top of page

Khmer Style

My first fashion faux pas happened week one of Pre-Service Training. I showed up for class in a sarong. One of the female language instructors discretely called me aside and whispered that it was not appropriate to wear a sarong to school. I said, okay, I won’t wear it again. No, she said, you must change or everyone will laugh at you. I thought about adding another 20-minute ride to the twice-daily routine and said I was okay with levity. She looked me directly in the eye. “You must go home and change. Now.” So I did, but not without pondering why a full-length skirt was inappropriate when grandmothers can wear their pajamas to the market and schoolgirls wear bunny slippers to class? I hummed, “If loving you is sarong, I don’t wanna be right” all the way there and back again.

An incoming PCV remarked that she felt a loss of fashion identity wearing the Peace Corps professional code buttoned-up and collared daywear. I nodded in sad agreement. We wear this uniform to blend in, not to stand out. Uni—as in united. We all look like this. We are merely palm fronds waving from the edge of the garden at our colorful Khmer sisters in exotic full bloom. Quite frankly, they pull it off with ease—you try it Ms. America, and you look like a re-gifted Xmas present wrapped in Easter paper.

I continue to ponder the intricacies of what is proper Khmer Style and what is not. Apparently, it is proper for the male janitor of the school to wear his kroma with nothing but flip-flops and his bare chest around the schoolyard, but it is improper for girls to show their knees or elbows. (The kroma is an all-purpose scarf that men wear around their neck, women wear as a turban, and can be used as an all-in-one towel and loincloth.) The inequities of Cambodian Rules of Dress are apparent at any shop at the market. On hot days men roll up their shirts and pop out their bellies, while women layer on cardigans, hats, and gloves to keep the sun from tarnishing their skin.

The variety of Khmer Style is best observed at the Morning Market where pattern on pattern is always in fashion. After being in Cambodia for a year, I have begun to see a pattern to this patterning. For an old yay in flowered PJs or flaunting a mix of dots and stripes, it’s a matter of the four things she owns; she rotates from top to bottom for wardrobe mileage. For other women, a dash of clash is intentional and witty. What pulls it all together is the choice of color families, either complementary colors—such as red and green, or purple and yellow—or similar hues like a bouquet of blues. The mix creates a melody to the backbeat of spinning motifs large and small. A big floppy hat ties it all together.

In the small department, we see sandals with toe socks. Toe socks to Asian women are prophylactic protection against the road rape of mean streets and ecological sins of the city. Made of thick stretchy nylon and heavy as a glove, these socks are worn with fancy high-heeled sandals or common rubber flip-flops. Split so the big toe has its own compartment, the other four toes mittened into the shape of a fin often rendered in the yellow-grey hue of old mannequins. They are ballet slippers for a full-moon eclipse, covered in lunar dust, dancing on the dark side, sure footed. While we American teachers in our plain white collared-shirts with black floor-length sampots, wearing sensible Tevas, are the wallflowers at the dance. It’s better this way. None of us know the dance steps anyhow.

bottom of page