A recent talk organised by the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles underlines explores the sumptuous gowns made by Pierre Balmain for the Queen
WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED for her beauty and style, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit was first voted onto the International Best Dressed List in 1960, an honour that was to be renewed several times over the coming years. In 1965, she was elevated to the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame, a recognition that brought both joy and pride to the people of Thailand.
But what was it about her wardrobe that so caught the eye of the viewer? That and much more was explained last week in the talk “Fit For a Queen: Creating Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Western Wardrobe”, organised by the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles at the Grand Palace as part of the exhibition of the same name to which nine of the Queen’s evening dresses from the 1960s have recently been added.
The lecture was given by co-curators Melissa Leventon and Alisa Saisavetvaree and was followed by a tour of the exhibition.
In 1960, Their Majesties Queen Sirikit and the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a six-month-long state visit to the United States and 14 European nations that aimed to enhance Thailand’s cultural and political positions on the international map.
Her Majesty determined that she would need fashionable, seasonally appropriate Western clothing for the tour and commissioned leading French couturier Pierre Balmain to design a regal wardrobe using mainly Thai silk.
It proved a wise decision. Balmain’s creations for Her Majesty were met with great admiration and the West fell in love with Her Majesty’s beauty, elegance and stylish attire.
“Her Majesty’s Western wardrobe was not only fashionable but classic, rich but never vulgar. Each outfit looked, in fact, fit for a Queen,” Leventon said. “The renowned Paris couturier was the perfect choice.”
“Their Majesties had both lived in Europe; Switzerland and France. But neither of them had been formally introduced as Thailand’s monarchy. No one in the West knew what the King and the Queen looked like or the style of the modern Thai Queen. Her Majesty grew up wearing Western clothes so she felt comfortable in Western designs but she also wanted her clothes to represent Thai identity. Balmain was the logical choice. In 1959, he was a young and hot designer and I am sure the Queen would not have missed his name in the fashion magazines. In the late 1950s, Balmain visited Thailand where he met Jim Thompson, and the royal lady-in-waiting, Princess Vibhavadi Rangsit. He was then commissioned to design Her Majesty’s fashionable Western wardrobe, producing the entire collection.
“Her Majesty had a wide variety of events to attend from private dinners to formal dinners, the opera, symphony, theatre, cocktail parties and so on. It is quite challenging to be on display all the time as she was and she held up very well under the strain of being continuously under the microscope of the press. One of the compensations, perhaps, was having unbelievably beautiful ball gowns,” Leventon continued.
Balmain understood the intricacy of contemporary European royal dress codes. He was able to function as Her Majesty’s adviser as well as her designer. And even though the government had offered to pay for an experienced European designer and the wardrobe, Their Majesties insisted that they personally absorb all the costs.
The chic, classic daywear, cocktail dresses, evening dresses, outerwear, and hats Balmain designed for Her Majesty were based on his spring and autumn 1960 collections and utilised Thai silk to give them a hint of Siam. The designer in turn commissioned embroiderer Francois Lesage to finish the designs, while the custom footwear came from shoemaker Rene Mancini and the full suite of luggage from Louis Vuitton. Balmain had everything completed and brought to Bangkok six weeks before the start of the tour, for fitting and final adjustment.
“For the tour of the United States in 1960, she mostly wore Thai national dress. The Queen would disembark from the plane wearing a suit, change into a daytime dress for afternoon engagements such as the Red Cross
event in Washington DC then change again into Thai national dresses for the evening. In Europe she more often wore Western style outfits, donning evening dresses for formal occasions,” she says.
One of the designs on display in the exhibition is a silk satin evening dress with beads, braid, paillette and gold metal coil embroidery by the House of Lesage, which was worn by Her Majesty on July 21, 1960 to a state dinner at Lancaster House in London hosted by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Selwyn Lloyd on behalf of the British Government. She wore the same dress on September 28, 1960 to a state dinner hosted by the Italian President at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Italy.
“Since it was impossible for the Queen to visit Paris in order to be fitted for the clothes, the fabric would be cut and the pieces sent to Lesage to be embroidered,” Laventon explained.
“When they were finished, they would go back to Balmain, and then they would be seamed together and fitted on Her Majesty dress form, which is what most couturiers would use when the client wasn’t able to come for fittings. That’s how Balmain was able to get her full wardrobe to Bangkok so soon before her departure. Every item had been made to her precise measurements so all he needed to do is tweak. The embroidery, all of which was hand-crafted by Lesage, is one of the highlights of the Balmain collection for the Queen.”
The new installation also includes an evening gown of Thai silk, decorated with beads, metallic silver thread, and paillette embroidery by House of Lesage and trimmed with white mink, worn by Her Majesty to the 13th World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) Ball at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on June 16, 1967.
Another is Nuit a Londres, (“A night in London”), a sumptuous gown made of Thai silk and metallic gold brocade (pha yok), which she wore to a state dinner hosted for President Diosdado Pangan Macapagal and the First Lady at the American Philippines Insurance Building in the Philippines on July 13, 1960.
“Nuit a Londres was originally made from Western brocade but Her Majesty wanted something in Thai silk and gold brocade in a completely different colour. She also added the shoulder straps,” the curator notes.
“As far as I am aware, Her Majesty never wore a strapless dress partly, I think, because she often had to wear a corsage. In fact, Queen Elizabeth also never wears strapless. You will see that if you look at royal photographs. This dress works very well with shoulder straps and you wouldn’t know any different if I hadn’t told l you that originally it was strapless. The dress in this lovely shade of midnight blue was also embroidered and was part of the Balmain collection but made of white velvet and silk and sleeveless, But her Majesty didn’t want it sleeveless so he made a version for her in blue silk and blue velvet with long sleeves and I like this version better,” Laventon said.
“Back then, most couturiers would name their designs and Balmain was no exception, naming them after his close friends, his mother and, in a testament of how important she was to him as a client, Her Majesty. They developed a close personal relationship but as far as we know, the gorgeous pink evening gown from 1962-1963 was the only model Her Majesty bought that was named “Sirikit”.
Balmain remained the designer of Her Majesty’s Western wardrobe for 22 years until his death in 1982. Around 1963, he began to make Her Majesty’s Thai national costumes and in the early 1970s developed strategies to transform Thai village silks into the fashionable Western clothes worn by Her Majesty to support and promote her initiatives in crafts revival. The working partnership between the Queen and the couturier has had a lasting impact in the preservation of indigenous Thai silk weaving and the sartorial expression of Thai identity in both national dress and Western fashion.
- The Fit For a Queen exhibition is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm in Galleries 1-2 of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Grand Palace.
- The ticket booth closes at 3.30. Stay tuned for upcoming activities at Facebook.com/qsmtthailand and on Instagram at @queensirikitmuseumoftextiles.