The Dress of the Pwo Karen of north Thailand. พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย E.M. Hinton   

HINTON, E.M. THE DRESS OF THE PWO KAREN OF NORTH THAILAND. JSS. VOL.62 (pt.1) 1974. p.27-34

 

 

 

                                    THE DRESS OF THE PWO KAREN
                                                OF NORTH THAILAND

                                                                 by

                                                          E.M. Hinton

The Karen are the most numerous of the minority peoples who live
in  the  hills  of  North  Thailand. Originally  from  Burma,  they  have  been
moving through the  hills  for centuries  in  search  of  new  sites  for  their
villages. Many are still in  Burma,  but  those  in  Thailand  number  about
300,000.

There are several closely related groups comprising the Karen, the
largest  of  which  is  the  Skaw Karen. The next  most  numerous  are  the
Pwo   Karen, of   whom   there   are  about  100,000  in  Thailand. It  is  the
dress of  these  peopl e that  1  wish  to  describe.  My  observations  were
made in 1968-69 in Dong Luang, a Pwo village close to the Burmese bor-
der   and   little  influenced  by  contact  with  the  Thai  lowlanders. Dong
Luang  was typical of the many other mountain Pwo  villages  in  the  area,
but not, however, of lowland  Pwo  who  wore  different  clothes  again, the
women  retaining  traditional  garb  while the men were indistinguishable
from the Thai.

By tradition the Karen  are  subsistence  farmers, so  there  is  little
cash for indulging  expensive  whims  in  clothing. Nevertheless, the Pwo
have devised a most dignified and colourful mode of dress which compa-
res  with  any  in  the  hills.  Single  girls  wear  a  long  white  dress, richly
decorated   with  red (Pl. 1); men and boys wear black trousers and a red
shirt (Pl. 2), while  married  women  wear  a  red  skirt  and  blouse  (Pl. 3).
Colours are bright — red, green or black for preference ─ and accessories
are as elaborate as the Pwo can make them.

       Most clothing is handwoven. The cotton is grown in the fields and
spun into thread, or purchased from the Thai. If black or red cloth are
required, the homespun thread must be dyed accordingly—with forest
dyes if black, or with purchased red dyes. When these skeins have been

_____________________________________________________________

 1) Data for this paper was gathered during anthropological fieldwork   with  my

husband   in    Dong  Luang  village, Mae  Sariang  District,  North  Thailand. Field-
work was conducted under the auspices of the Tribal Research Centre, Chiang
Mai.

 

 

 

 

 

28                                                 E.M. Hinton

 

combed and rolled into balls, they are woven into cloth by  the  women
and girls. They sit on the floor with legs extended under the loom, and
with their backs supported by a wide leather strap. (Pl. 4) A girl  learns
to weave at about the age of ten or twelve years.

Pattern and decoration are introduced into the  cloth  in  various
ways. The red, geometric decoration on the girl's dress is  created  by
inserting a number of tufts of red thread into  the  cloth  as  it  is  being
woven, and then cutting them off close. The more tufts that are inserted,
the more fluffy is the design. Then, intricate patterns are woven  in  col-
oured wools. Another form  of  decoration  is  simply  a  narrow  cotton
stripe of one form or another; or yet another, just a series of raised rid-
ges in the cloth. Unlike other hilltribes, such as the Yao  and  the  Meo,
the Pwo do not decorate with embroidery, but with pattern  woven  into
the fabric.

I should now like to look  more  closely  at  these  clothes,  and  first  at
those   of  the  single  girl.  Her  dress  consists  of  two  long  strips of  white
cloth folded in half and seamed down the sides and  centre  front  and  back,
leaving holes for head and arms—a simple basic pattern which also charac-
terises the boy's shirt and the married woman's blouse.

