Book Reviews

Khmer Costumes and Ornaments:

After the Devata of Angkor Wat

by
Sappho Marchal
(translated from the French by Merrily Hansen)
First English edition Orchid Press 2005. (1st French edition, 1927) 128 pp., 44 b & w pl., including numerous line drawings, 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-057-5 $16.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-057-5


Book review by Gillian Green

(Journal of the Siam Society) 2007 Vol. 95


Sappho Marchal’s book was first published in French in 1927. Her father, Henri Marchal, was a conservator at Angkor and so, says Victor Goloubew in his foreword, she “grew up in the shadow of the temples”. Indeed the devatas, or apsaras as they are more commonly known, may well have been her surrogate companions despite being sculpted in bas-relief. While many can be examined at close quarters, others are less accessible. One can imagine the author, hatted to ward off the intense heat, with binoculars or even a camera at hand to record the data she sought.
   The book has the translator’s note, followed by Goloubew’s foreword and Marchal’s concise notes on the apsaras’ costumes, jewellery, flowers and coiffures. An inventory of the numbers of apsaras at different architectural locations at Angkor Wat is followed by a table showing the distribution of coiffure types in these locations. Forty-one plates of drawings follow, accompanied by brief comments on the salient distinguishing features selected for illustration, particularly the spectacular hairstyles and their ornamentation.
   She numbers the apsaras at 1,737, excluding those on the towers of Angkor Wat, which if included would bring the total to 1,860. But there were more which, over the course of time, suffered damage due to natural and unnatural causes that erased additional information. While apsaras are not unique to Angkor Wat, these particular examples are the focus of Marchal’s work which, being almost life-size, facilitate depiction of details on the reliefs with a high degree of accuracy.
   Marchal has ordered her drawings according to a particular plan. The first plates (1-XVI) demonstrate the simplest hairstyles, where long tresses are dealt with by simply looping, knotting or binding. The next group introduces ornamentation commencing with plate XVI1 (figs E, G, I), which shows the hair supported by a “diadem”, while on plate XVI11 no tresses appear, only headpieces termed “bonnet[s]” by Marchal. It is not clear visually whether there is any difference between the bonnet and the diadem, though English does distinguish between them, the former having ties beneath the chin, and the latter being a “lightly jewelled circlet”. On some Khmer statues sculpted in the round, a diadem with ties at the back of the head does appear. The most elaborate of the apsaras’ head adornments, with their characteristic triad of tall triangular cone shapes and a variety of additional ornamentation, feature on plates XXXIV to XL. The final plate, XL1, shows headpieces with a single central pointed cone, which the author argues is in effect the prototype of the mkot that has since became the form of the crown in Siam and Cambodia for royalty and dance dramas such as the Reamker.
   The author speculates about the way other, more complex, hairstyles may have been devised. About one style (plate VI figs. B, C) she says it must use “pierced patterned cloth” through which the hair is pulled. It can, however, more easily be explained with reference to hair styles contemporary today, where fine plaits in multiple narrow bands lying close to the head are currently favoured by so-called ‘rap artists’. In other styles Marchal uses the word cuille translated as “cut” (plate IX sketch I; plate XVI fig. G). This is difficult to interpret as sketched and most probably is more appropriately glossed as “parted”. This look would then correspond to the fashion called “French plaiting” so popular in the 1980s-1990s, where loosely parted locks of hair are intertwined. Indeed, chronologically, the Angkor styles may be regarded as prototypes of these styles.
   Marchal speculates as to how the hair itself was dressed so as to allow those locks to maintain their upright sweep if, actually, the forms thus depicted were not simply the sculptor’s interpretations. Was it a frame secured to the head over which the dark tresses were draped? Was perhaps some sort of pomade applied? Twentieth century Khmer custom may yield some clues. Informants report that hair is dressed with oils from coconut or papaya to which ash was added if “… you wanted to have stiff hair that would not fall down”. There is also a hair product made from samrong fruit mixed with wax. Men used it to twist moustaches into buffalo horn shapes, for instance. These traditional preparations, the ingredients of which are endemic to Cambodia, may well have been available in Angkorean times.
   Marchal also surmises that some particular ornamental additions were probably flower stalks of coconut palm and areca nut plants, the ends of which were directly inserted into the hairstyle. Present-day custom indicates that white jasmine flowers threaded onto stalks and found everywhere as ornamentation could well have been similarly constructed and used.
   This wealth of details, though concerned principally with hairstyles, has unexpected benefits for those interested in Khmer costume of the time. Marchal has sketched the apsaras’ costumes in some cases. The Khmer term for this style of hip wrapper is sampot. She attempts to explain the construction of the patterned waist to ankle hip wrappers, “sarong”, with flowing or arching sidepieces (Figs. 1-3). Her conclusion is “merely a hypothesis”, but on close examination, it fails the test on two grounds, one conceptual and one technological. The main objection concerns the fact that the length of cloth is cut to fit the form with one end scalloped. Cloth used as hip wrappers then or now would never have been cut and tailored in this part of Asia or in the Hindu tradition from which Khmer hip wrapper styles were derived. And scissors would be needed to cut the scalloped edges of the cloth and the slot for a belt arrangement as indicated. Scissors were not one of the tools of the time.
   But the appearance of a few apsara figures (plate XIV fig. F: XVI11 figs. A,b,E) wearing simple wrapped garments which would now be termed shorts or culottes, with a voluminous bow at the back and with the ends flowing to the side, provides much more useful evidence as to how the prestigious hip wrapper ensembles were constructed. If these shorts were worn underneath the wrap-around length of cloth—the sarong—then the mode of construction of this ensemble becomes quite clear.
   Finally, jewellery in the form of upper arm bands, bangles, “gorgets” or neckpieces, belts and chunky earrings complete the look of the day, in Angkorean times, at least for these companions of the deities in their virtual heaven. Lotuses complement these man-made adornments in the patterns on the headpieces and in the hands of the apsaras.
   What was Mile Marchal’s purpose in recording these decorative details, if indeed she had one other than a love of design and the opportunity to record these unique examples? We do not know. Goloubew suggests that the French love of all things Khmer resulting from the 1906 visit of the royal Khmer dance troupe to France could have inspired designers to try to source traditional patterns for adapting Khmer-style fashion to French taste. In which case, Marchal’s drawings would have been a unique source.
   Whatever the purpose, scholars of Khmer cultural history have tremendous reason to be grateful for what she did. As noted above, she has detailed decorative features which have been more or less bypassed in the study of classical Khmer sculpted art. Little details, such as the culotte forms worn by some apsaras, have rarely been noted by others, but now their visualisation has afforded confirmation of the apsaras’ elaborate hip wrapper forms as being constructed of two layers of cloth as suggested elsewhere.
   The strength of this slim volume is in the wealth of illustrations serving as reference detail for scholars both Cambodian and beyond. Sketches may transcend language, so the benefit of translating the accompanying text from the original French into English is not in the translation per se. Instead, firstly, it re-introduces this 1927 publication into the mainstream and, secondly, it allows non-French speakers access to the questions raised by Marchal, despite being presumably secondary to her artistic purpose. It could have a further very positive outcome. It may stimulate some munificent benefactor to fund scholars to delve into those French archives which shelter other documentary treasures and translate them to make them accessible to a wider, non-French-speaking readership. First on this reviewer’s list would be the records of the Commission des Moeurs et Coutumes, compiled in the few decades prior to their deposition in 1950 as microfilm at the Asiatic Society in Paris. These record cultural practices as related by Khmer achars (ceremonial officiants), monks and villagers which, in subjects similar but different, could reveal much more to illuminate Khmer cultural studies.

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