The Anti-Irony of Cambodian Fashion: The English-Language T-Shirt Edition

“I like how cheesy it is, you know?” Mathilde said this morning, ashing her anorexic cigarette and looking across the street, at the teenagers hanging out at the Best Friend Cafe. Fake acid-wash skinny jeans, emo sideswiped hair-dos, bedazzled trucker hats positioned atop boys’ heads in a perch reminiscent of Abe Lincoln—the styles donned so earnestly by Cambodian youth would be only be seen on the most ironic of Western hipsters. And even then…

“It’s not so serious as in Europe,” she continued. “We would think this was so cheesy, but why not? If they like it, if they think it looks good, why not?”

One of the things I love most about Cambodian fashion—and it isn’t the stripper shoes or cutesy pajama prints or polka-dot pants—is the utter sincerity with which ridiculous clothing is worn. Ridiculous to Western eyes, I should say. And tonight this was exemplified by the t-shirts for sale at Phnom Penh’s Night Market.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, along the riverside, tents are erected and a fair-style stage put up; vendors set up booths, teenagers with mediocre voices and sleep-walk-y dance moves perform on stage, mobile phone companies set up opposing stands with megaphones blasting promotions at one another, food stalls sell skewers of myserious deep-fried meat products, and diners take off their shoes and sit on straw mats, eating off thin wooden sticks. It’s nice. It’s a good mix of foreigners and Khmers, the riverside breeze is sweet, and until the mosquitoes drive you away, it’s pretty fucking luxurious to sit out and enjoy the night.

So we’ve been making a habit of grabbing some food and sitting out under the stars—or what would be the stars, might be the stars, behind the haze of city lights and smog. You can’t really be sure anymore. You don’t really go there to buy things—some tourist trinkets, fake floral arrangements (okay, I bought one of those for my apartment), and clothing. Clothing for local teenagers, I should say.

Tonight I took to photographing some of the t-shirts I felt best exemplified the Cambodian fashion spirit within the particular sub-category of Putting English Words On A Shirt Immediately Makes It Cool.

Rule #1: It doesn’t really matter if what’s on a shirt makes sense or not—as long as there are English letters, you’re half-way there.

Rule #2: It really doesn’t matter.

Rule #3: Product placement is a key component of English-language t-shirt fashion. It doesn’t matter if it’s the actual logo of a product, as long as it refers a Western, and preferably American, product.

Hey Apple marketing masterminds: you should really think about doing a Cambodian edition of those PC vs Apple guys ads. Do you see any PC t-shirts out here? I don’t think so…

Rule (?) #4: It also doesn’t seem to matter if the senseless phrases evoke repulsive imagery of, say, spoiled food products.

“Punk Rock Tonight Love Me”: I almost bought this one. It was too small.

“Power Over Pimples”: Fuck yeah! As someone who endured 12 years of acne, I wanted to high-five this t-shirt and jump joyously in the air like… the people on this t-shirt. The text was also English, singing the praises of an acne-fighting cleansing solution.

So, um, in a country where a shitton of kids get strung out on glue sniffing and paint huffing, I didn’t know what to make of this. Was it supposed to be funny? One thing’s for sure: I don’t think the affected demographic is perusing for new shirts at the Night Market though…

Rule #5: Content Over Accuracy

“Joy, Look For It Evert Day”: This shirt says it all. There’s a certain sweetness to it all, what would be convenient to call an innocence, but I think it’s something other than that, less simple or more simple or in any case different.

“Cambodia’s not a post-modern culture,” someone was explaining to me. “So there’s not a lot of irony. There’s a playfulness for sure—but more of a sincerity to the work.”

She was talking about contemporary art, but I thought about her comment looking at the shirts tonight. And I think it’s true for the fashion as well. And I agree with Mathilde—I like it. Coming from a world of ironic everything—ironic moustaches, ironic wolf-howling-at-the-moon shirts, ironic gangsta rap listening and ghetto blasting, ironic malt liquor drinking and crack smoking (yes, really)—it’s pretty fucking refreshing to enter a world of sweetness and anti-irony. It’s not any less self-conscious, it’s just self-conscious in a different way. It makes you feel like we’ve missed something in the Western world, that we’ve lost something, gotten away from something, something I can’t quite name but that makes me horribly sad, in the smallest way, heavy like a pebble.

But I’m Western. And I can’t switch worlds, switch roles, ease myself into a different way of thinking. The t-shirts are, to me, ironic.

Yawning teenager working the teddy bear stand

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5 Responses to “The Anti-Irony of Cambodian Fashion: The English-Language T-Shirt Edition”


  1. 1 mickey March 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Congratulations – a great post on many, many levels

  2. 2 phillegitimate March 26, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Love this post! Think you’re right on the mark about the irony and self-consciousness. And ‘The Stuff you Huff’ is the best worst tshirt design ever….

  3. 3 Bluegreen Kirk March 28, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Love the shirts the apple and iphone are winners for me but the huff shirt really needs to go. Love the photos

  4. 4 Jo July 7, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Great post! My favourite was a tshirt I saw in Vietnam that said “The Hillary Clinton does not want you to read … The Michael Jackson trial did not happen,” Oh dear …


  1. 1 The World’s Most Amazing T-Shirt! « Lonely Girl Travels Trackback on April 8, 2012 at 10:03 pm
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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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