The appeal of this dress lies in its decoration, especially the  fluffy
pattern from knee to hemline and across the shoulders, (cháj khé pháw,
lit.  "the  dress's  fluff).  This  pattern  varies  from  dress  to  dress, but  it
does always seem to consist of squares or perpendicular lines.A line or
two of this pattern is also to be  found  above  the  bustline, but  it  differs
from the pattern elsewhere in that it  is almost  invariably  a  form  of   zig
zag. Plates 5 — 12 illustrate a sample variety  of  patterns  found  in  this
decoration and their combinations.

Below the fluffy pattern at the bustline is the yoke pattern (cháj khé
lit.  "the  dress's  pattern") — strips  of  plain  red  weaving  in  wool,  alter-
nating  with  patterned  strips  of  diamond   shaped  squares  woven   in
coloured wools. (Pl. 13)

Interesting variations occur in this dress and especially in the yoke
pattern, according to the age of the  wearer.  In  a  baby  girl's  dress  only
a minimum of decoration is present : the yoke pattern will consist of  just
one patterned strip and two coloured stripes instead of the three patterned
strips.   (Pl. 14)  A s the  child  grows  she  wil l perhaps  have  three  very

 

 

 

 

 

                                          THE DRESS OF THE PWO KARENOF NORTH THAILAND                 29

 

narrow strips  of  pattern  and  they  will  grow  wider  as  she  grows  older.
At the age of courtship — usually early twenties ─ decoration is at its most
elaborate (Pl 13) but after that, as the  single  woman  grows  old,  the  dec-
oration again becomes rudimentary.

          The single girl wears her hair long, tied in a knot on top of her head
and covered by a manufactured handtowel held by a colourful headband.
Her arms are laden with metal bracelets  from  wrist  to  upper  arm  and
her ears are pierced for  earrings.  At  her neck  is  a  string  of  tiny  black
beads wound tightly round and round; sometimes she adds layers of white
beads as well.2 With her little red bag for pipe  and  tobacco  slung  over
her shoulder she will go barefoot   to   the  fields  in  wet  season  or  dry.3

____________________________________________________________

2) The jewellery of both men and women is  sometimes  bought  and  sometimes
    made in the village. Earrings, whether of glass  or   beaten  out  of  silver  into
    round, button like shapes, are bought from Thong Su traders who cross periodi-
    cally from Burma; so also are the black choker necklaces worn at the throats
    of both men and women, and the layers of white beads.

            But bracelets,hairpins and tight fitting neckbands are made in  the  village,
    hammered into shape after scrap aluminium has been melted down into ingots.
    Boys often make these in their leisure time for their girlfriends, other girls  buy
    them for themselves.

            Most bracelets are just plain curves of metal, but some  are more   special,
     consisting of two curves twisted round each other.Both kinds grow shiny and
     smooth with wear. Girls collect their bracelets from  childhood until   eventually
     both forearm and upper arm are covered by their  metallic shine, and they  con-
     tinue to wear them after marriage.

3) A prized possession of any Pwo is his pipe. Pwo of both sexes smoke  pipes
    from childhood, but do not usually own one  until  the  age  of   ten   or  twelve.
    There  are  various  kinds  or  pipes-usually carved out of wood,  either  made
     locally or purchased from traders. Expensive pipes are decorated with  silver,
     and even more expensive ones (Lua pipes) are made entirely of silver. A few
     Pwo do not smoke and prefer to chew betel instead.

              Bags for pipes and tobacco are small red shoulder bags. (See  Plate 23)
     They are adorned by a large section of coloured woollen decoration similar to
     the decoration over the shoulders of the married woman's blouse and by flow-
     ing tassels; there are also vertical stripes as in the boy's shirt and small bands
     of woollen pattern as in the yoke pattern of boy's and girl's garments.

              Larger bags are woven for carrying goods food or clothing for overnight
    trips, or commodities for sale in the market. These are usually white with  some
    form  of  red  or  black  stripe. Medium  sized   bags  are  often  decorated  with
    woollen weaving, but the large ones are plain.

              Blankets are also woven of cotton and decorated with stripes. Some are
    red with white stripes, others white with red stripes, but they seem always  to
    be some combination of these colours.

