“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru
One of the most enjoyable museum visits in my recent visit to Bangkok was the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. If you buy a ticket to visit the Grand Palace, admission to this museum is included. This air-conditioned museum is located within the massive Grand Palace complex, and I suspect that many tourists overlook it–especially those who are on tight time schedules. As a design junkie, textile lover, and someone who has sewn since junior high school I was curious about this museum and decided to seek respite from the heat while seeing what it was all about. I am so glad that I did!
This little gem of a museum had two exhibits that I really enjoyed and would recommend highly. The first was titled Dressing Gods and Demons: Costume for Khon. Khon is a Thai narrative dance form which features very ornate, heavily embellished costumes. Queen Sirikit revived the dance form and sponsored research into the design and craftsmanship of these costumes. This exhibit is currently scheduled to be on view through May of 2017. Be sure to visit the museum website linked above for the most up to date information on exhibits.
Queen Sirikit has long been a supporter of the Thai textile industry, and the second exhibit titled Fit For A Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Creations by Balmain is a real treat for fashionistas. Here is the backstory — beginning in 1960 Her Majesty and her husband King Bhumibol Adulyadej embarked on a series of official state visits to the US and Europe to represent and promote Thailand. In preparation for these important state visits, Queen Sirikit began a 22-year relationship with French designer Pierre Balmain. Although styles have changed over the years, many of the items shown would still be fashionable today.
Younger readers may not recognize the Balmain name. Although the House of Balmain is still in existence, it does not enjoy the same level of recognition in the fashion world that it once did. Here is a bit of fashion history. Back in the 1930s, Balmain was trained as an architect at the renowned Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a school famous for turning out classically trained architects. Indeed, Balmain later described dressmaking as “the architecture of movement”. Balmain is also credited with discovering the young, talented designer Karl Lagerfeld (now heading up fashion houses Chanel and Fendi), and hired him back in 1954.
Pierre Balmain enjoyed superstar status in the fashion world — his first collection was showcased in Vogue with a review that stated he delivered “beautiful clothes that you really want to wear”. That is high praise for any designer, and he won famous clients which included the Duchess of Windsor (now Queen Elizabeth), Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker and Katharine Hepburn. More recently Penelope Cruz was stunning back in 2009 when she accepted her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress wearing a vintage Balmain gown.
One interesting bit of trivia is that Balmain shares something in common with Italian designer Emilio Pucci. Balmain designed outfits for flight crews at TWA, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, and Air France. Pucci designed outfits for the now-defunct Braniff International Airways. This is one of those things that is really hard to comprehend in our current world of easily accessible budget airlines. Back in the olden days, air travel was a novel luxury and flight attendants wore very fashionable uniforms as part of the airline’s branding strategy — very unlike what we see now.
As compared with the massive 2016 Oscar de la Renta exhibit in San Francisco, this is a small exhibit. Upon viewing the exhibit which featured 30 different outfits and accompanying photos, I could not help but draw parallels between the young Thai royal couple and the young American first couple John and Jackie Kennedy. With her grace and beauty, as well as her fabulous Balmain wardrobe Queen Sirikit became known as one of the best dressed and most fashionable women on the planet.
As Queen Sirikit became known on the world stage, she actively promoted the Thai silk industry by ensuring that many of her French designs highlighted these beautiful fabrics. She also established a relationship with Jim Thompson, the American expatriate credited with helping to revive the traditional Thai silk industry. Thompson’s company provided a number of fabrics for Balmain’s creative use. Thompson’s Bangkok home is now a museum and is also a highly recommended destination for tourists — watch for more on the blog about this soon. In the meantime, if you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, do consider a visit to this museum. The exhibit is expected to run through June 2018, but do visit the museum website for the latest info. Let me know if you get the opportunity to visit.