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MAIL OPINION  By Shana Kongmun


Do clothes make a culture?

At the recent Chiang Mai Expats meeting one person asked the speaker, Lee of Akha Ama Coffee, if he felt his culture was under threat by modernization and expressed disappointment in seeing that people no longer wore their traditional clothes. Lee’s answer was that almost nobody wore the traditional clothes unless for ceremonies and holidays but said that his culture was alive in his heart.
I think many foreigners come to a new culture and hope to see the traditional clothes, thinking that shows it is more “real” and perhaps feel that without those trappings they are missing the something.
This thinking, to me, ties in with the notion of “Lanna Fridays” where students and teachers wear traditional Lanna style clothes to school on Fridays, and also the commercialization of the dress by spas, massage, hotels etc. who want to give the tourist the “authentic Lanna experience” by having their staff wearing the clothes while on duty. Certainly it is attractive but do clothes really make the culture? Is the life of a culture and community kept alive by simply wearing the clothing? Does requiring people to wear it on Fridays make them want to wear it the rest of the week? I think it is pretty clear that it doesn’t since you don’t ever see kids wear them on their days off. They, like every other kid in the world, want to wear what is popular, what is cool.
I don’t think that Thai culture is in danger because people don’t wear the clothes but rather it is a symptom of the greater changes that are occurring at a very high speed due to eruption of social media and the internet. These changes are happening world over and, as Lee rightly pointed out, inevitable. I think it is a fallacy to think that you can keep a culture alive solely by wearing “the right clothes”. But you can keep it alive by honoring its traditions, beliefs and values. You can keep it alive by learning your cultures stories and myths from your elders rather than from creating stories and getting your values from the internet.

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Do clothes make a culture?