From trousers to shorts, Khmer women’s fashion has rapidly changed in the past 20 years. Drawing inspiration from home and abroad, its local designers are now leading some revolutionary changes. Words by Erin Hale; photography by Alex Buntha.

After moving to Cambodia two years ago, American Grace Gutekanst was given some suggestions by her coworkers about what to wear: stay away from showing shoulders, shorts can be ok but don’t wear anything too short at work. It was common advice for most women moving to Cambodia.

While not as conservative as other Southeast Asian neighbours, fashion in the Kingdom is still more so than the West and parts of East Asia, such as Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei.

But while Gutekanst took note, the former editor-in-chief of Ladies Magazine, a Khmer-English language fashion magazine, found that in a short time many of her concerns about dressing modestly were out-of-date.

She found, like many residents of the Kingdom, that fashion is advancing in leaps and bounds each year – much like the Western fashion in the 1920s – and once-taboo styles, such as strapless dresses, are being embraced by local fashionistas. 

“The bandeau was super popular this year – either off the shoulder or [with fabric] that goes all the way around the shoulders but the shoulders are open,” she says. “It was super popular in the United States, then all the women are wearing it here and loving their shoulders. All the fashion shows have been about shoulders.”

While Cambodian fashion looks unlikely to delve headfirst into body-con trends popular with celebrities in Europe and the US, its young designers and trendsetters are nevertheless experimenting with social and sartorial boundaries to find a distinctively Khmer style.

The Kingdom has seen dramatic changes in its fashion attitudes in the past 25 years. Many of them have upturned the traditional view that women’s dress should be modest and not draw attention to themselves, as dictated by the Chpab Srey, a conservative 19-century document codifying the ideal attributes of the “ideal” Khmer woman, according to Trude Jacobsen, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University specialising in Southeast Asian and Cambodian studies.

Jacobsen, who first visited Cambodia in 1988, says the United Nations-transition of the early 1990s marked the beginning of major changes in Khmer women’s fashion.

Many women working in refugee camps on the Thai border, for example, found wearing trousers was much more convenient than the traditional sampot, a full-length skirt that hides legs and ankles.

“These young women working in the camps as social workers and teachers were seen as being very avant-garde,” she says. Khmer returnees from France, Australia and the United States also brought Western-influenced trends back to the Kingdom for the first time since the early 1970s.

After a brief return to conservative values in the mid-1990s, Jacobsen says fashion began to really change around 1998 when foreign TV entered the Kingdom.

“Suddenly more people had access to cable TV, like shows from Korea and Malaysia and the West that showed what modern women were wearing,” she recalls.

In the 2000s, the spread of the internet and Facebook also moved fashion forward, bringing new designs, ideas and inspiration to as far afield as the provinces, which were previously cut off from such inspiration.

Since 2013, Phnom Penh Designers Week (PPDW) has also been hugely influential in allowing local designers to showcase their creations and share ideas with their peers.

It has delete elevated the status of Cambodian fashion, with many designers now showing across Southeast Asia.

Cambodian designer Muoy Chorm, who has featured at PPDW and ASEAN Pop Culture festival in Thailand, says while the caricature of Asian fashion is “fitted shirts, high-heel shoes, [and] oversized famous logos”, he feels most Cambodians are driven by a desire to stand out and express themselves for the first time, rather than to indicate wealth or sex appeal like in some other countries.

“People in Cambodia are more willing to show their differences and be daring,” he says. “This is still very embryonic but it is also encouraging. Being fashionable is basically people trying daring to be ourselves. This is my belief and also the philosophy of my brand.”

Despite many changes, some taboos still exist, says Ryan Taylor, who designs local brand Lee & Taylor. “If some Khmer actress wears something with too much cleavage etc, they may get some backlash from certain groups but so many younger Khmer see sexy Thai or Korean actresses and singers so they aren’t too bothered,” he says.

In April, actress Denny Kwan was called into the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, where she was banned from working in the entertainment industry for one year after refusing to dress more demurely.

It came almost a year after she was “educated” by the Ministry for wearing revealing clothes.

Despite this, there is no doubt fashion is becoming more daring, and attitudes are changing as Cambodia embraces an exciting new world of fashion.