The Story of the Krama
While trying to find a good description of what the krama means to Cambodians for my Irish friend Niamh (who recently became a proud owner of a krama!) I came across several interesting organizations.
Good Krama is a company which showcases this traditional Cambodian garment in various accessories, clothing designs and of course, its original simplicity.
Ahkun is a social enterprise which helps connect beneficiaries of microfinance loans to viable online markets for their goods (the krama being one of them).
The photo above is an image is from the Krama Wear section of the Good Krama website, a demonstration of the many ways to wear the krama. I think it’s a great start and could lend itself to Hermès-like demonstrations but I wish they would also showcase the practical purposes of the krama to give us an idea of how the krama is used when not explicitly meant for a model on the catwalk.
Having lived in Cambodia for fourteen years, I’ve seen this light cotton scarf used as a bathrobe, a hammock, a baby-carrier, a swimsuit, a towel, a turban, a headband, a shield from the scorching sun, a make-shift curtain, a skirt for women and men, a handkerchief to wipe away sweat, tears, dirt. On many occasions I’ve seen it folded up to cushion a heavy weight, such as weary head and or an amputated limb to be placed on a prosthetic one. I marvel at the way street vendors fold and roll their krama into a coil before placing them on the heads to help them so-elegantly balance enormous trays of delicious goods…
I’m sure I’ve only touched on a couple of different uses. But I have yet to find a more versatile accesory or piece of clothing in all my travels.
The point I’m trying to make is that while the krama is beautiful in its original, simple cotton form (shown above) as well as in its reinterpreted, contemporary, decorative, silk forms, what I find most beautiful about the krama is how it perfectly combines function and aesthetics. It’s a garment that is truly democratic, used by all Cambodians regardless of class or socioeconomic background and thus never in danger of going out of style. It is one of the most Cambodian of Cambodian garments.
As attached as we are about the krama, however, does not mean that the scarf is representative of only positive aspects of our history, as you may be aware of. In the 1970s, millions of Cambodians suffered under the cruel rule of the Khmer Rouge, which adopted the red emblematic scarf as a vital accessory to their all black military and civilian uniforms. Unless you want to repeat Prince Harry’s 2005 Halloween faux-pas, it’s strongly recommended that you don’t don a red checkered scarf when wearing an all-black pajama-like ensemble.
But despite this dark period of Cambodian history, the krama and many other parts of our cultural heritage have survived. I always smile when I see someone wearing a krama outside of Cambodia whether it be a member of the Cambodian diaspora or a foreigner. I am often moved to start a conversation with them. I ask them where they got it, whether it was in Cambodia and if so, when. The conversation, though sometimes short, is always pleasant and reminds me of the colorful streets of Phnom Penh and I grew up in.
Like my friend Niamh insists: every scarf has a story. In the krama’s case, the story may seem long, complex, with many aspects specific to the history of Cambodia. But ultimately, it’s a shared story and I’m glad to have been able to share it with you.
Thanks for reading, as always!
Update: Good Krama posted pictures on their blog featuring with the many faces of the krama’s practical uses.