Princess Sirivannavari’s Textile Initiative and Royal Power: Will Thai People Take the Hook?
A textile motif designed by Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, the daughter of King Vajiralongkorn, is becoming popular across Thailand, raising questions about the power and purchase of the monarchy.
Over the past year, a particular textile has made its way into markets in every province in Thailand. Lengths of handwoven silks, mass-produced cotton sarongs, and tailored garments all bear a similar pattern: ten rows of the letter S, often rendered in white on a deep blue background, surrounded by a border of hearts. This pattern, known as ‘The Hook of Princess Sirivannavari’, represents a recent initiative to remind Thai people of the power of the monarchy by materialising it on bodies and households across the country.
The S pattern was designed by Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, the daughter of King Vajiralongkorn and his former consort and second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse. The Community Development Department (CDD) of the Ministry of Interior is responsible for managing the pattern’s implementation, and the initiative is intended to support economic recovery from the pandemic by providing producers with an easy-to-make, and hopefully easy-to-sell, textile. In 2021, CDD officers presented the pattern to textile-producing groups at provincial-level events with the implicit directive to begin making it. A handout described the princess’s objective to ‘spark ideas about pattern and product development of Thai textiles, so that they are contemporary and can move forward to the international level for the purpose of sustainable community ways of life.’ The handout also explained that the ten rows of the letter S (for Sirivannavari) signify the current tenth king, while the hearts exemplify the princess’s ‘eternal love’ for all Thai people.
This is not the first time that Thailand has used style in an attempt to unify its populace. The proliferation of the S textiles reflects how fashion has become a key site for navigating ideological tensions, especially during periods of political instability in Thailand and around the world. Among earlier examples is the emphasis on styles of dress found in Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s Cultural Mandates in the early 1940s, which were proposed to bolster nationalism and to convince Western powers of Thailand’s status as a ‘civilised’ and modern nation. Further, Queen Sirikit’s campaign to create a standardised Thai national dress as war engulfed Southeast Asia in the 1960s converged with her establishment of an arts and crafts promotion foundation, SACIT. The entity reasserted royal influence across Thailand and in villages perceived to be susceptible to communist infiltration. Sirikit’s commitment to craft development became her main platform as queen and was a crucial aspect of her early image-making as benevolent, concerned ruler, ideal Thai woman, and ‘mother’ of all Thai people.
SACIT has continued to play a vital role in facilitating opportunities for craft producers and maintaining markets for the consumption of their products. Yet Sirikit is no longer able to lead SACIT for health reasons, and Sirivannavari is preparing to take over her duties, with the promulgation of the blue S textile as her first major project. Official reports of S textile production from the past year are positive; Suthipong Chulacharoen, the director-general of the CDD, noted that some OTOP (One Tambon, One Product) groups experienced up to a 90 per cent increase in income due to sales of the S textiles, though exact figures are not available.
As Thai pundits and politicians fervently debate the efficacy of global Thai ‘soft power’ in the form of mango sticky rice, they might also consider the operations of cultural hegemony domestically by assessing the impact of Sirivannavari’s royal ‘hooks’ as an attempt to recuperate the monarchy and support craft production in sustainable ways.
Is the S textile being positioned as Thailand’s new yellow shirt? For decades, the practice of wearing yellow shirts on Mondays to honour the late King Bhumibol on the weekday of his birth was a common habit. While this practice served from the start to reinforce Thai royalism, it became more overtly politicised with the intensification of colour-coded conflicts, only to wane after the king’s death in 2016. With the less popular King Vajiralongkorn on the throne, the absence of royal father and mother figures like Bhumibol and Sirikit continues to foment uncertainty over the fate of the Thai nation and the cohesion of a unified sense of ‘Thainess’ that is structured by loyalty to three pillars: ‘monarchy, nation, and religion.’ Sirivannavari and her S pattern might not be able to shore up this configuration, however, as the recent brave and unprecedented activities of youth protestors suggest that challenges to the power of monarchy will only expand in scope.
Adding to these royalist fears of the growing disconnect between the monarchy and Thai people, Sirivannavari has proved to be a controversial figure. In October 2020, a ‘People’s Runway’ protest occurred in Bangkok, and participants donned traditional Thai clothing and strutted down a red carpet in response to Sirivannavari’s exclusive runway show taking place the same evening. Thousands of protestors at the People’s Runway decried the inappropriate use of taxpayer money (to the tune of 13 million baht) to market her brand abroad. The princess made headlines again in August 2021, when she participated in a YouTube interview with Vogue to discuss the impacts of the pandemic on the Thai fashion industry. When the host asked designers to share words of inspiration with viewers, Sirivannavari asserted that ‘[the pandemic] has been difficult for me too.’ The irony was not lost on Internet users; after all, the statement came from a member of the royal family whose career is subsidised by the government and the prodigious wealth of the monarchy. Her words became a hashtag (#หญิงเองก็ลําบาก, #itsdifficultformetoo) that quickly trended across social media platforms, with Thai netizens both sarcastically and seriously listing their own pandemic-related difficulties as a powerful rejoinder to the princess’ lack of sensitivity.
As Thai pundits and politicians fervently debate the efficacy of global Thai ‘soft power’ in the form of mango sticky rice, they might also consider the operations of cultural hegemony domestically by assessing the impact of Sirivannavari’s royal ‘hooks’ as an attempt to recuperate the monarchy and support craft production in sustainable ways. Many producers relate that they are willing to make the pattern to earn money, but they are unwilling to wear it, explaining that it has no source. To them, the pattern has not been shared across generations and is not related to locally meaningful motifs; it exists only for civil servants to wear to fulfil their mandates. ‘They are forced to wear it because they have no freedom,’ one weaver from Northeast Thailand emphasised in a recent conversation with the author. Many Thai people are refusing the lure of the S hook by keeping it away from their bodies, a decision that is also a challenge to entrenched but now shaky royal power.
Alexandra Dalferro was Visiting Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.