Playing Dress-up

So our incredible, gorgeous, wonderful friend Julie came all the way to Cambodia to visit us. We had an amazing time visiting temples at Angkor, fist-pumping in Phnom Penh, shopping in the markets, mani-pedi-ing up a storm and climbing a particularly cumbersome mountain on a particularly rough morning. One of the highlights however was when Julie and I joined my Cambo pal Miranda and her mate Rachel from London to get all dolled-up, Khmer wedding style, and photograph the evidence. This was the result, as published in last Friday’s Phnom Penh Post

Our before shots...

...and then after.

Yesterday I got poked in the eye, stabbed in the back and pulled by the hair. And I paid for the pleasure. No, I didn’t join a fight club, I got dolled up; Khmer wedding style.

For a foreigner living in Cambodia, the Khmer wedding is a mystifying phenomenon, from the pink traffic-blocking marquees and the early morning chanting, to the never-ending supply of Angkor beer and the generosity of envelope-stuffing gift-givers.

But the thing that enthrals me most is the bride. Her 3am start make-up ritual, the powder, the lashes, the lipstick, that hair. The reams of costume changes, pinks, oranges, yellows and blues, and then the crowning glory (quite literally in some cases), the bling; gilded sashes, heavy belts, earrings, necklaces, bangles, bracelets and tiaras. More is most definitely more.

So it was with this fascination and genuine curiosity that I and three of my friends decided to join the latest sweep of tourists and expats who go to photo-studios to get Khmer-style makeovers.

But we didn’t do it to make fun of the Khmer way of doing things. If anything we did it to learn and understand more about it, to check out the ritual first-hand and see how the heck they wear so much make-up without looking like a melted candle.

As we entered the dressing room the first thing that caught my eye was a silver tin foil-like dress Lady Gaga would struggle to pull off. I was afraid.

Me with Miss Tennessee 1994...who was pale enough not to need the talc-to-the-face treatment.

But before we could choose our outfits it was time to sit in the make-up chair. First came the foundation. My eight months in Cambodia have given me a sun-kissed tint I’m rather chuffed with, but that was gone within minutes under a layer of thick white powder. It’s not the most pleasant experience to be caked in powder while simultaneously breaking into a sweat.

I went to scratch my nose, but was swiftly scolded by my makeover magician.

Next came the rouge cheeks, the pink eyes and the brown lipstick. Every make-up tip I’ve ever read in a beauty magazine was banished with the swish of a make-up brush. Heavy liner was applied to my eyes and then came the spidery false lashes followed by several licks of mascara.

I looked up and before me was a person that resembled someone who maybe sort-of used to look like me. While my friends had more complementary shades, I think my reddish hue hair had thrown the heavy-handed make-up artist, so she’d decided to just have fun with my face as a palette instead. The worst was yet to come.

While a stunning Khmer girl beside us had her hair back-combed, crimped and clipped for her real pre-wedding shoot, we, as barangs, understandably received a swifter treatment. Fake hair was applied. Out came all manner of pieces, from giant buns to curly ponies. The blond and brown curly one was mine. Like I said, I had reddish hair, and it’s straight too. A quiff was coiffed, a wig clipped and a tiara, rather painfully, stuck to my head.

Myself and the gorgeous Princess Miranda

Back we went to the Lady Gaga dream dressing room. The silver dress was surrounded by an array of fabulously crafted, jewel encrusted gowns and bodices in every colour imaginable. We were asked to select a corset-style top; I went for blue but was daunted by the size. I don’t think I had a waist that small for my real communion, and I’ve little hope of having it for my fake wedding.

Luckily with a little pin pricking and a lot of pulling, the bodice went on, though not before the girl had a squeeze of my comparably ample chest and said “La-aw na”: very good. The beautiful matching sarong took a while to put together and I was really mesmerised by the skill involved in tying it and creating a ruffle effect on the front.

Then came the best part for my inner magpie; the blingification. I already had a tiara, but more hair accessories were added. Then came a whopper neck piece, an upper-arm adornment (not flattering for those of us with bingo wings),
Apsara-style wrist bracelets, and chunky gold, jewelled sash and belt. Rap superstars don’t rock this much ice.

Here we are rocking some wicked witch footwear

Up I tottered in my pointy shoes and after an hour later of preening, I was ready for my close up.

Now my close friends would tell you that I’m incredibly particular about my clothes. I don’t like having my make-up done and I am terribly fussy about people being at my hair. So up until this point I was really surprising myself.

But what my close friends would also tell you, is that, more than all of this, I don’t like getting my picture taken. Especially when it’s in a posed studio session, and especially when I can’t look at the screen and choose to either press delete or make it my Facebook profile pic. I’m a self-conscious person: stick me in front of a camera with an unflattering dress, and I’m unlikely to shine.

All my mam's "sit up straight" badgering finally came in handy.

We were moulded into various poses by the pedantic photographer who cocked our heads awkwardly and positioned our hands just-so, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes holding urns or each other. It didn’t matter that I
wasn’t loose for the camera. In fact in this case, the stiffer the better. A slight giggle and it was camera down, while our poses were twisted and altered again.

Standing in a line, with my pals lined up in a pretty row, I felt more drag queen than beauty queen. Ever seen that show Toddlers and Tiaras? Well I looked like that, gone wrong.

The Duchess, The Princess, The Beauty Queen and Me, the eh, Drag Queen.

All in all we had a great time playing dolls for the afternoon. In two days I’ll get the pictures, the grey screen will be replaced by a beach or maybe a palace and the photo-shopping will blast me beyond recognition. I also have a new-found respect for Cambodian wedding parties, the changing, the make-up, the heat. Prancing around in the big white gown now seems a dawdle and I’ll never moan about being a bog standard one-dress bridesmaid again.

I jest, I moan and I guffaw in the mirror, but in truth it was fun, enlightening and painless. Well, aside from the eye poking, back stabbing and hair pulling of course.

This one has to be my favourite.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Dress-up

  1. Pingback: Traditional Cambodian Khmer Wedding ✈ A Guest Post by Claire Byrne | Fly Away Bride

  2. Hi there! Pictures look awesome! Where abouts did you go for this? Are there lots of places to get the photos taken? Am heading to Cambodia soon and this is definitely on my to do list! Great blog 🙂

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