 

 

 

 

 

30                                                     E.M. Hinton

 

When a Pwo girl marries she discards the girl's white dress for the
red skirt and blouse  of  the  married  woman. If she  never  marries  then
she wears her virginal white  fo r the  rest  of  her life; it is a custom which
emphatically  demonstrates  the  low  status of  the unmarried woman  in
Pwo society.

The married woman's blouse is as elaborate as the white dress. Its
decoration consists of a design woven in coloured wools over  the shoul-
ders, (cháj khuu  tháj,  lit. "the  top  of  the  blouse")  and  beneath  it, front
and   back,  another  design  ( cháj   â   dâaj,   lit.   "the  blouse's   wings").
Beneath the heavily decorated yoke is "the   red", (thè ddang),  three  or
four bands of purchased red cloth appliqueed onto the handwoven blouse
and separated from each other by white weaving.

The shoulder pattern is always a series of diamond shapes, but the
size of the diamonds and the  intricacy  of  the  colours  and  pattern  vary.
According  to  the  informants, the  younger  the  woman  the smaller and
more  intricate  the  designs. The  older  she  was  the  larger  and "more
ugly" were the designs. (Pl. 15). The second design is a vertical one and
reminiscent of wings, as the name suggests. Again  the  complexity  and
intricacy  vary, but  usually  according  to  the  complexity  and  intricacy  of
the shoulder  pattern. The most common patterns found at  Dong  Luang
are illustrated in Plates 16-18.

The skirt is much less elaborate and has no colourful woollen weav-
ing. It  consists  of  two  long  strips  of  cloth  sewn  together  horizontally
and then  down  the  side, into a  tubular  garment. It  is  gathered  at  the
waist by a belt  or  tie  of  some  kind  which  also  holds  it  in  position. It
relies    for    its   decoration   on    horizontal   cotton  stripes.  The   most
noticeable stripe is a wide black one about midway in both halves of the
skirt; it is called simply "the skirt's black" (niing  á  sáa).  Other  narrower
combinations of stripes are called "the skirt's  eyes" (niing  á  mea)  and
are concentrated in the middle of the garment between the black stripes.
Less obtrusive single stripes ("dividers of the red", chìi â châw), serve to
break up the solid blocks of red. The  colours  of  these  stripes  are  left
to the choice of each woman, but yellow and green are common. If  they
hold  further meaning I was unable to elicit it. (See Plate 3)

 

 

 

 

               THE DRESS OF THE PWO KARENOF NORTH THAILAND               31

 

Accessories for the married woman include headscarf and jewel-
lery, (earrings, necklaces and bracelets), and hair is long and  tied  in a
knot on top of the head.

When meeting a Pwo boy for  the  first  time, one  notices  only   his
hair. It  is  also  worn  long, but  knotted  over  one ear and anchored   with
a shining metal hairpin.  Much  attention  is  paid  to  the  grooming  of  its
sleek blackness with a finely toothed wooden comb (or perhaps a plastic
one), and when colourful headbands, necklaces and earrings are added,
the exotic picture is complete. (Pl. 19)

The other special feature of the boy's dress is his tattooing, extend-
ing from navel  to  knee  in  a  striking replicated design of dark blue  tiger
cats. (Pl. 20) The  actual  tattooing  is  a  most  painful  process, but  boys
regard it as a demonstration of their manhood and say that no girl  would
marry   them   if   they   remained    untattooed.  Other   decorative   tattoos
appear on their arms — perhaps lines of Karen script which  wind  round
and  up, or  the  coils  of  a  long  snake. (Pl. 20) (Girls,  by  contrast,  have
only a minimum of tattooing on their hands, arms and ankles.)

