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Restyling Colonial Cambodia (1860–1954): French Dressing, Indigenous Custom and National Costume

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Abstract:

The sampot is an unstitched piece of cloth worn by contemporary Cambodian women as a wrap-around skirt. It was used by the politician Son Sann, as shorthand for Khmer national identity, in a debate about the voting rights of Vietnamese residents of Cambodia in the run up to the 1993 elections. His choice of sampot located the essence of Khmer nationhood in the female form. The cultural subtext lay in the Chbab Srey – the code of conduct for women that prescribes the modes of behaviour through which women can achieve the ideal of the srey-krup-leakh, the perfectly virtuous woman. This article explores how the colonial encounter refigured the srey-krup-leakh into a new sign of womanhood that conflated sampot, woman and nation. As intellectuals contested and constructed a new national identity through words and wardrobes, perfectly-virtuous-woman became synonymous with perfectly-virtuous-nation. French gender ideology rendered this problematic. Cambodge was iconized as a woman in colonial exhibitions and literature, yet she struck European visitors, novelists and administrators as decidedly unfeminine. Edwards concludes that the very act of keeping some elements of national dress, notably the sampot, was itself a decision in the making and shaping of national life, and not the perpetuation of some sartorial stasis.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270401778998909

Publication date: November 1, 2001

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  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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