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The Siamese "Modern Girl" and Women's Consumer Culture, 1925-35.

The development of women's magazines in Siam began as early as the end of the nineteenth century, when men were still managing the production of most of the earliest women's magazines. Wider access to education on the part of urban Siamese women brought about an increase in women's readership of print media by the pre-revolutionary years of the 1920s. During the period when women's magazines were flourishing, between 1922 and 1932, as many as eleven magazines were published with the purpose of entertaining and educating female readers (Ubonwan and Uayphon 1989, p. 15).

However, only six of these magazines could be located at the sites I visited: Satri thai (1925), Nari nithet (1926), Nari kasem (1926), Suphapnari (1930), Nari nat (1930), and Netnari (1932). (1) Among this remarkable collection of women's magazines, the most provocative voices of the sao samai appeared in the issues of Satri thai and Netnari. Using advertisements and satirical cartoons in these two distinctive magazines, I analyse the consumer trends of the Siamese Modern Girl, who represented localized femininity linked to global commodities.

The period from the 1920s to the first half of the 1930s witnessed remarkable social transformations within Siamese society, including the dethronement of the absolutist monarchy in 1932. However, one particular social change that has been overlooked was the transformation in the representation of women. Through textual and visual analyses, I discovered the Siamese Modern Girl (sao samai), sharing similar characteristics with the Modern Girl, who emerged as part of the global phenomenon of modern femininity in the growing Asian print media markets of the 1920s and 1930s (Weinbaum et al. 2008, pp. l-22). (2) "The Modern Girl was variously a symbol of social freedom, normative Western racial hierarchies, the universality of beauty, standards of hygiene and fashion, and a modernising economy" (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 350).

The Modern Girl expressed notions of universal beauty, shared concepts of hygiene and fashion, all of which were reflected in her consumption choices. Nevertheless, the society to which the Modern Girl belonged shaped her role in accordance with local and even national motives. In China, the Modern Girl look was used by rural Chinese women to enter urban society to "sneak into the elite marriage market" (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 201). In Okinawa, the Modern Girl served as a tool of Japanization, and in India the Modern Girl aroused sentiments of "the racial politics of nationalism" (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 169). Within Southeast Asia, the Modern Girl emerged in response to the growing number of women who benefitted from the education brought to them by European colonizers. For example, Chie Ikeya studied the rise of educated Burmese women, khit kala (women of the times), who were motivated by the nationalist discourse in the 1920s and 1930s (Ikeya 2011, pp. 59-70). The Burmese Modern Girl made her appearance in magazines to promote the views of intellectual women of the modern era. Yuwadi Sekku (young ladies' eyes), the first women's column in Burma, was published in Dagon magazine (cited in Ikeya 2011, p. 59) during the 1920s. The column focused on the new intellectual roles that women were empowered to perform, with an emphasis on women's intellectual knowledge (Ikeya 2011, p. 69). Ultimately the Burmese Modern Girl also helped to mobilize the Burmese anti-colonial struggle. On one hand, she served as a confident, healthy and fashionable woman. On the other hand, she was patriotic and active in public life. This suggests that, although the representation of the Burmese Modern Girl was shaped by the British colonial system, it was also very much part of the global Modern Girl phenomenon. Another unique colonial setting where the Modern Girl phenomenon has been studied is Penang. The work of Su Lin Lewis, "Cosmopolitanism and the Modern Girl: A Cross-Cultural Discourse in 1930s Penang", reaffirms the emergence of the Modern Girl in the local newspaper, the Straits Echo, in the 1930s (Lewis 2009, p. 1393). In the multi-ethnic port city, the Modern Girl was employed by the Penang Straits-Chinese to compare themselves to Westerners and served as a liberal model for other ethnic women, including Indians, Sinhalese and even Malays (Lewis 2009, p. 1403). The newspaper opened up a space for debate between men and women beyond ethnic barriers. These varying examples of the Modern Girl in Asia demonstrate that these feminine icons belonged to a single global movement of the 1920s and 1930s that adapted its role to serve different local and national purposes.

As Modern Girl icons around Asia emerged with varying roles linked to their different geopolitical settings, the Siamese Modern Girl evoked unique tastes and demands that went against the traditional image of Siamese femininity prominent in the earlier decades of the absolutist era. Siamese Modern Girls had a distinctive status compared to Burmese or Penang Straits-Chinese Modern Girls, because Siam was not fully colonized. Western influence had made a great impact on elite culture, which included the adoption of various manners, sports, activities and accoutrements. Peleggi (2002, pp. 19-43) demonstrated a strong link between imperialism and the elites' modes of consumption, a phenomenon that was introduced by the king himself. For Siamese aristocrats in the late nineteenth century, this was a way to emulate the Westerners. However, the Siamese Modern Girl that emerged in 1920s print media had a completely different motive. During the last decade of absolutism, criticisms about the aristocratic Siamese and even the failure of King Prajadhipok's administration were loudly voiced by a number of newspapers and magazines such as Bangkok kanmueang, Krolek and Siam Review (Copeland 1993, pp. 129-62). Amidst this growing sentiment against the aristocratic class, the Siamese Modern Girl emerged to join the global movement towards female liberation. She shared the attitudes of other Modern Girls around the world: she was confident, fashionable and independent with her consumer choices. However, the socio-political setting of Siam at the time was the reason the Siamese Modern Girl faced unique challenges compared to other Modern Girls around Asia. The Siamese Modern Girl did not have to promote nationalism or resistance against the Western colonizers. Instead, she represented the voice of educated middle-class Siamese women who wanted to liberate themselves from traditional roles and the social expectations created by male aristocrats.