The boy's shirt is  bright  and  colourful.  Woven  in  red  cotton  it  is
similar in style to the married woman's skirt, being  striped  (but  per  pen-
dicularly) with thin lines  of  black,  yellow,  green,  turquoise  or  whatever
else might contrast with red, in  various  combinations. The  yoke  pattern
is like the girl's and woven in at chest level in coloured wools;  but  unlike
the  girl's, it  consists  of  only  a  single  band   of  decoration. Beneath  it,
tiny raised ridges of red change the texture  of  the  cloth  until  they  reach
a pair of horizontal stripes near the bottom of the  shirt,  matching  stripes
in the yoke. Then the cloth is  plain  again  for  the  last  few  inches.  (See
Plate
2)

As  with  the  girl's dress, decoration of  the  boy's shirt  changes ac-
cording   to  age.  A  small boy  will  have  but  a  rudimentary  yoke  pattern
—a thin line of black diagonals —and the simplest of stripe combinations,
but   as  he  grows  older  they  will  grow  more  complex. By  his  twenties
the band will be wide  enough  to  fit  several  lines  of  pattern  in  it. When
he is an old man only an insignificant stripe will remain.

This traditional red shirt is as often as not either discarded by  boys
in favour of a  bright  green  manufactured  shirt,  or  worn  over  the  green

 

 

 

 

 

 

32                                                  E.M. Hinton

 

shirt. The black trousers and towelling headbands are purchased, too.
In fact, the only handwoven article used by  the  boys  is  frequently  the
little red bag for pipe, tobacco or betel nut.

At marriage the clothing of a young man does not change, but as
the years pass by there is a gradual discarding of  the  glamour  of  the
younger man. (Pl. 21) The bright scarves, the necklaces and  jewellery
are the first things to go; but the most noticeable change is the cutting of
the long hair, eventually into a crew cut, which no man does before  he
marries. The age at which it is done  varies.  Some  continue   to  wear
their hair long under a scarf into  middle  age  or  even  old  age,  while
others cut it off just a few years after marriage. Some say that  it  is cut
in order to appear less conspicuous on visits to the lowlands, but what-
ever the reason, there is no mistake about the fact that glamour and a
preoccupation with it are the preserve of youth.4

Festive occasions, such as weddings and New Year ceremonies, are
celebrated in best clothes by everybody. But the gala occasions of Pwo
Karen life when  the  young  people  appear  in  all  their  finery  are  the
funerals. They gather  from  far  and  wide  to  sing  round  a  bier  night
after night, sending the soul of the deceased  to  the  afterworld  It  is  a
time for courting and making new friends and all married  people  look
back on the fun, excitement and glamour of such times with great nost-
algia.

Initially clothes for funerals are the same as for everyday, but they
are the newest and best in each person's possession.  The  girls  wear
their newest dresses, in which the cloth is still clean and white and  the
decoration bright red. And the boys wear their newest, blackest trousers
and their newest shirts, usually a bright green one under the  traditional
red one. However there are additions.

        The first addition to the girl's dress is a layer of long, bright red
tassels, both front and back. (Pl. 22) Then, instead of  the  usual  old
towelling headcloth a scarf of bright green silk is substituted (if possible),

__________________________________________________________

4) While Pibun Songkhram was Prime Minister ( 1 947-1 957), the wearing of dis-
    tinctive ethnic costumes was banned. Although the decree did not affect people
    living in isolated areas, those visiting lowland towns were compelled to con-
    form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                   THE DRESS OF THE PWO KARENOF NORTH THAILAND              33

 

held in position by a band of bright ribbon. The newest red bag is
carried, the same bracelets and choker necklaces are worn and layers of
white ones are added. Boys also wear a green silk scarf or some other
colourful one, and add additional hairpins, perhaps a big comb, and the
layers of white beads to their normal jewellery. They also tie a bright
red length of cloth round their waists. (Pl 23)

The girl's hairdo on these occasions is strikingly different. Instead of
the usual knot on top of the head the hair is padded out into a mushroom
shape by a number of hair pieces, and then held in position by an armoury
of shining hairpins. (This is not evident to the onlooker as it is hidden
beneath scarves and headbands.) There is also a further elaboration of
headgear in a series of floor length silk scarves of various colours which
flow from the back of the head like wide ribbons. (Pl 24)

Most glamorous of all, however, is the singing cape, worn  over  the
girl's shoulder as a  stole  and  heavily  decorated  with  hundreds  of  little
buttons  interlaced  with  strings  of  pearly  beads;  a  glistening  fringe  of
irridescent green beetle wings completes the cape and sways and swings
with the girl's movement.

