hem of my Mother's Thai silk wedding dress

I've long held an interest in Thai silk, and this probably stems from my Mother's own love affair with it. Back in the 1960's when my Mum was at University, she befriended a Thai student. The lasting legacy from that friendship was that my mother was married in 1967 in a Thai silk wedding gown made of silk sent back from Thailand by her friend C. The other legacy was that my older sister, born some years later, was given C's unusual Thai name which apparently means "character". If you have met my sister, then you will definitely think she lives up to her name quite nicely….


The gown in all its 1967 glory

But back to the silk. Thai silk was all the rage in the 1950's and 1960's, a traditional handicraft that had been transformed into a very large industry post WW2. By the 1960's there were probably a hundred different Thai silk manufacturers, of varying quality. My mother's wedding silk was fairly typical of the more elaborate weaving and embroidery methods that were by then being utilised, and the edge of the long straight train and hem of the dress were woven with silver thread, with small silver embroidered medallions scattered through the body of the fabric. It was a fairly typical style of 60's wedding gown for its day, and after the wedding Mum had the train shortened, the sleeves taken off and neckline lowered to turn it into a ball gown to get more use out of it. Sadly this meant that by the time I came to be married I couldn't use it myself as it was by then rather the worse for wear from too much partying.

The Drawing room with doors opening to a terrace via The House on the Klong

While many people think that Thai silk, now synonymous with the country, was always there, it was in fact an industry almost wholly created by an American Architect and ex CIA agent named James (Jim) Thompson. He spent some time in Bangkok after the Japanese surrender at the end of WW2 with the US Army, and fell in love with the exotic culture. His return to the US was a short lived one; he discovered his wife had had an affair with his best friend, a blow that left him a confirmed bachelor, and he decided to sever ties with the US and move permanently to Bangkok. As an aesthete he immersed himself in traditional culture, something that was not fashionable at the time in Asia where they were aping the West and rushing to catch up on development. He amassed a huge collection of traditional antiques, art, fabrics and porcelain travelling all over the country in search of items to complete his collection. Simultaneously, he was developing the Thai silk industry. When Thompson arrived in Bangkok, silk weaving was a traditional handicraft practiced by a very, very small number of people and was truly on its way to dying out. It was largely undertaken by a small ethnic minority group of Muslim families who lived beside a Klong (Klongs are Canals, and Bangkok was called the Venice of the East due to the network of Klongs that used to run through the city, many of which are now gone and replaced by large multi lane roads instead); their relative isolation from the rest of the Thai society meant that it had not died out completely.

The other view of the Drawing Room via The House on the Klong

It was neither prestigious, nor given much interest by anyone, but Thompson became fascinated with the silk and the traditional methods of weaving. With his artistic background and practical sensibilities (such as introducing synthetic dyes which were more vibrant, colour fast and uniform in end result) he began to have the silk woven in colours and patterns never before seen, and with his excellent contacts in the US he began to establish a market that soon clamoured for the vibrantly hued, shimmering silks he produced. Mass expansion resulted and the industry grew, with other manufacturers riding the coat tails to success. Interestingly Thompson himself did not become a millionaire from this - he had some fairly enlightened attitudes and had made weavers shareholders in the business. In fact he was largely disinterested in the money aspect, and far more interested in producing beautiful product, a freedom probably afforded by the fact that he was independently wealthy via family inheritance.

The dining room via The House on the Klong

When he decided to build a house for himself, he again went against the grain of what was at that time the fashionable thing to do - build a modern, Western style air conditioned house in Bangkok. Instead, he purchased from a variety of sources traditionally built Thai wooden houses, early portable homes if you like, as they were designed to be disassembled and stacked on a barge to be floated down a Klong to a new location if so desired. He purchased houses with patina and character at a time when people were essentially throwing out the old houses in favour of the new. Piecing several houses together to form his new house beside a Klong that overlooked his silk weaving district, he filled it with his collection of traditional Art, furniture, sculpture and porcelain, using the house and its overall style as a showcase for it - a sort of living museum. The house was completely different to anything else in Bangkok, and as a result became something of a tourist attraction (along with his shop, which was the first stop for tourists arriving in Bangkok at the time). People would turn up to the shop with letters of introduction from friends of friends of friends, and Thompson, a very social man, would invite them for dinner, no matter how tenuous the connection offered by the letter, where they would dine in splendid style amid flickering candlelight, and surrounded by ancient treasures by the inky black waters of the Klong.