Through a study of women's magazines of this period, my research reveals the following. First, the Siamese Modern Girl icon linked localized femininity to global consumer trends. Even though Modern Girl commodities were influenced by Western trends, the reason for the Siamese Modern Girl's consumption of these products was to create a new independent identity that stood out from the traditional representation of aristocratic women. Second, the motive of the Siamese Modern Girl in mimicking Western women reflects the demands of Siamese women for liberation. The sao samai raised her voice to challenge the nobility, especially men, and to fight for her right to end polygamy. Before examining these issues in detail, I present the status of women of the absolutist era using representations of aristocratic women in official collections to establish a conceptualized ideology of femininity based on the West.

Victorian Gentility (Phudi) and "Civilized" Siamese Women

The term siwilai was introduced by the Siamese court from the English term "civilized" in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is one of the aspects of Siamese adaptation and imitation of Western values and lifestyles (Thongchai 2000; Peleggi 2002). The attempt to create Siam in the image of siwilai was not only a way to emulate the West but was also a response to Western criticisms of the backward Siamese way of life. In response to the West, the Siamese monarchs implemented policies and reforms that gradually changed the lives of Siamese women. In fact, the first attempt to improve women's position as a response to Western criticism began during the reign of King Mongkut, with his famous proclamation --resulting from Amdaeng Muean's petition in the early 1860s (3)--which prohibited parents and husbands from selling or exchanging female family members into servitude (Suwadee 1989, p. 89). This proclamation not only granted Amdaeng Muean freedom from slavery but also made her the first Siamese commoner woman with the right to choose her spouse. Nevertheless, this exception was not made for royal women--decisions on marriage were made by their fathers. In other words, King Mongkut preferred not to interfere with the social hierarchy among the aristocrats (Loos 2004, pp. 174-75). In addition, cross-class marriages between women of the elite class and male commoners were uncommon.

By the time King Chulalongkorn came to power, the impact of Western ideas had become more influential in the court of Siam. The popular king had abolished slavery in Siam by 1905 and the status of Siamese women had been improved. Nonetheless, the abolition of slavery did not affect the lives of the aristocrats as much as it did in the West. The new ideas about family life, sexual morality and social conduct that emerged in England during the late nineteenth century, labelled "Victorian social values" (Suwadee 1989, p. 78), played a significant role in the lives of Siamese aristocrats, particularly from the reign of King Chulalongkorn to the reign of King Vajiravudh. Both the concept of gentility (of, that is, the phudi) (4) and the ideology of domesticity were reflected in the reforms that Siamese men introduced during the late nineteenth century. This was visible through the lives of women of the inner court. Chulalongkorn's 152 consorts and 44 daughters had retinues, which consisted of as many as 300 women in one residence (Loos 2005, p. 883). It was during this period that the inner court of Bangkok expanded its female population to approximately 3,000 (Loos 2005, p. 883). Although not all of these women were from aristocratic backgrounds, many of them were exposed to the monarch's interpretation of Victorian social values.

The concept of gentility, which could be explained as the elegant way of life, was adopted by the elite classes. Women of the inner court, especially the highest class of major consorts and princesses, became agents of siwilai lifestyles. The "presentation and representation of the royal self (Peleggi 2002, p. v) was one of the aspects of the aristocratic lifestyle that reflected the influence of the Victorian concept of gentility. Maurizio Peleggi pointed out that the Siamese elites had different modes of "self-representation" for three different stages: "the colonial", "the domestic", and "the private realm" (Peleggi 2002, p. 61). (5) In the "colonial" stage, aristocratic women appeared in full Victorian clothes with gloves and hats, while their fashion became more hybrid in the "domestic" stage, and remained traditional in the "private realm" (Peleggi 2002, p. 61). This demonstrates that elite Siamese women, as instructed by male monarchs, responded to the Victorian concept of gentility through their fashion. Moreover, the inner court's leisure activities were also adjusted to conform with the elegant lifestyle of the Victorian era, with photography being one of the most popular activities of palace women during King Chulalongkorn's reign (see Figure 1).

