Social Messages and Cultural Information in the Clothing of Southern Lao Women

By: Dorothy K. Washburn

Originally Published in 1996

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Archaeologists typically classify the objects they excavate into “types,” that is, groupings of arti­facts that appear similar, generally from the point of view of their shape and assumed function. Yet one of the most fascinating and elusive questions about archaeo­logical or ethnographic artifacts is not how they were used or shaped but how their original makers and users thought about them.

As an archaeologist interested in the meaning of style, I am concerned with developing better ways to classify and analyze material culture. Might understand­ing the category systems of peoples living today help us decipher the material culture of peoples of the past? Take, for example, clothing. Should we wish to learn about an individual’s thinking behind his wardrobe choices, it would appear to be a simple matter of asking. Yet, while determining the reasoning behind the cloth­ing of ancient peoples appears impossible, it may some­times be equally as difficult to pinpoint the reasons for clothing choices today, even when you can directly interview the individual.

One reason for this difficulty is that individuals often make decisions based on unconsciously held crite­ria, as well as on information they consciously consider. So, if we want to ask very basic questions, such as why people wear the clothes that they do and why their clothing is styled and decorated as it is, we have to develop ways to tap the unconscious mental processes in order to learn about both the unconscious and conscious reasons for their choices.

It was this problem which stimulated me to investigate ways to recover maker and user categories and category criteria that people use when making their choices. Categories can be useful indicators of the kinds of things—whether it be tools for a particular agricul­tural task or clothing as a status marker—that are important in a culture. They are a way into understand­ing how people differentiate classes of objects and there­fore how they think about them. Through a fortunate set of circumstances I was introduced to a group of women from southern Laos living in Rochester, New York, in the late 1980s (Fig. 1). To their patient and gra­cious help I owe the following insights into the question of why people wear the kinds of clothes that they do.

The Fieldwork

In Laos styles of textile technology and design vary regionally. Weavers living in southern lowland Laos use four techniques to make skirts; each is distinguished by the way the specific loom setup controls the patterns produced. Kahn creates designs in simple plain weave; midi creates patterns in tie dyed weft threads; muk creates striped patterns in the warps; and jok creates patterns in the wefts with pattern sticks in a pattern heddle (Figs. 2-4).

The women I worked with all come from the Mekong Valley towns of Savannakhet and Pakse in low­land southern Laos. At the time of the study, they had been in Rochester for from as little as a year to as long as eight years. Twelve of the women knew how to weave, although only one of them was still a practicing weaver; five were non-weavers. All of them, however, wear skirts of traditional weave at least on occasion. The women in Rochester who have full-time jobs no longer weave. However, they continue to import skirts from relatives or other southern Lao weavers in Thai refugee camps. My initial interest was in whether subsets of individuals with different knowledge bases, such as women who weave and wear the skirts as opposed to women who do not weave but wear the skirts, will form different categories of skirts.

Working in conjunction with Andrea Petitto, an experimental psychologist from the University of Rochester, I asked weavers and nonweavers to sort pho­tographs of skirts into categories. (The skirts were ones the women themselves owned and wore.) We found that these women used two kinds of categories when talking about their skirts: categories of identification—what an object is—and categories of function—how an object is used. We found that the categories differed depending upon the women’s knowledge of weaving. Weavers formed categories of identification based on technologi­cal features of skirt manufacture, while nonweavers formed categories based on more general criteria. However, both weavers and nonweavers formed cate­gories of function based on criteria which addressed cul­tural values and social customs.

The story of the process of discovering these criteria differences among women with different exper­tise is an interesting one. The mistakes we made in our discovery process clearly indicate the extent to which people and their perceptions of things are products of their own cultural surroundings. For example, when we prepared the 4″ by 5″ photographs which we asked the women to sort (Fig. 5), we focused on the highly elabo­rate design band around the hem rather than the entire skirt. This decision was made on the assumption that the criteria for skirt categories would be based on deco­rative features, which appeared to me and to most ana­lysts to be the most visible aspect of the skirts. However, when we found that weavers were continually labeling every design band as jok regardless of differences in the design, it became clear that for the weavers, pattern was not the primary criterion for skirt differentiation. Rather, the most important features were technological.

When the skirts were rephotographed in their entire­ty, weavers subdivided them into the four types of weaving: jok, muck, kahn, and mii. Upon questioning we learned that to them the most important part of the skirt is the plainer body sec­tion because that contains the technological information about how the skirt was woven. Thus, by focusing our queries on what to us were important stylistic features, we had, in effect, super­imposed our own criteria on another’s material culture. Such cultural biases prevent us from seeing a clear picture of why a people act as they do.

Properly chagrined and with our sorting materials corrected, we revisited the women and spent some wonderful afternoons learning about how the southern Lao women use their skirts to “talk about” who they are (see Fig. 1). We found, first, that for categories of iden­tification, weavers always sorted the photographs in terms of the four weaving techniques. Nonweavers sim­ply sorted them according to whether they were hand­woven or machine-made and whether they were made of silk or cotton. No one sorted them by band design.

However, when talking about categories of function, that is, “what to wear when,” both weavers and nonweavers considered whether a skirt was handwoven or machine-made and whether it was silk or cotton. Further, when talking about the material, weavers val­ued a silk skirt in terms of the time it took to weave, nonweavers in terms of monetary cost.