Jim Thompson's house, now a museum

Then, in 1967, Thompson took a short Easter weekend holiday to the Cameron highlands in Malaysia with friends to stay in a villa. This area is mountainous and was originally developed as an English Hill Station town (a place for the colonials to move to during the hottest months down on the plain). It was surrounded by dense jungle criss crossed with narrow and fairly rudimentary hiking trails, and at the time still had local Indigenous tribes living deep in the jungle. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the entire household decided to have a nap. It appears that Thompson wasn't feeling so tired, and so went for a stroll, leaving his cigarettes and jacket on a chair on the verandah indicating he wasn't planning to be gone long (he was a heavy smoker). No one saw the direction he went in, and he never returned. He simply disappeared.

Entry Foyer of the Jim Thompson house

An enormous search and world wide media attention ensued, and wild conspiracy theories began to fly about in the absence of any trace of him, due largely to his connection to the CIA over 20 years before. He had received extensive training in jungle survival during his time there, which gave rise to kidnapping theories, and slightly implausible thoughts of involvement from Vietnam and China as a potential "Quiet American" (as the Vietnam war was raging), and that he may well have been a covert spy (despite the fact that he worked incessantly in his silk business day and night) as it was difficult for people to believe that he could simply vanish without trace as he did. Two more plausible scenarios are that he became injured/ suddenly ill in the dense jungle, died and was never found (he was 62 at the time of his disappearance and known to enjoy going off track in jungles), or fell into a hunting hole dug by one of the indigenous tribes and when they discovered they'd accidentally killed a white man they covered it up so as not to incur the wrath of the authorities.

My own bit of Jim Thompson fabric in my Sitting room

At any rate, while the mystery will likely never be solved, it is his lasting and enduring legacies of the creation of an industry that became a backbone of the Thai economy, of the world famous fabric company that bears his name, and of his great architectural legacy- his house and collection on the Klong that remain.

Porcelain collection, screen and traditionally decorated chest of drawers via The House on the Klong


If you are in Bangkok the house is open for viewing, now owned and managed by a Foundation set up by his family after his disappearance. His collection of traditional Thai and Cambodian pieces contained within is fabulous, and it's a window into another era before Bangkok transformed into the densely populated, Western style city it is today.


If you are interested in learning more, two books I've read on the subject recently are "Jim Thompson the unsolved mystery" which is an extensive biography and discussion on his disappearance from someone who knew him in Bangkok, and "The house on the Klong" which is more a coffee table book and deals exclusively with his collections and the house itself, and surely used as inspiration by designers such as Anouska Hempel, who references the screens and moody lighting devices in her schemes. I can highly recommend both books.

My last post in this Design and Crime series will be on the novel "Rebecca", the author Daphne du Maurier, and the house that inspired the book.

33 comments:

  1. Another fantastic post Heidi! Just the right entertainment for a sultry Saturday afternoon with a spiced rum and soda in hand. It was the highlight of my first trip to Bangkok years ago. I purchased a scarf for my mother in law that had a small elephant pattern on it. She wears it often and it will eventually make its way back to me (with twice the meaning attached to it). I've long wanted to visit the Cameron Highlands also. Such an amazing life. I am awaiting a biography called 'West with the Night', based in Africa. I will have to look this up too.

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    1. Well sultry weather and thinking about Bangkok really do go hand in hand. Sounds like you bought a winning present with the scarf - I love the Jim Thompson shops, although they do seem to be quite separate entities from the fabric company. That biog sounds v. interesting… off to Amazon to read the reviews x

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  2. One of the best attractions in Bangkok for me is Jim Thompson's house. It is beautiful in so many ways and I could live there easily. You could tell he was an architect because he gets the balance of floorplan and decor just right. The house has stayed the same but the museum has changed so much over the years from the first time I visited 20 years ago. When you go to his bedroom, there is a framed print of his astrological chart and on it says that he would suddenly disappear at the same age he actually did. Spooky! I found his cushions were a bit wonky at the store and the prints had bled a bit so I bought a tea towel instead this time around.

    Your mother's dress was elegant and refined and I am sure considered a daring and trendsetting choice back then! They make a very dashing couple too xx

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    1. I really want to go and visit the museum. You should get the book(s), I'm sure you'd enjoy them a lot. The construction of the house was very experimental - it wasn't a traditional Thai floor layout, so it was complicated trying to work out the roof structure, and fitting the various different houses together that he bought. I did not know that about his astrological chart! Don't think that was in the book. Apparently an awful lot of clairvoyants came out of the woodwork in the aftermath of the disappearance, but obviously nothing came of it. Mum's dress was classic 60's style I think! I would've been happy wearing it for my own wedding, but for the rather poor condition xx

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  3. I love that your mum remade her wedding dress into something more wearable, rather than leaving it rotting in a cupboard.