Apart from fashion and photography, popular sports of the Victorian period such as croquet, tennis and cycling became new pastimes for women of the Siamese court. At Sunanthalai Girls' School, which was founded to educate daughters of aristocrats, students had to take up these sports as part of their leisure activities (Chongchitthanom 2007, pp. 21-26). In the post-absolutist years after 1932, Princess Phunphitsamai, a former student of Sunanthalai Girls' School, continued playing the elite sport of golf, even when she and her family were in exile in Penang (Phunphitsamai 1990, p. 30). From this, we see the concept of Victorian gentility in various aspects of the siwilai lifestyles of the elite women of Siam from the reign of King Chulalongkorn to the end of the absolutist regime in 1932, making royal women models of civilized femininity.

Non-Aristocratic Images of Siamese Femininity

Between 1925 and 1932, a number of middle-class women's magazines emerged, two of which stood out for their unique provocative voices: Satri thai (1925) and Netnari (1932). These magazines represented themselves as the voice of middle-class women, rather than that of the women of the upper class as seen in Nari kasem (1926) and Nari nat (1930), which focused on fiction and upscale literary styles. On the contrary, the two non-elite women's magazines offered political critiques and openly discussed women's social concerns in a way that none of the earlier women's magazines had. Their pivotal role in serving as feminist voices is a revolutionary aspect of the representation of women prior to the arrival of dramatic political reform in 1932. Non-aristocratic women were, for the first time, active in the public sphere. Their voices in such women's magazines reaffirmed the progress of Siamese feminist movements.

Satri thai was one of the most innovative magazines when it was first published in 1925. As the editorial team consisted of female commoners, the magazine provided insights into women's thoughts in a way that the elite could not have done. The goal of the magazine was to "enlighten all women" (hai khwamsawang kae satri thang puang) (Ubonwan and Uayphon 1989, p. 17). This motto demonstrated the editors' intention to promote the magazines to all women regardless of their social backgrounds. As a result, the magazine covered topics that were more provocative than those covered by other magazines of the era; for example, articles on marriage law, women and politics, and women's social status.

Siamese readers would not get a chance to read the thoughts of such women again until the early 1930s, just before the revolution that overthrew the absolutist monarchy. Netnari (women's vision), another women's magazine embodying the bold progress of the Siamese feminist movement, was issued every fortnight and was owned and run by a group of commoner women. Emerging in an era when politics became a sensitive issue, Netnari took bold steps, similar to what Satri thai had attempted to do, to discuss political issues and woman's equality. These middle-class women's magazines are the focus of this article.

The closest Thai term describing the concept of the Modern Girl, sao samai, was first seen in the magazines of the 1920s. While this new term was introduced in order to define the new type of progressive women, it is important to note that the term siwilai, which was widely used in the elitist magazines, where most of the editors had aristocratic backgrounds, began to disappear at this time. It was replaced by the term than samai, which refers to progress and modernity. The use of the term siwilai, in fact, was questioned in the women's magazine of Watthana Academy, the first private girl's school in Siam, founded by American missionaries, as early as 1909. The student author criticized the Siamese interpretation of this adopted English term, which was affiliated with the idea of progress, and suggested that the term charoen would be more appropriate to the Siamese situation (Maekasin watthana witthaya 1909). By the 1920s, the use of siwilai, which referred to modernity and Victorian-era influences, became less popular when the new icon--sao samai--emerged. I shall now focus on the transition from the Victorian conception of women towards that of the sao samai in early twentieth century Siam.

The death of King Chulalongkorn in 1910 had a great impact on the lives of palace women, and eventually led to the decline of the inner court in the following decade. King Vajiravudh, who succeeded the throne after King Chulalongkorn, reduced the role of palace women and opposed the political polygynous practice of the former Chakri kings. As the position of aristocratic women in the court of Bangkok declined, commoner women in the urban areas became increasingly literate through their improved access to education. In 1921, the government finally enacted a law that made primary education mandatory. As a result, all children had to attend school until the age of fourteen. Consequently, the percentage of girls' enrolment in schools dramatically increased, from 7 per cent in 1921 to 29 per cent in 1922, and to 38 per cent in 1925 (Vella 1978, p. 159, cited in Kepner 1998, p. 98). With the rise in women's access to education, the number of women's magazines increased in response to growing literacy among women. It was between 1920 and 1940 that Siamese female representation evolved from the Victorian model into the ideals represented by the Modern Girl.

Images of the Siamese Modern Girl are best represented by the women's magazines of the pre-revolutionary decade of the 1920s. One of the earliest images of the Siamese Modern Girl appeared in the political newspaper Bangkok kanmueang, which was founded in 1922 during the last years of King Vajiravudh's reign. An image of the sao samai also appeared in an advertisement for Golden Dragon cigarettes (Bangkok kanmueang, 4 March 1924, cited in Barme 2002, p. 49) (see Figure 2). The advertisement shows two women with bobbed hairstyles. One of them sits with crossed legs in a chair and the other stands by her. Both women have cigarettes in their hands, and the caption reads "the taste of freshness to the heart" and "smoking this is much better than other kinds of cigarettes" (Barme 2002, p. 49). The act of smoking replicates modern Western fashion, and the sartorial, postural and stylistic representations of the Modern Girl in the Golden Dragon advertisement are completely different from the image of civilized women that elite Siamese men had promoted in earlier decades. These women represented confidence, freedom and modernity through their poses and dialogue. The cross-legged pose of the seated woman would have been considered an unacceptable pose for 'proper' Siamese women. However, the sao samai, dressed in Western attire, is depicted in this advertisement of 1924 in ways that do not conform with the earlier conventions.

