Book Recalls Clothing, Cosmetics and Personal Care in 19th and 20th Centuries

In a not-so-distant past, beauty for a married Cambodian woman meant blackening her teeth by chewing betel. Married women with white teeth in the countryside would be criticized and considered sickly pale.

Chewing betel, which also reddens the lips, was supposed to keep one’s teeth clean and breath fresh. Women would apply wax on their lips before ceremonies and special occasions to prevent betel juice from running out of their mouths and staining their clothes.

By the 1950s, this habit had fallen out of favor, especially in urban areas. In the newly-independent country, students and government workers opted to keep their teeth white.

In addition, spitting—which a person chewing betel can hardly avoid, since it makes one salivate—was prohibited in public places. Today, only elderly women and a few men chew betel.

These are some of the Cambodian customs mentioned in the book, “Seams of Change,” which will be released Tuesday at the opening of an exhibition of clothes and objects at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture. It was written by four archeology graduates from the Royal University of Fine Arts who now work as researchers for the institute.

As its subtitle indicates, the 295-page book describes, in English and in Khmer, “Clothing and the Care of the Self in Late 19th and 20th Centuries.” The book is based on a series of interviews with elderly Cambodians and includes descriptions of clothes; sewing methods, patterns and tools; hair and jewelry styles; and washing products for clothes and for personal care.

The book is built on the memories of 40 people whose recollections stretch nearly a century. The eldest contributor is Pou Kech Lang, who was born in 1907 in Kandal province. The youngest contributor, Lem Hok Cheang, was born in 1940 in Kompong Thom province.

Previous research on Cambodia’s “official” history has focused on personalities and political events, according to the introduction written by Chea Narin, Chea Sopheary, Kem Sonine and Preap Chanmara, authors of the book.

But “if we want to know about everyday life and experiences of ordinary people during this period, these official histories do not offer us much information,” they wrote.

For example, old people sometimes talk about “wearing the water jar” or the “tin gas tank,” the authors said. These expressions refer to the shortage of clothes and fabric during World War II, when thread was requisitioned for the Japanese war effort.

Some families in remote areas had only one set of clothing for the whole family, which one family member would wear to run errands while the others hid, virtually naked, in the house. If a visitor came while he and the clothes were away, one family member would hide behind the gas can or sit in the water jar while talking to the visitor.

The authors discovered the origins of the expression “jip tong” by which Cambodians sometimes call the popular rubber sandals with a thong between the big and second toes.

Jip Tong was the name of a factory known for its quality thongs, or flip-flops, in the 1950s and 1960s. Cambodians also call the sandals “ptoat” because they make a slapping sound and lift dust when walking, the authors added.

The custom of wearing shoes or sandals was introduced by the French in the late 19th century, they said. Up until then, Cambodians had gone barefoot. However, while this new fashion was embraced in the cities, it far from swept the countryside, as 80-year-old Ong Sok told the authors.

“When someone wore shoes [in the 1920s], my mother would stare and criticize them. People in our village [in Kandal province] didn’t wear them.”

The first sandals in the countryside were made of palm tree bark or roluos wood, with straps of vine or strips of canvas, nylon bag or tire rubber, the authors said.

Some sandals were constructed of thick pieces of wood, said 79-year-old Sim Saren of Prey Veng province. “When there were fights, they would use their shoes to hit each other on the head,” he said. “So they stopped wearing thick shoes.”

Shoe factories appeared in the 1950s, and people switched to manufactured shoes, said the authors. But poor farmers continued to make their own for some time, buying one pair of factory-made shoes for special occasions when they could afford it, they said.

People also made their clothes themselves with thread and needle; they had few of them and had to make them last a long time.

“People patched pants so many times, and wore them so long that they became…just patches,” said 88-year-old Mich of Kandal province. People only had “two pairs of clothing for house wear, two pairs of clothing for working, and two pairs of clothing for ceremonial occasions,” she said.

Since washing aged fabric, people would just spread their clothes to let the sweat evaporate and then store them, said Mich. In the case of fine fabric, they would sprinkle the clothes with water and carefully smooth and stretch them with their hands, she said.

The section of the book on undergarments shows camisoles that older women still wear as blouses at home. In the past, unmarried women had to wear them very tight to flatten their chest; the ones who failed to do so were viewed with suspicion, said the authors.

Numerous customs involved people’s hair, they said. Shortly after the birth of the baby, a hair-cutting ceremony would be held to announce his or her arrival in the world. At around age 13, a child’s head was shaved, leaving only a strand at the front to mark puberty. The hair-cutting ritual still performed at weddings today signifies that the spouses are entering a new phase of their lives.

Married women wore their hair short, some of them only a few centimeters long. Only unmarried women and women of Chinese background wore long hair, usually tied in a bun.

For washing, people made ash soaps from various plants and flowers, said the authors. Manufactured soaps and shampoos became affordable to a larger number of people only in the mid-1950s, said the authors.

This book contains just a portion of the material accumulated by Reyum’s nine researchers. Two years ago, they started interviewing more than 100 elderly people on all aspects of life and customs in Cambodia, and entering their recollections in a database to preserve oral history in a true “memory bank.”

This had to be done without delay, said Chea Sopheary. “I was afraid that so much about the past would remain unknown or be lost when those elderly people would pass away,” she said.

“They were happy to talk when we asked about their daily lives. They told us this was the first time they had a chance to speak out.”

As the project evolved, Chea Narin, Chea Sopheary, Kem Sonine and Preap Chanmara became interested in the information they were getting on clothes and personal care, and decided to turn it into a book, said Chea Narin.

The book shows the clothes and habits of ordinary people, she said. “I had never seen or heard of some styles of clothes described in the interviews, while others are still worn today.”

The long-tube shirt, which was a long-sleeve tunic reaching below the knees, used to be popular among women of all ages. Now, only a few older women wear it for special occasions.

On the other hand, a piece of fabric, or sampot, tied in the traditional kben style to form baggy pants continues to be worn for ceremonies at the Royal Palace, and Cambodian women regularly wear the sampot tied in the samloy style as a long wraparound skirt.

During the interviews, Kem Sonine was struck by the difference of perception between elderly men and women. Since they were kept at home to learn household chores, women were not aware of social problems, she said.

“They could only answer questions regarding themselves or personal matters,” she said.

Men, who were sent in their youths to study at the pagoda, had a much better understanding of social issues, Kem Sonine said. Based on these findings, the four researchers would like to explore education and training practices in a second book, Chea Sopheary said.

The exhibition, which will run through March, will feature some of the beauty products women made, such as the jumpuh fruit used to color nails red and the saffron powder they applied to whiten and improve the skin, especially before their weddings.

Even though women in rural areas occasionally colored their lips or nails, they used no makeup outside of ceremonies, the authors said. A woman was valued for her competence in household and domestic matters, and not so much for her appearance, they said.

This research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with additional support from the Kasumisou Foundation and the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation.

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