The distinction between handwoven silk skirts and machine-made cotton skirts is an important one for the southern Lao. Machine-made cotton skirts, general­ly made by the Thai and purchased by southern Lao women, are worn for daily work, while handwoven skirts of silk are worn for special occasions, such as religious ceremonies, weddings, and state holidays. Wearing the appropriate clothing is thus part of the proper obser­vance of these occasions.

The women also used the handwoven/machine-made distinction as a way to define their ethnic distinc­tion from the neighboring Thai. That is, on special occasions it is proper to wear only silk handwoven skirts in public. Other people will then know that you are southern Lao. It seemed curious to me, given this effort to show their ethnicity through their clothing, that they would wear the Thai machine-made skirts on a daily basis. The southern Lao women explained that they wear the Thai cotton skirts not so much because they are inexpensive, but because the “Thai are always up on the latest fashion.” Machine-woven cloth can incorporate a wide array of pat­terns and this repertoire can be continually and quickly expand­ed, so machine-made skirts reflect changes in fashion more quickly.

It now seems clear that southern Lao women choose to wear certain kinds of skirts at certain times because the tech­nological features apparent on the skirts have important social functions. They indicate a woman’s financial situation, her fashion awareness, and her adherence to traditional southern Lao values. She wears low-cost, high-fashion Thai-made clothing for everyday wear, but high-cost, traditionally produced clothing for culturally important occasions. A southern Lao woman’s categories of identification are related to technological features, but her categories of function are related to visible features.

Other Tests

We found this focus on technological factors fascinating, but we worried whether we were missing other reasons and features. Was the story more complex? In order to satisfy our concerns we devised some other tests which would essentially ask the same questions in other ways. For example, to determine the importance of technology, we asked the weavers to construct patterns from small right triangles cut from colored contact paper. We chose the right triangle since four such trian­gles form a diamond, the most typical motif in the hem­line design bands. But the weavers were unable to complete the task. We had to laugh at ourselves again because we had not learned our lesson well enough. That is, if technology is more important than design, of course they will think about the design in terms of weaving pro­cedures rather than in terms of design motifs. Thus for a weaver, a motif is thought of as a series of rows of weav­ing, not as a whole motif. Indeed, we were asking them to do something that involved thinking about design in a way that they never do.

We also tested the importance of technology by showing them pictures where technological cues had been obscured. To do this we xeroxed our color pho­tographs with the intention of removing the cues for thread type (silk has a glossy sheen while cotton has a dull flat appearance) and weaving technique (muck and jok have a raised texture while mu and kahn have a flat surface). Unfortunately the xeroxes retained the textural cues enabling the women to correctly identify the weav­ing technique. But the xeroxing did remove the silk sheen; when the women could not identify the type of thread used they made incorrect category assignments.

This focus on technology was again emphasized for us in our efforts to ask what features in a textile determine whether it is southern Lao or non-Lao. That is, we wanted to check on the features in textiles that indicate ethnicity.

First, we cut apart the color photographs so that the hemline designs were separated from the body of the skirt, which carried the real identifying cues. The weavers made no errors in classifying the skirt body sec­tions, which appeared to our non-Lao eyes as plain material, into the four weaving techniques. They did make some errors in classifying the hemline bands, and to compensate used criteria of design layout and some motif characteristics, such as linearity versus curvilinear-it, to separate the southern Lao from the non-southern Lao patterns.

Second, we showed the women a series of xeroxed pictures of designs from different cultures. The designs were similar in organization to the design bands around the southern Lao skirt hemlines. To our amaze­ment the southern Lao selected patterns from Bolivia, Mexico, Malaysia, West Africa, Tunisia, and the Chippewa and Ojibwa from the United States as poten­tial Lao-made patterns. Upon careful inspection of these designs it became clear that they were chosen because they appeared to be made by the same technological processes as those used by the southern Lao. For exam­ple, the Ojibwa beaded pattern was said to be a southern Lao pattern by all the weavers because the beads resem­bled stitches which the weavers could count, thus enabling them to calculate when to change sheds. But because the design lacked rows of motifs above and below the main diamond design, the women indicated that this pattern would be woven on nontraditional items, such as purses, that would be made for non-Lao buyers.

We return to our question of why people wear the kind of clothing they do. Not surprisingly, we found that southern Lao women make choices that relate to factors beyond the necessity to appropriately cover the body for reasons of modesty and warmth. Indeed, cloth­ing is used by peoples the world over to clearly demar­cate important aspects of their cultural position, such as their cultural ethnicity, position in society, wealth, occucation, age, and knowledge. We found that all southern Lao women adhere to the same clothing canons when using their clothing as indicators of their cultural knowl­edge and affiliations, but that some have more detailed knowledge about the production of the clothing and thus think about it in different ways because of their role as weavers. And we found how much observers can be misled when they apply their own assumptions to another’s cultural categories.

Cite This Article

Washburn, Dorothy K.. "Social Messages and Cultural Information in the Clothing of Southern Lao Women." Expedition Magazine 38, no. 3 (November, 1996): -. Accessed September 26, 2023.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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