Images of Modern Girl femininity became popular in Siamese women's magazines in 1925 with the emergence of Satri thai, which referred to itself as "the ladies' friend classic weekly" (Satri thai, 1 March 1925). In fact, Satri thai was not the first women's magazine in Siam, but it was the first woman's weekly to employ graphics and satirical cartoons. The cover page of the first issue of Satri thai of March 1925 (see Figure 3) shows male criticism of old Siamese women's fashion and the Modern Girl's fashion: the traditional Siamese woman on the left is criticized for being "too old fashioned", while the image of the sao samai on the right is described as "new but ugly". Satri thai was the first Siamese woman's magazine to publish an image of a woman with a bobbed hairstyle, make-up and semi-modern clothing. The emphasis placed on the modern femininity and sex appeal of the sao samai is apparent from the image.

Following the trend set by Satri thai, the icon of the Siamese Modern Girl became increasingly popular towards the end of the absolutist monarchy in 1932. She continued to appear on the cover pages of Nari nat (1930) and Netnari (1932), both of which were major women's magazines of the pre-revolutionary years. While Nari nat represented itself as an upper-class woman's magazine, Netnari's target readership comprised middle-class women. Although the two magazines catered to different class demographics, representations of the sao samai were used in both magazines. In Nari nat, the sao samai emphasized her literacy skills while preserving the proper image of Siamese women. Figure 4 shows three Modern Girls sharing a Nari nat magazine. This image shows how the magazine sought to preserve elite values by using aristocratic language and by promoting appropriate behaviour for women.

In contrast, Netnari's sao samai was more appealing compared to the traditional image of women in Nari nat magazine. In addition, the content of Netnari was also more provocative than that of Nari nat. While Nari nat focused on fiction, poetry, news articles, moral teachings, domestic education, and even stories for children, Netnari promoted more radical content that included critiques on the marriage law and the role of women in politics.

As seen in Figure 5, the images of Netnari illustrate different characterizations of the sao samai from those in Nari nat. The clothing and posture of Netnari's sao samai represent non-traditional women, who were the target readers. The fashion copied from the West shows the abandonment of traditions and the embracing of modernity. Sao samai in Netnari had more liberal expressions of femininity. They had more choices in terms of fashion and usually opted for Western clothing. They were depicted in public scenes, or in their private spheres without the presence of men.

The Commodification of the Siamese Modern Girl

The image of the Modern Girl was defined "by her clothing and her cosmetics, by the food she ate and tobacco she smoked, and by the things she bought and did not buy" (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 364). The sao samai shared the look of the Modern Girl who hailed from different places around the world. She had a perfectly permed bob, wore make-up, and donned Western, sometimes provocative, clothes. It is apparent that her appearance was the main focus of her representation. This means that consumer trends among women may be observed in the issues of women's magazines between 1925 and 1933. The Modern Girl Research Group (Weinbaum et al. 2008) established the link between Modern Girl commodities and their localized definition of femininity. These commodities ranged from cosmetics, skin-whitening products, to provocative clothes and hair products (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 18). These products directly influenced the representation of Modern Girls' bodies, unlike the representations of traditional women promoted by elite Siamese men. The best example of this is the restricted lives of the women of the Bangkok inner court. Throughout, women of the inner court had to follow strict codes of behaviour. A dress code was applied to women of all classes within the inner court. Appropriate colours were assigned for each day of the week; for example, a red shawl was to be worn with dark green pantaloons on Sundays only (Chongchitthanom 2007, p. 34). Hairstyle, which was short, was also regulated by the inner court administration. After Victorian accoutrements were introduced, the dress code became even more restricted for inner court women. As instructed by male elites, inner court women had to adopt a hybrid fashion between the traditional and Victorian styles while in the private space of the inner court (see Figure 6) and to appear in full Victorian attire when receiving formal foreign delegates.

Bodily autonomy was even more limited in the realm of sexuality. The rule against same-sex erotic practices among palace women or len phuean became more strictly enforced during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Phonsiri 1997, p. 54). During this period, palace women who were found to be involved in same-sex relationships had tattoos put on their foreheads and were expelled from the inner city. The tattoo also served as a permanent ban prohibiting them from re-entering the palace (Phonsiri 1997 p. 54).