With the addition of lipstick and powder for both sexes and  a  towel
to muffle the stench of  the  dead,  the  young  Pwo  go  off  to  sing and  to
court, looking very grand indeed. (Pl 24)

No discussion of Pwo dress would be complete without mention of
the Pwo genius for improvisation, necessitated by subsistence  economy.
The bracelets demonstrate  it  clearly.  Most  hill  peoples  are  laden  with
valuable   silver  neckpieces  and  bracelets  which  the  Pwo  could  never
afford. But they  are  not  to  be  out  done  and  hammer  theirs  out  of  alu-
minium, bedecking  themselves  with  as  many  as  their  arms  will  hold.
One also suspects that the original inspiration  of  the  singing  cape  was
the jewel and sequin encrusted richness of  the Burmese and Mon courts.
But the Pwo manage a similar effect with old buttons, cheap pearly beads
and beetle wings.

This  love  of  the colourful, rich and dramatic  in  clothes  contrasts
markedly with the style of the Skaw Karen, a  group  with  which  the  Pwo
are often very closely associated. Skaw clothes are basically similar, con-
sisting of the same white dress, married woman's skirt and blouse,  and

 

 

 

 

 

 

34                                                  E.M. Hinton

 

man's Karen shirt and black trousers, but their colours and  decoration
are quiet, almost austere, by comparison with those of the Pwo. In  fact
the Pwo are disdainful of the Skaw "drabness"   and  attribute  to  it  the
infrequency of intermarriage between Skaw and Pwo. Why they should
be so different is difficult to explain; certainly the bright Pwo dress   con-
trasts also with the Pwo outlook on life, which is generally pessimistic
and sad.

It is also interesting to note the conservatism of the dress of women
as opposed to that of men.Whereas the women are unmistakably Pwo
anywhere, the men could frequently be  mistaken  for  Thai  when  they
discard their red shirt and chop off their long hair. This  is  no  doubt  a
result of the greater mobility of the men.

There is another aspect of   Karen dress  which is of  significance.
Unlike Yao embroideries which represent ancestral figures and ancient
myths, the Pwo patterns hold no  intrinsic  meaning.5  Their  names are
merely   descriptive  of   their   forms — "Squares", "Tiny  Little  Squares",
"Squares  with  Diagonals"  and  so  on — and  their  function  is  purely
decorative. Nor are position, status, lineage or   locality  acknowledged;
noone is singled out from his peers except in so far as wealth enables
some young people to afford more finery than their friends.6

But there is a correlation between age and ornamentation. Decor-
ation is at its height during young adulthood, presumably  when  beauty
is at its height. During childhood and old age  it  is  merely  rudimentary,
afreflection of undeveloped beauty and the faded beauty of  age.

         Such  then  are  the  clothes of  the Pwo Karen. Whether old, faded
and worn, or bright and new, they are worn with great dignity  and  pride.
At times one even suspects them of hidden significances, as they are one
of the few unique aspects of Pwo Karen life.

                       _______________________________________________________________

5) Jacqueline   Butler,   Yao     Design   (Siam    Society,   Bangkok,   1970), p .  4.

6) This egalitarianism of the Karen generally was also noted  by   Marlowe, David
H. "In the Mosaic, Cognitive Bases of S'Kaw Karen-North  Thai  Relationships"
in CF. Keyes (ed.) A Pivotal or Marginal People : The Place of the Karens in
Sth. East Asia
(In Press).

 

 

 

 

 

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