Earlier this month, on the morning of the Thai New Year, 59 young women, some traveling as far as a 10-hour drive, convened under a nondescript bridge in western Bangkok. Some brought an entourage of family members; others were accompanied by sponsors from bridal fashion and other companies, by assistants, by makeup artists. All wore broad smiles that barely cracked or faded despite the 95-degree temperatures. All were impeccably dressed in multicolored variations of the Chut Thai Chitlada, the formal Thai national costume for women, and the single most important factor in selecting the winner of the day’s festivities. The Wisut Kasat Miss Songkran Pageant is a competition inspired by fashion, and one of the oldest pageants in the country, which began 76 years ago when people in the community started to notice women in particularly splendid outfits making visits to the Buddhist temple for the holiday.
A modern expression of Thai formalwear, but recognized as traditional ceremonial dress, the Chut Thai Chitlada is composed of a silk jacket-like blouse affixed with ornamental buttons, worn with a full-length skirt in a complementary or matching shade; its simplicity allows for multiple variations of color combinations or fabric motifs. Some contestants choose the colors according to the month in which they were born, for good luck; some rent their costumes; some have them designed by their teams. This year’s winner, 22-year-old model and university student Nichanan Suittichayapipat, wore a custom-made aquamarine dress with a royal blue, gilt-trimmed sinh (a traditional wraparound garment); her dangling earrings, statement necklace, and matching bracelets piled on more gold. Crowned in midafternoon after four rounds of competition in Thailand’s record drought, she received 50,000 baht (about $1,450) and a set of commemorative cups from His Majesty the King and Her Highness the Queen of Thailand.
And yet despite the royal recognition, despite its lineage and the fact that it has led to smaller, similar pageants throughout the country, the contest floats somewhat under the radar. Photographer Adam Birkan caught wind of it amid announcements of other new year festivities set to take place all weekend, but he encountered no billboards, no ads, no posters in advance of the pageant, just a few mentions on the Internet, none of which listed the actual location. News traveled most strongly by word of mouth; like the costumes themselves, tradition is integral. The contest has always taken place in the same general part of the old city, first near the temple whose well-dressed visitors inspired the proceedings. When the Rama VIII Bridge was built in 2002, the pageant simply shifted its locale directly underneath—not the most scenic spot, perhaps, but it kept the contestants out of traffic. With the atmosphere of a reverential affair and an ad hoc pop-up, the Miss Songkran pageant is a somewhat subdued but striking affair, a contest of fashion, beauty, and endurance (the stamina of those six-hour-long smiles ever tested by the climbing temperatures and muggy weather). Against the industrial gray of the bridge’s beams and the makeshift backdrop posters hung on its walls, the pastels and brilliant colors of the Chut Thai Chitlada looked especially radiant.
Ahead of Miss Songkran, a kids’ pageant is held, also in traditional costume; after, comes days of flashier, wilder festivities: flower floats, parades, parties, dancing. Alas, due to a record drought this year in northern Thailand, government officials canceled one of the most popular new year celebrations on the agenda: a day of water fights throughout the country.