While the bodily autonomy of aristocratic women was restricted by male Siamese aristocrats, the sao samai image, on the other hand, displayed complete independent facial expressions, body posture and gestures. These expressions were not only displayed in the public sphere, with no connection to domestic roles, but they were also positioned outside the ambit of male influence. The most popular consumer trends of the Siamese Modern Girl, including hair perming, female hygiene and Western fashion, will be explored here. The commodities that accompanied these consumer trends reveal more than the Western tastes of the sao samai; they revealed their bodily autonomy, femininity and even sexual desires.

By the 1930s, permed hair was viewed as a symbol of class and racial segregation in the United States, as the service was only available in beauty salons that were owned by white proprietors (Willett 2000, p. 17). In the case of Siam, it was not an indicator of racial division, but a representation of modernity and the ability to emulate the West. Hairstyling and hair products became an integral part of the Siamese Modern Girl look due to the abandonment of traditional hairstyles by the early 1930s. The permed bobbed hair was perceived as the look of the Modern Girl.

The Victorian influence that inspired "western modes of consumption" of the Siamese elites in the nineteenth century had a major impact on elite Siamese society and beyond (Peleggi 2002, pp. 19-43). Clothing the nation was a "localised practice" embraced by Siamese elites since the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Thongchai 2000, p. 539). Jackson (2003) noted that Chulalongkorn's attempts to represent heterosexual relations as civilized, fully "clothed", and to visually differentiate the genders, were key elements to the refashioning of the nation as part of the siwilai mission (para. 26-37). This highlights the high imperialist culture of the Victorian era, which had a direct influence on the representation of Siamese women, and most remarkably their hairstyles. Following King Chulalongkorn, King Vajiravudh continued to promote three vital elements of the modern Siamese woman: the adoption of fitted skirts, (6) the abandonment of short-cropped hairstyles (7) (women were encouraged to have long hair), and the promotion of clean and white teeth (and the abandonment of betel-chewing) (Wannaphon 2009, p. 100).

As a result of the long-standing promotion of Western-influenced fashion, elite women became leading fashion figures and agents of modern femininity. The two images of elite women during the reign of King Vajiravudh in Figures 7 and 8 illustrate the adoption of Edwardian fashion--the latest style of the time. This style would soon be replaced by the fashion embodied by the Modern Girl.


As the absolutist monarchy in Siam began its decline in the early 1920s, so did the popularity of the fashion promoted by aristocratic women. The long hairstyle, considered representative of modern femininity for elite Siamese women, was soon replaced by the bobbed permed hairstyle of the Modern Girl. It is apparent from observing advertisements in women's magazines of that era that hair salons offering perming services became widely popular in Phra Nakhon, the most urbanized area of Bangkok in the 1930s.

The advertisements in Figure 9 showcase permanent waves as the newest hairstyling trend in Bangkok's beauty salons in the 1930s. As both salons were located in the Phra Nakhon district, right in the centre of Bangkok, the target audience of these advertisements would have been well-to-do urban women and women of the rising middle class.

Advertisements for hair products also reflect admiration for Western styles and growing literacy among women in the post-absolutist era. Hair perming was considered a fashionable practise that enabled Siamese women to emulate the appearance of women in the West. The advertisements from 1933 in Figure 9 claim that these are the top salons for the permanent wave technique, where customers can have beautiful wavy hair created by machines imported from Europe. The imported European techniques seem to have been used as the key marketing strategy. Kesini Salon's advertisement is written in English, French and Thai, promoting what appears to be the international standards of the salon. The advertisement reads, "First class permanent waving saloon" (see Figure 9). It appears that any mention of Western influence was considered authoritative and legitimate. Further, the Modern Girl is conceived as literate; she is able to read at least one of the languages used.

In addition to Western influence, another element observed in hair product advertisements is the elongated body postures of the Modern Girl, a characteristic that is shared by Modern Girls around the world. The advertisement of Bongthong hairstyling products (see Figure 10) shows the Modern Girl with an elongated body in revealing clothes, permed hair and high-heels. Her posture also emphasizes her femininity and self-satisfaction. By the early 1930s, the Siamese Modern Girl had become a popular agent of modern commodities.

Feminine Hygiene and the Modern Girl

The Modern Girl manifests the importance of hygiene as much as beauty and youthfulness (Weinbaum et al. 2008, p. 31). This is another phenomenal aspect of the icon that became openly expressed in the advertisements of Siamese women's magazines. The level of openness in presenting female hygiene issues and heterosexual desires through these products is discussed here.

Female hygiene had become an important issue for women in this era. Taking care of personal hygiene was regarded as a way of maintaining beauty and even attractiveness. The bodily autonomy of the sao samai was expressed through these advertisements. The Siamese Modern Girl exercised her right to choose what was best for her body. Moreover, advertising these products so openly highlights how exclusive these magazines were to female readers. During the revolutionary years, women's magazines opened up spaces for readers to share their interests, even on intimate women's issues that might not have been publicly discussed before. The advertisement of supplementary health products for women's health in Figure 11 shows the sao samai taking advice from her mother, who consumed the product regularly, reaffirming the reliability of this product to its readers. The sao samai is used as the proxy of the reader, drawing upon the reader's identification with her.

