides silver items, some of which are family heirlooms, tribal people fetch ornamental materials from their jungles. Both the Akha and the Karen use Job’s tear seeds and the iridescent wings of green beetles as decorations. The Karen make beads from coconut shell, while the range of Akha embellishments includes animal parts like gibbon fur and horsehair tassels, dyed red. Also, the Akha are perhaps the only people to make a decorative device from chicken feathers. Women twine the tail feathers around a two-string bow-loom, knock them in place with a bobby pin and tie off the tassel at the desired length. They next dye them red and attach them to headdresses, shoulder bags and jackets.
As for hair styles, most women in the hills cover their heads in turbans or headdresses and even those who don’t ordinarily, like the younger Lisu and Karen, put up their hair for festivals. The simplest, and even strangest headgear is that worn by the Palong and the Lahu Shehleh. It is nothing more than a bright hand towel, like the kind you see hanging in your suburban friend’s bathroom. Most other headgear is one form or another of the turban.
The most elaborate headpiece, though, is that of the Akha, which varies according to sub-group. The Ulo headdress consists of a bamboo cone, covered in beads, silver studs and seeds, edged in coins (silver rupees for the rich, Thai baht for the poor), topped by several dangling chicken feather tassels and maybe a woolen pompom. The Pamee Akha wear a trapezoidal cloth cap covered in silver studs with coins and beads on the side flaps and long chains of linked silver rings hanging down each side. The Lomi Akha wear a round cap covered in silver studs and framed by silver balls, coins and pendants. Married women attach a trapezoidal inscribed plate at the back. By the way, Akha women sleep with their headdresses on, though the Ulo women remove the top half.
In traditional villages the style of the visitors is in a minority. The burden of accepting the unfamiliar is on them more than on their hosts, who are, after all, on their own turf. But just as the guests usually find it easy to behave respectfully once they discover their hosts doing so with them, they also have no real trouble adjusting to the strange new concept of beauty in the tribal world. Some adjust so well they even fall in love.
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Text and photos by Jim Goodman © Jim Goodman – All Rights Reserved
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