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    1. Mine is in a box, and I'd always thought I'd preserve it in case one of my own daughters wanted to wear it… but I think there's no way E would want/ be able to. For one she's going to be about a metre taller than me. I think it's only with age, and a lot of hindsight that you wonder why we all get a white dress we can never wear again. If I were getting married now, I'd choose something with a bit of colour.

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  4. Fantastic! Learn something interesting from you all the time.
    I love silk. Something to do with watching epic films set in ancient, Imperial China. Started searching out these films just to look at the costumery, jewellery and hair ornaments the women wear.
    Thank you. Linda C.

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    1. It's the tactile nature of silk that makes it so appealing. I think if you feel something that is fine quality, whether that be cotton or linen or silk you just can't go back to the fabric mixes and synthetics. I love the mix of the dark timber buildings in Asia, the simplicity of natural materials and then the richness/ ornamentation of the silk with it all.

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  5. Wow! Loved this post Heidi. I didn't know anything about this man Jim Thompson, what an individual and a talent he was. Would love to visit his house. For now I think I'll source those books you recommended, so interesting. This was very well written and entertaining- I really enjoyed it.
    Oh and how cute were your parents on their wedding day! XO

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    1. The company does the nicest fabrics - I'm sure you'd love them too. And yes, he was quite an interesting character, so the biography was very entertaining to read. He had such an interesting life.
      Such baby faces on their wedding day!! They were so young! xx

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  6. Great post, Heidi! The Jim Thompson story is really fascinating - surprised they've never made a movie of his life and work. The disappearance of course has always been such a mystery and will probably remain so. So many theories - all quite plausible. Wouldn't totally dismiss the more sinister theories either. You know what they say - once CIA - always ... Or at least a recall to duty, perhaps. He had so many VIP visitors and high level local contacts he would probably have been a most useful intelligence source. Also his disappearance in what was then Malaya in 1967 was in between the two Malayan Emergencies and there were suspicions, at least in the past, that he might have had a covert side to his visit there at the time and been taken out by one of the groups he was investigating. Or, as you suggest he could have simply fallen down an animal trap and been buried, or died of natural causes. It is strange that his body has never been found.

    We first visited the house in 1981, only about 14 years after his disappearance. It wasn't then the tourist mecca it's since become and there were only a few other people there. None of the additional buildings, all built since. We loved it - I was particularly enraptured by his fabulous collection of fine vintage European chandeliers (you can just see a couple of them in your photos) and other crystal ware that he'd picked up locally - and the way they worked so wonderfully with the traditional Thai houses and furnishings.

    Your Mum looks wonderful in her wedding dress - so lovely that the beautiful material was sent by her Thai friend. And your Dad. So elegant in his white tie and tails. Wedding dresses were so much more modest back in those days.
    Looking forward to the Rebecca post! Pammie

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  7. PS Love your Jim Thompson curtains! Pammie

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    1. They do go into it in quite a bit more detail in the book - you should read it Pammie as I know you'd love it. But it's the combination of the randomness of his decision to go for a walk, the fact that it was a dead end to traffic, and a bunch of other things that ultimately meant that the spy theories were dismissed by the author. But yes, odd his body has never been found, but the jungle at that time was very thick and people could easily disappear into it. He'd actually got lost two days before and found his way back out, but if he had a medical emergency or something obviously that would have been the end for him.
      I love those chandeliers in the book, they are just so perfect with the old house walls. He was also very clever in creating all those niches for sculpture out of the old window openings.
      You're right about wedding dresses being modest back then! no bare shoulders in church, plunging necklines etc etc. The thought of making a bride look 'sexy' was not really the look you were after!! xx

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    2. Yes, will put it on the list of books I must read. It does sound v interesting, though the list is already v long. Luckily we already have "The House on the Klong" - bought at the house in 2010, the last time we visited Bangkok. We were there by chance (plane had engine trouble so stuck in an airport hotel for 24+ hours) when near civil war violence was intense - bombing and street fighting with a lot of people killed. A couple of months later on our way home from Europe spent a few days at our fave, the Sukhothai (there had been people killed on the street down the road they told us, the hotel was safe but no-one could arrive or leave) and revisited the house on the klong.
      When we were first there in 1981 it was still not so long from his disappearance. At the time all the people we spoke to were convinced it was no accident or matter of his simply getting lost in the jungle. There were other theories too, maybe even more sinister. I guess with time people are now looking at more natural causes.
      Agree he was a v clever architect in design of his house - the way he re-used traditional Thai houses - those wooden materials are so beautiful. Love the play of light and shade, the dark gleam of solid old wood, the delicacy and lightness of chandeliers, the windows opening onto tropical foliage and the klong. Pammie xxx

