The kingdom’s young people are finding inspiration in Bollywood, Hollywood and Korea.
By Mridula Chari
These days, it is difficult to log on to a social media site without coming across a photographer attempting to document urban street fashion. But in Bhutan, a country that only recently relaxed its 20-year dress code, a young photographer is attempting to capture the styles of a cross-section of people around the kingdom.
“I did not want this to be about what is cool or not,” said Lhari Khamba, the person behind the popular Bhutan Street Fashion page on Facebook. “I don’t photograph just trendy young girls and boys.”
Khamba set up his Facebook page in 2010, a year after he returned to Bhutan from a stint at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi.
“My classmates did not have a clear idea of what people wear in Bhutan,” said Khamba. “When I came back home, I wanted them to get an idea of what our fashion was like.”
The next thing he knew, his page became immensely popular among Bhutanese people both in the country and abroad. His Facebook page has almost 35,000 followers.
Code is getting looser
Bhutan instituted an official dress code in 1989. All men had to wear the gho and women the kira while outside their homes. But the country has gradually relaxed the dress code over the years, which has led to more young Bhutanese in towns wearing pants and shirts on the roads. Citizens now only have to wear their ghos and kiras at school, at work and to official functions.
The younger generation has been quick to experiment.
While Khamba’s generation of Bhutanese children who grew up in the ’90s were taken in by Bollywood and Hollywood films, the younger generation has far more access to models from East Asia, he said. Many of them display Korean styles and fashions on the streets – slicked hair, leggings, clean and bright colours.
“Because of the internet and television, the younger generation looks at Korean actors and that kind of fashion because they think it suits them more,” he said. “I think it is more about a healthy balance.”
But Khamba is primarily interested in Bhutanese textiles. His job as a project officer with a non-governmental organisation enables him to travel across the country and see more of these fashions.
“The most interesting people are in the rural parts of the country,” he said. “You won’t see contemporary designs there, but there are really interesting textiles. In cities I take photographs of the same things you see in magazines, but villages are 100% authentic.”
Almost all weavers are women. When Bhutan’s economy was more dependent on agriculture, women would begin weaving just after harvest to bring in some extra income.
Mothers commission weavers to make cloth for the entire family, which means each family has a unique print. The designs are often inspired by the royal family, but women are free to be creative with the colours and patterns. The cloth sometimes take as much as a year to be made.
“I find what children wear interesting because their fashions are always decided by their mothers,” said Khamba.
The divide between rural and urban areas is not as sharply delineated as this might suggest. Khamba makes it a point to photograph young people wearing traditional clothes even in the cities. “The older generation looks at us as if we are frivolous,” he said. “My point is that there are youngsters who value traditional culture.”
“Most of us in Bhutan have a certain look, so we look at images of people we can relate to, of Chinese and Japanese models,” he added. “I try not to take many photographs of those things because I feel that it is Korean – like Bollywood, it does not come from Bhutan. I want to impart to young people that you do not have to look like someone else.”