The advertisement in Figure 12 is probably the most controversial among all the advertisements collected. The advertisement for Ya pluk prasat (supplement to treat sexual dysfunction) contains interesting information relating to heterosexual relationships. The fact that the advertisement suggests the product was for both men and women may appear strange to readers. However, it reflects the promotion of equality between sexes. For the first time, women were presented as having the same consumer status as men. Furthermore, the man and woman in the advertisement are presented as being equally engaged in their shared glance. This is evidence of the revolutionization of the image of Siamese women and consumer behaviours that were completely different from those of the previous absolutist era. In addition, it was not a coincidence that the focus of the state at the time was to boost the population. The Siamese Department of Public Health between 1926 and 1931 prioritized underpopulation as a problem in its agenda (Davisakd 2007, p. 329). For this reason, fertility issues became the state's primary concern, and many products similar to Ya pluk prasat were introduced to the female market. These advertisements made use of the sao samai's femininity to openly communicate their messages.

The Modern Girl, Poiygamy, and the Idea of Liberation

Although Siamese elites had already begun to promote monogamy during the reign of King Vajiravudh, the Modern Girl was furthering this cause more openly by the mid- 1920s. The practice of polygamy was discontinued during King Vajiravudh's reign. This affected the alliances between the king and a number of male aristocrats because of the abandonment of the 'daughter gifting' tradition. This tradition enabled Siamese aristocrats to establish a closer relationship with the king, but it was terminated during the reign of King Vajiravudh (Natanaree 2015, p. 4). The abolition of polygamy was perceived by the king as a way to emulate Westerners. Male Siamese elites were encouraged to abandon the practice of polygamy; for example, all government servants during the reign of King Vajiravudh were obliged to register one wife only. As a result, images of ideal monogamous couples and monogamous wedding ceremonies became popular among the elite during this period (see Figure 13).

While official records showed that ending polygamy was a smooth process, women's magazines of the same era expressed the opposite. The demand by Siamese women for gender equality expressed by supporting the end of polygamy was one of the most popular issues in the women's magazines. A number of satirical cartoons in women's magazines from 1925 onwards expressed, through the icon of the Modern Girl, women's abhorrence of womanizing male aristocrats. This was another revolutionary aspect of the Siamese Modern Girl that broke from traditional social expectations.

A cartoon from Satri thai magazine (see Figure 14) mocked the household of an aristocratic man who enjoyed polygamy. The main caption of the illustration reads "tears dropped without the master's attention", implying that the women and children in his household were unhappy. Another caption reads, "when the master runs out of his fortune, the whole clan of children and wives would starve, starve, starve!" This latter caption suggests that the decline of aristocratic positions resulted in the failure of the master of the house to feed his family. The cover of Satri thai in Figure 15, from a later issue of the same volume in 1926, raised similar criticism of the polygamous behaviour of Siamese men. It warned women not to "trust this man who is full of uncertainties".

Both cartoons illustrate the way Siamese women viewed aristocratic men at the beginning of King Prajadipok's reign (1925-35) and immediately after the revolution of 1932, when the elites struggled with their position under the new civilian government. The revolution of 24 June 1932 overthrew the absolute monarchy and placed a number of Siamese aristocrats in a difficult position. Many of them, including King Prajadipok and Queen Rambhai Barni, had already fled the country in 1933. As a result of the declining position of the elite class, Siamese women grew confident in expressing themselves through the icon of the Modern Girl. In other words, the Modern Girl embodied the voices of women who were against the polygamous practices of aristocratic men.

Moreover, the message supporting a woman's right to choose her partner and marriage was also conveyed through the Modern Girl in women's magazines; she believed in her right to marry or not to marry, as conveyed through the Modern Girl in a Satri thai cover seen in Figure 16.

This cartoon is set in a local registrar's office, where the Modern Girl--in modern clothes, high heels and bobbed hair--slaps the face of a male officer. "How old are you now? Why don't you have a husband?" asked the male officer. The Modern Girl replied, while slapping his face, "I am here to register for birth and death, not to register for the search of a husband". Once again, the image of the Modern Girl demonstrates her confidence in responding to Siamese men's attempts to 'put her in her place'. She believed in her right to marry or even not to marry. This was another revolutionary aspect of the Siamese Modern Girl that broke away from traditional social expectations.

The Siamese Modern Girl also expressed her confidence in refusing a man in Netnari magazine. Figure 17 shows a satirical cartoon that demonstrates her attitude toward an older man, dressed in aristocratic costume, who was attracted to her.

This cartoon illustrates the Modern Girl, on one hand as a confident woman, but on the other as a sexual object for Siamese men. She is confident in the way she exercises her charm and seems to enjoy male attention, but when the aristocratic man tries to touch her she is not afraid to say no. Through this cartoon, she shows her wits and independence. Moreover, the cartoon focuses on the depiction of aristocratic Siamese men as womanizers, similar to the other illustrations mentioned earlier. This explicitly portrayed aristocratic men and the Modern Girl as archetypes embodying opposing attitudes towards women and their role in Siamese society.