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    3. Have been doing some googling. He was jungle combat trained (had forgotten this) from the war days so this was one of the reasons people found it hard to believe he'd simply got lost or fallen into an animal trap. There are lots of other murky theories too. The search effort for him was really pretty intense as well. US military and helicopters involved as well as lots of others. This is probably in your book though? Pammie

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    4. Yes, it was all covered in fairly good detail - the extensive search of the jungle was fairly limited though. It was impenetrable, very rough terrain, lots of hidden caves, ravines etc. The only thing that supported the kidnapping theories was that the indigenous tribes had not seen him/ any trace. He did have a health problem and was carrying mediation for it at all times (which he left behind at the villa) so a simple health crisis and the jungle being so jungly could well have been the end of the mystery.

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  8. Jim Thompson's house is probably my favourite destination in Bangkok. Those floorboards make me swoon every time. I always pick up a few items from the JT as they make handy little gifts. Have you heard of Connie's Cottage at The Siam Hotel in Bangkok which came to be in Bangkok due to Connie's association with Jim Thompson.

    http://www.thesiamhotel.com/connies-cottage

    The Siam by all reports is meant to be a wonderful location to stay and many say it has the best spa in Bangkok.

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    1. Oh wow - I LOVE that cottage! It's absolutely charming, and Connie herself was with Jim Thompson on that trip to the Cameron Highlands when he disappeared. Well, I'm now going to save my pennies and mentally file away that hotel as it ticks all the boxes for me - I love a hotel with a sense of place, and it definitely does that. Thank you for the link Vicky! x

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  9. Heidi,
    Fabulous post. I first went to J.T.s house twenty years ago when I spent a week with my brother in law who was working with the Jesuit refugee service in Bangkok. I loved the house and JTs story. I have been to visit a few more times and I too,agree it is one of the good things to do if in Bangkok. Will also investigate Connies Cottage next time. Loved your parents pic, your curtains and the whole post. So interesting . Thanks for sharing ! Again ! P.S. You are very talented x

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    1. Thank you so much! You are very kind. How lucky you were to be able to visit the Jim Thompson house in person, and yes if you go again then Connie's cottage definitely looks like the place to stay. I do love staying in a hotel that reflects the culture of the location that you're staying in, and Connie's certainly looks to tick those boxes. xx

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  10. This is so interesting Heidi - thanks for the post. I had no idea about Jim Thompson's story and it is lovely to learn more about your mother. She sounds like she was a very interesting woman. x

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    1. She was a quite a curious person about the world and loved meeting new people and travelling. Jim Thompson certainly has an interesting back story. I'd heard of the disappearance, and of course about his company, but the rest with the CIA etc was all new to me and it was a very interesting book. xx

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  11. What a fabulously interesting read! I am actually heading to Koh Samui in September for a week long crafting retreat, and was trying to decide whether to stop in BKK on the way home... I guess that is now a resounding YES!

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    1. You are SO LUCKY Jacqueline! That sounds like a fabulous trip, and tacking on the Jim Thompson museum and a stop over in Bangkok on the way home would be the icing. Have a great trip! x

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  12. I've been to the shop in Bangkok but not the house. I fell in love with the draperies that looked like ballgowns but was unaware of the backstory. And what a gorgeous wedding dress!

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    1. Oh I do love the way silk curtains hang Jen, and how nice you've already visited the shop. I went into the one in Singapore recently and it was lovely, but vastly different to the fabrics the company produces for Interior Designers… I'm not sure if the flagship one in Bangkok would be like that as well or maybe have all of it? x

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  13. How is it that I had never heard of JT? Thank you for the post. Bookmarked for the next OS trip.
    Judith

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    1. And there I had thought he was world famous! But maybe only within the world of Interior Design. I'm sure you'll enjoy the shop and museum next time you're passing through Thailand. x

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  14. Fascinating story, knew of JT's disappearance but no idea he'd resurrected/restarted the Thai silk industry. Wish I'd seen his house when I was in Bangkok.

    B and W hall tiles, they fit in everywhere dont they?

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    1. I love a black and white tile - total classic as you say. xx

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  15. Wow what a history lesson and an important man to know about :)

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    1. He was pretty groundbreaking in a lot of ways, from the manner in which he set up his business and the altruistic nature of it, to his championing of the local culture and artistic heritage. He was really influential though out Asia as a result - many countries sought to emulate his success with the silk industry. x

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  16. Love your post and the photo of your Mum. She looked beautiful. I can see where you get your looks from Heidi!. Lesley

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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