Written by Pim, KHT’s M&E Officer
What is Karen Tribal Fashion?
The Karen Hilltribes have a unique and beautiful culture that can be seen in they way they cook and dress.
Karen clothing consists of cotton and dyed fabrics and are commonly made through weaving. Nowadays, chemically coloured threads are also used to decorate them.
Millet, a type of crop in Thailand, is for the beading and decorating and there are many patterns and designs. The Karen also wear necklaces and delicate earrings made of beads in bold and bright colours.
Culture Through Clothes
Our status in society is expressed in the clothes we wear.
Single women who have never been married will wear a long white dress decorated with patterns on the chest. At the bottom of the dress there are long hanging pieces of thread. We call the dress ‘Cheh gua’.
Women who are married or have been married before dress in Karen two pieces, the top half was originally black with red stripes, but nowadays there are many colors and is called “Cheh Su”. The bottom half is a red sarong (long skirt) with stripes horizontally across the body.
All women can wear a turban that we call ‘Ker Per Gey’. Men of any age married or not dress the same, which is usually a red shirt called “Cheh roh” with black pants. Historically, men also wore a red sarong but this is less common now.
The Karen will usually wear traditional clothing for religious ceremonies and special occasions but you are very likely to see men and women carrying the Karen bags every day.
Karen clothing is colourful and bright. Currently, there are both synthetic and natural dyes. Most natural dyes are obtained from plants, bark, leaves, and roots. There are steps in order to create beautiful, unusual colors and it can be a long and difficult process.
The Art of Karen Weaving
The way clothes are woven is intricate and the raw materials used for weaving are silk, cotton and wool. This is an important tradition that the Karen people have inherited from our ancestors and many Karen clothing and accessories are still created this way.
Karen weaving is a valuable artform and it relies on natural tools for weaving. Weaving requires skill and craftsmanship which is often inherited from our mothers and grandmothers.
Why is Karen clothing important?
Karen people are proud of their traditional clothing and the meaning behind the patterns being symmetrical and the same on both sides is to signify the honesty and trustworthiness of the Karen.
As a Karen woman, my traditional clothing makes me feel confident and proud of my heritage. I will often wear it in Khun Yuam, Ban Mai Pattana (the village I am from), Chiang Mai and the north. However, when I go down south to Bangkok for example, I have chosen to not wear the clothing of my ancestors because I feel looked down upon. My hope is that I will achieve great things and will actively decide to wear Karen clothing to show the successes of Karen people, wherever I go. I hope people will see the beauty of my people reflected in our clothing and it will make them more interested in us too.