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Siam, I Am (Not)

Small-screen post-Downton satisfaction for costume connoisseurs.

It’s a dark time for the non-cable subscriber craving sartorial escape on the small screen: Downton Abbey is long over for the year, and it’ll probably be another six months to a year before the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire are released for purchase. But thanks to Netflix and Apple TV, there is still plenty for the costume junkie to choose from.

Credit: Period Movie Review & Costume Capture

The King and I (1956) is a two-run Technicolor homer of a costume film because not only is it set in the past, it’s also set in a foreign country: In 1862, the widow Anna and her young son traveled from England to what was then Siam, where she became the governess to the children and wives of King Mongkut. Cultures inevitably clash, hilarity and heartbreak ensue, and, because it’s a Rogers and Hammerstein production, there’s always a song and a dance around the corner.

And the costumes are no mere set dressing. The contrast between Anna’s high-necked, long-sleeved dresses, with hoop skirts wider than she is tall, and the slim, sari-like chong kraben and sbai worn by the royal wives is vast. Naturally, the wives can’t help but try to sneak a peek belowdecks when they help Anna settle in to her apartment. “They think you dress that way because you shape that way,” explains the head wife, Lady Thiang.

That line may have just been dropped in to give Western audiences a chance to giggle at Eastern naïveté, but there’s actually a little parable of imperialism in it. Just as Anna occupies far more floor than she actually stands upon, so does Britain occupy much more land than it peoples. And indeed, Anna’s dresses are so big they are practically habitats—as if she were physically bringing as much of England with her as she could. (Anna apparently also never sweats, no matter how close to the equator she is.)

Credit: Period Movie Review & Costume Capture

That was the one thing that bugged me about Anna. I liked and admired her, but she seemed to be insulating herself from the real Siam with all that excess baggage. I was convinced Anna was Doing It Wrong.

After college, I proudly squeezed everything I would need for a two-month trip to Mexico into a backpack and a daypack. Though I would never blend in, I reasoned, I at least would not travel like a conqueror—the less space I took up, the more respectful a visitor I would be. Meanwhile, my traveling companion brought 27 pairs of jeans and a suitcase you could have stashed two adults inside. And it didn’t really take any longer to drag it from point A to Point B than it took to carry my backpack. In the end, I think the main difference between our experiences was that I spent a lot more of my summer doing laundry.

It took a second trip—with only a carry-on for three weeks touring Spain and its laundromats—to convince me that the virtues of traveling super-light were possibly overrated. As Anna already knew.

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TMN Editor Liz Entman Harper has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman Harper