Bangkok Goes Black

Special Report | Three weeks after the official one-month bereavement ended in mid-November, civilian Bangkok has yet to be entirely lifted from the veil of black that cloaked the city as the people mourn the death of their beloved King. This holiday season, it looks like the City of Angels, stripped of fairy lights, will strike a sombre note

siam-discoveryBlack styled fashionably in a corner dedicated to ebony clothes at Siam Discovery

Almost all mannequins in store windows of Bangkok are dressed in black. Not any shade of black, just deep, light-absorbing black. And the windows in which they stand are just as bleak. From the bazaar-like Mahboonkhrong Centre, next to the National Stadium, to the swanky EmQuartier, all the way down Sukhumvit Soi 35, fiberglass, plastic, and wood articulated dolls have joined Bangkokians in grieving the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on 13 October. The store fronts are decidedly solemn even when clothing retailers do not downplay their observance of current fashion. No window tries to outdo the other. In times of grief, black is the great leveler and quieter.

At Siam Center, where window displays sometimes cross into installation art, black stills the usually lively store windows. Designer Chalermkian ‘Pop’ Khatikasemlert’s wildly colourful and decorative Wonder Anatomie is fronted only by a row of mannequins in black attire, all lacking the usual bodices festooned with brightly-hued, dollhouse-like, 3-D appliqués. Less than 300 metres to the right, Sirichai ‘Jom’ Daharanont’s Theatre—no alien to histrionics—is seen with windows featuring clothes uncharacteristically black, even when they’re not short of eye-popping lace and embellishment (and ruff!). Elsewhere on level three of this complex, where many Thais designers call home, colourful clothes continue to be on the racks, but are placed away from direct sight.

senadaThe pretty pastels of Senada has given way to mournful blacktheatreTheatre’s dramatic clothes are not less so even in black

Even the carnival-atmosphere of Flynow, possibly Siam Center’s largest tenant, is looking more convention of the black widows than Mardi Gras. Designer Somchai Songwattana’s print-heavy collection, that seem to single-handedly support the synthetic fabric mills of Thailand, has shied away from ostentation although he is unable to tone down the over-the-top store design or restrain the brand’s visual merchandising, known for the use of the heads of oversized fantasy creatures in place of the mannequins’.

Other designer stores keeping within bounds are the habitually sweet and sassy brands such as Kloset, Senada and Milin, all so atypically inky in their storefronts that you would have thought that their respective design studios had misplaced their Pentone charts. However, amid the funereal windows, one stands out: Tube Gallery. Design duo Phisit Jongnarangsin and Saksit Pisalasupongs, who conceived the costumes for this year’s National Day Parade, has allowed the window of their only Bangkok store to boast vivid colours. The Chinese New Year-ready red, fuchsia, and orange that they have chosen are rather like homage to Thai silk than a revered monarch.

Worskshop.jpgSome stores, such as Workshop, left their tailor dummies undressed

That even the girly brands have succumbed to the call for a patina of black in the capital-city is testament to the profound respect in the Thai royal family. The Thais are dead serious about mourning the King. As one local guide—in heat-trapping, head-to-toe black—was heard telling a group of Chinese tourists, “our King is our father.” For many, in fact, their grief is more visible than palpable, and they wear it on their chest. Black attire alone, for those subjects who are especially loyal, is not adequate. Many Thais in Bangkok also wear a black looped awareness ribbon pinned to the left side of the chest or the left sleeve. The ribbon has become such a vital part of their mourning garb that some brands are offering specially designed luxury pieces for sale, such as those seen in Siam Discovery.

Apart from the black ribbons, Bangkokians would wear a pin in the cursive shape of the Thai numeral 9 (๙), a digit closely associated with the deceased King, the longest reigning in the world at the time of his death. Bhumibol Adulyadej is formally known as King Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the House of Chakri, the current ruling dynasty of the country since 1782, the year that the Rattanakosin Era began, and when the city of Bangkok was founded. In addition, the number 9 is part of Thai royal and religious heritage (nine monks are usually present in Buddhist ceremonies) and is considered auspicious.

black-ribbons-and-pinsFor those willing to splurge, black ribbons in leather is the ultimate symbol of mourning the Kingpin-rtibbonThe Thai numeral 9 (left) and the black ribbon are worn as part of the mourning garb

Symbolism and colours have always been part of Thai dress even in times of a living monarch. There is, in fact, a colour ascribed to the different days of the week, and Thais not required to be in formal dress at work often choose the colour of the day (#COTD!) with accordance to the one considered auspicious for the given days of the week. Colours, too, are used to do political battle. We’re aware of the Red Shirt protest of 2010, a colour coded struggle that also saw the rise of those in yellow, considered to be royalists. Colour may have divided a nation, but now it seems to have brought the country together, a monochrome unity that seemed to impressed foreigners.

For those planning to visit Bangkok or any part of Thailand, the year-end festivities typically celebrated with conspicuous fervour in Bangkok will be soften given the current state of national mourning. According to media reports, bereavement may have ended on 14 November, also the day of the loy krathong festival (civil servants are expected to mourn and, therefore, wear black for a year), the military government has still requested that festivities nationwide should be organised in a “low-key” manner, something perhaps inconsistent with the Thai way of having a sanook time. Throughout the city, especially downtown Bangkok, the discreet approach to Christmas and the New Year is noticeable for its absence of the street and building light-up.

courting-coupleSeen in Siam Paragon, a courting couple on a date wearing all-blacksiam-paragon(6 Dec 2016) The façade of Siam Paragon and its surroundings are completely unadorned for the Christmas Season, traditionally the busiest time of the year for retailers

It’s been a week since the new King is officially installed on 1 December. Siam Paragon, the “Most Instagrammed Location” of 2013, is completely bare, safe for the black-and-white swags that adorn the top of entrances. This is one of the most decorated buildings in Bangkok during the Yuletide season, yet now, with only three weeks to go before Christmas, the exterior of the building is unseasonably naked. On the wall facing the Siam BTS station, a massive black banner in portrait orientation pays tribute to the late King, in place of what would have been advertising in typical over-the-top style of the Paragon.

About 500 metres away, at CentralWorld, workers are only beginning to assemble two of what appear to be Christmas trees. This is where most of Bangkok descends to participate in the uproarious New Year’s Eve countdown. The entire public plaza in front of the complex is vacant—free of what would have been leftover of the beer garden season (popular in Bangkok as folks take advantage of the cooler December weather to have a lager outdoors). A gaggle of school girls walked past the tree-assembling men. One of them said without emotion, “how sad and lonely they look”.

Additional reporting: Malika Phongpaichit. Photos: Polpat Surapat