Old motifs for new motives: Looking for the roots of change in the contemporary Cambodian fashion scene
The University of Georgia, USA
Although literature on emerging Asian fashion centers abounds, Cambodia’s fashion scene has rarely been discussed in fashion scholarship. This is surprising, at least, for two reasons: First, Cambodia is a major producer of Western fashion products. Second, because of Cambodia’s turbulent past, especially the Khmer Rouge genocide and a huge HIV/AIDS epidemic following it, the majority of Cambodia’s population is young and belongs to the age group that is of interest to the global fashion industry and scholars.
Cambodian youth craves fashion because they are intimately familiar with handling Western fashion products as factory workers and because, as other young people across the globe, they are in the process of establishing their personal identity in which fashion plays a dominant role. Cambodian urban youth are also exposed to Western styles through their exchanges with the thousands of tourists that visit Angkor Wat, one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world.
Given this, several questions arise: What will Cambodia’s fashion scene look like in the future? Will it continue to remain a fashion periphery, despite the fact that the means of fashion production and attendant professional skills are already available in the country? Will Cambodian fashion continue to slavishly emulate Korean street styles in cheap versions or put its own spin on those Korean styles? Or will Cambodian fashion choose to follow other Asian-inspired Western styles, currently only available in a handful of upscale boutiques?
Or, with the stabilization of the country’s political and economic environment, will Cambodia try to revive its lost textile and fashion traditions as part of restoring its national culture? In doing so, will they try to recreate the traditional textures, complicated patterns and colors like deep purple and orange that they used to be known for among the world’s textile aficionados? Is it even possible to revive the traditional methods of production, colors and motifs considering that Cambodia’s once world famous textile traditions and fashions disappeared during the devastations of the Khmer Rouge?
Today Cambodian fashion/textile production is clearly at a crossroads. Cambodia can remain for the foreseeable future only a producer of fashion products, or it can make its mark by restoring its once famous fashion and textile traditions. This paper, which is based on field research in Cambodia, introduces one attempt at the latter. It describes the work that is currently going on at the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), located in the Siem Reap region. The textiles that are produced at IKTT meticulously follow ancient traditions, which mean that the production process is very labor intensive and expensive. It appears that Cambodia’s growing middle class, increasing numbers of tourists with refined tastes, and global textile aficionados appreciate their work because of their exclusivity and high quality. My paper argues that organizations like the IKTT can be the first step in creating genuine Cambodian fashion, as fashion always references the past to create new styles.
1. Exceptions are Medvedev, 2010 and Medvedev and Reef, 2013.
2. Fashion production is the country’s number one industry, providing 90 percent of Cambodia’s total export value (Better Factories Cambodia, 2011).
3. 53 percent of the entire population is under 24 years of age. 37 percent is between 25-54 years of age and the rest are above 55 (Cambodia Demographic Profile, 2013).
4. An estimated 1.7 million people are employed in aspects of garment production in Cambodia (World Bank, 2007).
5. Because work is available in urban areas there has been massive migration to the cities. Dress plays an important role in the lives of migrants. Traditional dress is often exchanged for more urban styles in order to fit in.
6. There are several impediments to the development of a local fashion scene. The majority of Cambodians lives in deep poverty and has no money except for bare necessities. There is no current fashion design training. People are uneducated and few people have any cultural capital, although changes are taking place.
7. After the devastations of the Khmer Rouge, barely any ancient textiles remained in Cambodia - no more than 400 pieces are currently in the National Museum. At the same time, there is a substantial Cambodian textile collection at the Smithsonian and also some in private collections. Cambodian textiles were made of yellow silk, which is softer to the touch and shinier than Chinese silks Westerners are mostly familiar with.
8. There are several reasons for this: a) the Khmer Rouge considered fashion a bourgeois enterprise and as such it had to be eliminated; b) fashion is generally an urban phenomenon and therefore it had no place in a peasant-communist regime the Khmer Rouge wanted to establish; c) Cambodian fashion used to carry a French imprint, which was a result of Cambodia’s colonial past, which had to be eradicated; d) Cambodia’s textile traditions were not documented for posterity because traditional skills and knowledge were historically passed down orally between generations and thus perished with the killing of master weavers and the destruction of Cambodia’s traditional weaving villages.
There is some likelihood for this considering that Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries and thus it perfectly fits the global fashion industry’s race to the bottom profile.