In the satirical cartoons of women's magazines of the revolutionary years, the Siamese Modern Girl showed herself to be successful at liberating herself from the control of men. Instead of tolerating male attitudes, the Modern Girl expressed the thoughts of Siamese women who had previously been oppressed and muted. She was critical of polygamy, which reflected female public opinion at the time. Evidence shows that both of the magazines mentioned in this article, Satri thai and Netnari, served a pivotal role in bringing the modern voices of women to the general public.

Critics of the Modern Girl

Criticism of the Modern Girl reflect the class conflict between aristocrats and the middle-class and non-urban women. As female literacy improved, Modern Girl commodities spread to the wider public. Prior to the 1920s, the readership of women's magazines in Siam comprised primarily of women within the aristocratic class; by the post-absolutist period, the magazines' readership had grown to include the wider public. The expanded audience consisted of women of the rising bourgeois class of Bangkok and the surrounding areas. This group of women came from middle-class families, which included the wealthy bourgeois and Chinese merchants from urban Bangkok. This new generation of women grew up during the pre-revolutionary period of the 1920s, when female education became widely available to bourgeois families (Natanaree 2015, pp. 94-95). The conflict between the two classes was inevitable. Both Netnari and Satri thai represented the voice of middle-class women, rather than that of aristocratic women. With growing consumption of Modern Girl commodities on the part of middle-class women, criticism of aristocratic culture emerged. One such criticism was aimed at the practicality of the fashion trends. Figure 18 shows the fashion column of Netnari magazine, showcasing clothing for two distinct occasions.

The dress on the left is made with chiffon silk, recommended for evening wear. The dress on the right is called the "Hua Hin style", the name derived from the beach town situated south of Bangkok, which became popular among aristocrats and well-to-do Bangkokians in the twentieth century. The town also became a refuge for many aristocrats who fled Bangkok during the revolution of 1932, including King Prajadipok and Prince Damrong Rajanubhap (Natanaree 2015, p. 192). The column suggests that silk blouses and light jackets were appropriate for the Hua Hin style. Nevertheless, the impracticality of the modern style was raised, especially by non-urban women. This is depicted in Figure 19, which shows a satirical cartoon illustrating the criticism raised about sao samai fashion.

In the cartoon, the Modern Girl gets her hair perfectly permed, her face made up, her nails polished and has her outfit picked out; however, she still has to work in a pig farm. This sends the message that the sao samai is obsessed with her appearance and is outfitting herself in ways that are inappropriate for her work and station in life. Moreover, this cartoon mocks the popularity of Modern Girl commodities among non-urban girls who worked in agriculture. The fashions taken on by the Siamese Modern Girl did not accommodate the lifestyles of non-urban women, and were a burden for those who wanted to move up the social ladder.

While the Civilized Lady became the model of appropriate Siamese aristocratic women in the late nineteenth century, the Modern Girl icon served to fulfil the image of femininity among commoner women during the crucial transitional years of Siam's politics during the 1920s. This reflected the competition in the cultural domain of images of femininity among the educated women of Siam. While aristocratic women still had limited participation in the public space, middle-class women were becoming more active in their public roles. As a result, the Modern Girl became the model of educated and autonomous Siamese women of the modern era. Two distinct characteristics of the Modern Girl stand out: her confidence in the public sphere, and her challenge of aristocratic norms and lifestyles.

The Modern Girl's confidence in the public sphere made this icon popular among urban Bangkok bourgeois women. Unlike the siwilai women of Siam's inner court who were excluded from public affairs, the Modern Girl was active outside the domestic sphere. She represented modern women who demanded gender equality and criticized the practice of polygamy. When the revolution took place in 1932, the Modern Girl was appropriated as the image of Siamese femininity in the new civilian government, as it was commonly known that she stood against the norms of the aristocrats. The appearance of the Modern Girl in the public domain contributed to her popularity as a new cultural image of femininity, on which empowered commoner women modelled themselves. In other words, the definition of femininity during this transitional period was shaped to allow women to take on more public roles than when the siwilai lady image was promoted. This highlights the ways in which Siamese women, especially commoner women, attempted to break away from male domination and traditional expectations.


The revolution on 24 June 1932 marked a turning point in Thai history: the absolutist monarchy was overthrown, and the role of the aristocrats was challenged by the rising middle class. A similar situation occurred in the print media industry. As illustrated, while representations of aristocratic women were dominant in official historical records during the absolutist era, the new icon of the Siamese Modern Girl dominated in women's magazines and led consumer trends in the years leading up to the revolution. This article has shown the transition in consumption of popular commodities; from those led by aristocratic women to the Siamese Modern Girl. As Western consumer trends--including fashion, social manners and even certain hobbies--were an indicator of the desire of Siamese women to emulate the West, the Siamese Modern Girl represented a new localized concept of femininity and demands for liberation that differed from the traditional perception and expectations of Siamese society.

