The Karen, who call themselves Pwakin-nyaw, are one of the largest hilltribes in south-east Asia with a total population of over three million spread throughout Burma, Laos and Thailand.
Traditionally the Karen live in lower elevations than the other Hilltribes and, unlike many Hilltribes, live in permanent villages where they have established environmentally sustainable terraced rice fields. These factors have allowed the Karen people to become more integrated members of Thai society, with almost all possessing Thai citizenship which has allowed them to buy land and to have access to free secondary education, benefits other Hilltribe people are still trying to obtain.
The Karen living in Thailand can be divided into two large groups: The Sgaw and the Po. In addition, there are also two smaller and lesser known groups: the Kaya (also known as the Baway), and the Dtawng Soo (also known as the Pa O). Although the customs and traditions of these four groups are quite similar to one another, their style of dress is unique and distinct. Thus, the manner of dress is one means to distinguish between the groups and for observing the individual beauty which each group expresses.
These days, it is only the Po and Sgaw Karen groups which continue to wear their traditional dress in daily life. The Kaya and Dtawng Soo have traded their traditional daily clothing for modern-wear. The manner of dress not only differs between different groups of Karen, but also even within the same group when spread out over different regions.
For example, the traditional dress of the Po Karen from Amphur Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son Province is more colorful than that found in Chiang Mai. Sgaw women in Mae Hong Son and Amphur Mae Chaem (Chiang Mai province) decorate their shirts with elegant patterns, which are much more detailed than those found in Tak. The patterns of the Po Karen located in Kanchanaburi province are quite different from those found in the North.
There are even examples of the Karen Hilltribe adapting their traditional designs to suit a contemporary market – particularly the Karen from Chiang Rai Province who have begun designing new patterns, adapting to the contemporary styles they see around them. These design are dramatically different from anything found elsewhere in Karen tradition. The Karen in Chiang Rai have begun selling their cloth, catching the eye of the buyer with new designs, and taking advantage of new innovations in technology.
One tradition in dress that will likely remain preserved amongst the Po and Sgaw Karen of Thailand is the distinction made between single and married women. A female who has not yet married must dress in a long white outfit which stretches down from the shoulders to the ankles. In Karen it is called the "Chay Kwa," Once a woman has married she must begin wearing a black shirt known as "Chay Mo Soo," accompanied by a single tube-shaped skirt. Once married, a woman is prohibited from wearing the long white Chay Kwa again.
As for the Karen men, both Po and Sgaw living in the north of Thailand tend to wear black, or steel blue-colored pants. The Karen men in Tak province and Amphur Lee (Lamphun province), however, prefer to wear sarongs. Young men from all Karen groups wear red. They differ only in the size, shape and intricacy of the patterns on them.