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The importance of well-mannered clothes
The Nation, 19. December 2003 by S. Tow (reproduced with permission).
The key to Thailand’s unwritten dress code is polite clothing, even down to the type of sandals you wear. One of the Thai cultural norms that foreign residents soon find out about is the emphasis on “polite clothes”. People judge you by the way you look in every country, but in Thailand it seems to be more pronounced. In fact, Thailand has an unwritten law that the eminent local writer Collin Piprell has dubbed the Cosmetic Imperative: In Thailand it is important to look good.
In America, by contrast, we have what might be called the Slovenly Imperative. In America, it is important to look like a slob. Looking like a slob conveys a message. It says, “Hey, I am so cool I don’t care what I look like.“ By dressing like a slob I proclaim my indifference to public opinion, trumpet my egalitarian ideals and identify with the unwashed masses.” This is why multimillionaires like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates go around wearing blue jeans. It is why we produce pre-faded jeans with holes in the knees and cargo pants with baggy pockets.Slobbishness, indeed, has deep roots in American folk culture. We have profound proverbs like “Never judge a book by its cover,” “Beauty is only skin deep,” “All that glitters is not gold,” and ;“Man looketh upon the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh upon the heart.”
These all point to the truth that a shabby surface often conceals rich inner depths. The problem nowadays is that we have cultivated the shabby surface but let the inner depths go to ####.
I mention this merely to highlight the contrast with Thailand. Thailand is a hierarchical society. Even clothes have a hierarchy here. The more the clothes cover the body, the politer they are.Take shirts, for example. At the bottom of the hierarchy, and deep in impolite territory, is the lowly tank top, or singlet, which has no collar or sleeves. Slightly higher on the totem pole, but still in impolite territory, is the T-shirt, which has no collar but at least has short sleeves.
Moving into the realm of politeness, we come to the short-sleeved shirt with a collar. And finally, at the top of the politeness hierarchy, we have the long-sleeved shirt, also with a collar. If we want to be super-polite, we add a tie, and to really excite people with our politeness, we wear a suit.
Shorts are impolite; long pants are polite. Shoes are polite: leather shoes are more polite than cloth shoes, and shoes with laces are politer than shoes without. Sandals are impolite – but there is a hierarchy of politeness even among sandals, as I discovered on an enlightening visit to the Grand Palace several years ago.
At the Grand Palace, a group of officials screen you at the entrance to make sure you’re wearing polite clothes. If you’re not, they’ll lend you some – and it is to their credit that they do not charge for this service. For instance, if you’re wearing shorts, they’ll lend you a sarong to cover your impolite legs.
On this occasion I was entering the Grand Palace with a buddy. We were both wearing sandals. An official stopped me, saying, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’re wearing sandals. You’ll have to exchange them for shoes.”
“Dave,” I said to my friend, “we have to borrow shoes.”
“No,” the official corrected me. “HE is okay. YOU have to borrow shoes.”
I was bewildered. “How come? I asked.“ He’s wearing sandals, too.”
“Yes,” the official agreed. “But his sandals have a strap over the heel. Yours don’t.”
This was a new twist to the hierarchy of clothes in Thailand. There is even a hierarchy among sandals!
Sandals are basically impolite, but sandals with a strap over the heel are more polite than sandals open at the heel. They are even polite enough to pass muster under the stern gaze of the guardians of decency at the Grand Palace.
Now, the only thing a heel-strap covers is the Achilles tendon. I wondered why the Thais think it needs to be covered. Is the Achilles tendon considered ugly? Dirty? Obscene? Sexually exciting? I never found out.
The polite clothes syndrome wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the number of foreign tourists who seem to consider Thailand one big beach. Since the whole country is a beach, they figure, beach clothes are appropriate everywhere.
This attitude is especially prevalent among the tourists on Khao San Road. Sometimes male tourists wander around shirtless in that distinctly un-beachlike district. Indeed, I believe that one reason Khao San Road has become a popular venue for young, middle-class Thais is that it functions as a zoo where they can goggle at the variety of impolite clothes worn by the foreign denizens.
The Khao San attitude toward clothes was typified by a young traveller who came wandering into my office when I was teaching at a Thai university. He was straight off Khao San Road, wearing a tank top, shorts, and sandals and he wanted to interview for a teaching job.
One of my colleagues undertook to set him straight. “If you were back in your home country, and you wanted a job interview, would you wear the clothes you’re wearing now?”
The traveller blanched. “Of course not.”
“What makes you think Thailand is any different?”
He could have replied, “Because Thailand’s a beach,” but he didn’t. Cowed by my colleague’s severe demeanour, he fled the scene.