After 1933, the print industry was affected greatly by the impact of the economic depression, political instability during the post-absolutist period, and the Second World War (Ubonwan and Uayphon 1989, p. 25). Press censorship under the People's Party (Khana ratsadon) in late 1932 was a major cause of the decline in women's print media. The aim of this censorship was to monitor criticism in print media that could pose a danger to the new government (Barme 2002, p. 232). As a result, many pro-democracy newspapers were shut down. Many women's magazines and newspapers had also either shut down or gone out of business because of the economic depression. Therefore, women's voices gradually disappeared from the public sphere.

Nevertheless, women's social status was greatly enhanced under the leadership of Phibun and his introduction of the Cultural Mandates (1938-44). The new motto "The Morale of Thais is with the Thai Women" (khwan thai yu thi ying thai) was introduced to promote the value of women and gender equality (Ubonwan and Uayphon 1989, p. 26). Phibun not only successfully included women in the mainstream development of nationalism but also helped improve the status of women in the domestic sphere. During the same period, the National Culture Council (Sapha watthanatham haeng chat) provided guidance for men on how to treat their wives, by advocating monogamy (Ubonwan and Uayphon 1989, p. 26). Nevertheless, the voices of women in print media beyond the nationalistic sphere were gradually muted among Siamese literati and had disappeared by the end of the 1940s. During the Second World War, women were encouraged to participate in national campaigns such as the "Hats Lead the Nation" (mala nam thai) campaign, which encouraged women to wear hats, and the Miss Siam Beauty Pageant, which employed women contestants as agents of the Cultural Mandates. Both of these campaigns enhanced the participation of middle-class Siamese women. Nevertheless, the women's print media industry did not rise again during that time. Although the number of literate women had increased, publications featuring women's voices had disappeared. All of the aforementioned women's magazines published between the 1920s and 1933 had completely gone out of business, only to resurface in Thai society after the end of the Second World War.

Natanaree Posrithong is Programme Director of General Education, Social Science Division, Mahidol University International College, 999 Phutthamonthon 4 Road, Salaya, Nakhonpathom, Thailand 73170; e-mail:


(1.) The years displayed in parentheses indicate the year that the first issue of each magazine was published.

(2.) Weinbaum et al. (2008) compares the emergence of the icon of the Modern Girl as a social phenomenon in various places around Asia.

(3.) Amdaeng was a title used to refer to commoner women in Siam until 1917, when King Vajiravudh introduced the titles of Nai (Mr), Nang (Mrs), and Nang sao (Miss), following the Western naming convention.

(4.) Gentility is the equivalent word for the Thai term phudi, which is literally translated as "good people". In fact, Susan Kepner asserted that phudi are "those who know how to behave properly, and do so" (Kepner 1998, p. 177). An early reference to commoner phudi appeared in Sombat khong phudi (Attributes of the Gentleman), written by Visudhi Suriyasak (also known as Pia Malakun), first published in 1912.

(5.) Peleggi used the term "stage" to explain the different levels of clothing and behaviour adaptations required by the elites.

(6.) This replaced the chongkraben, the unisex pantaloons worn by both men and women.

(7.) Siamese men and women shared a short-cropped hairstyle until the reign of King Vajiravudh. This androgyny was widely criticized by Westerners (Jackson 2003, para. 32-35).


Archival References

National Photography Archive, National Archives of Thailand.

"'Chattharat phattraphon' yonmong aphon satri sayam laetam faechan lok" ["Chattharat phattraphon": looking back at Siamese women's costumes as they followed global fashion]. Photographic exhibit in celebration of the eighty-fourth anniversary of Queen Sirikit's birth, organized by the King Vajiravudh Memorial Foundation, 10 August--10 October 2016, Vajiravudhanuson Building, National Library of Thailand, Bangkok.

Archival Serials

Bangkok kanmueang [Bangkok Politics]. "Buri tra mangkon" [Dragon cigarettes]. 4 March 1924.

Maekasin watthana witthaya [Watthana Academy Magazine]. "Kham mai" [New terms], vol. 15, no. 2 (May 1909).

Nari nat, vol. 2, no. 6 (21 February 1931).

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 1 (1 September 1932).

Netnari, vol. 1 no. 2 (15 August 1933).

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 3 (1 September 1933)

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 4 (15 September 1933).

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 5 (1 October 1933).

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 6 (15 October 1933).

Netnari, vol. 1, no. 7 (15 November 1933).

Satri thai, vol. 1, no. 1 (1 March 1925).

Satri thai, vol. 1 no. 8 (19 April 1926).

Satri thai, vol. 1 no. 17 (20 June 1926)

Satri thai, vol. 1, no. 19 (12 July 1926).

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DOI: 10.1355/sj34-1d
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Author:Posrithong, Natanaree
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
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Date:Mar 1, 2019
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