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Aug 31, 2021
Lisa Ameera

Binding through Time: The Evolution of the Sarong in Malaysia


The sarong is a piece of clothing that is no stranger to Malaysians. Originating from the Malay word ‘sarung’ which means to cover or sheath, the sarong is an essential clothing component that’s been around for generations. It is a loose tube commonly measuring a height of 1 metre and length of 2.2 metres and is typically worn around the waist of both men and women.

As a garment with few stitches, the sarong can be worn in a multitude of styles. Men commonly slide into the fabric and secure opposite ends around the waist after holding it taut so it modestly covers the lower half of their body. Women, on the other hand, can easily suit the style of the sarong to the occasion. When paired with an elegant kebaya top, shawl and dainty gold jewellery, the sarong is fitting for special occasions but when that same kebaya top is worn as a loose-fitting blouse over a camisole, it’s a better fit as working attire at home. Alternatively, there’s also the ‘kemban’ style where it’s tied at the bust, leaving the shoulders bare–but this is specially reserved for private spaces such as for bathing at the well or relaxing at home.

A portrait of Cheryl Samad and her family clad in traditional attire including the sarong. Credit: Nelissa Hilman’s Portret Raya 2019, photo by Amani Azlin
A complex origin comprised of culture adoptions, climate suitability and colonialism.

The sarong was originally worn by merchant sailors in the Malay Archipelago near Sumatra and Java. Arab and Indian seafarers dressed in the sarong to cover themselves during prayers, a practice that was later adopted by local residents. This was believed to have led many Muslim men in Southeast Asia to wear checkered sarongs, otherwise known as kain pelikat, during Friday prayers.

The Nyonya Kebaya, a traditional costume of the Peranakan Chinese community. Credit: Photo by @kidtoro on Flickr

As Chinese settlers married into the Malay community, cultures progressively assimilated. The Peranakan Chinese community is known for their Nyonya Kebaya, a traditional attire consisting of a batik sarong paired with a bright, intricate kebaya top usually embroidered with floral motifs. Aside from its various shapes and forms, it also takes on different names in different cultures. The Indian lungi, Burmese htamein, Indonesian and Malay kain pelikat, for example, are all sarongs in their own right.

Early records showed sarongs’ compatibility with the hot, tropical climate of Malaya. Its many variations were easily adaptable and were considered comfortable everyday clothing that could be worn any time and day. The sarong may appear as a simplistic form of everyday clothing but its origin is rather complex. There was a time when colonisers used it as a tool for oppression only to assert their ethnic dressing in Southeast Asia. The social hierarchy discouraged people to wear the sarong because the ones who did would be regarded as those of the bottom class.

From traditional garment, to a status symbol and a catalyst for Malaysian diaspora.

Malaysia is home to the songket, kain batik and kain pelikat amongst other forms of sarongs. One that is highly regarded is the songket, a sarong typically made with silver or gold threads and worn at special occasions such as coronations and weddings. A handmade songket samping from Terengganu can easily cost upwards of RM1500.

Participants of the Keretapi Sarong event in conjunction with Malaysia Day 2019
Credit: Yusuf Mat Isa for Malay Mail

Besides festive seasons and weddings, there is another occasion where people take their love of this traditional clothing to the street in droves. Inspired by New York’s No-Pants Subway Ride, Keretapi Sarong is a movement organised by Random Alphabets that aspires to unite Malaysians through unique activities and experiences. Participants, whether they be in London, New York, Dublin, or KL, ditch their skinny jeans and skirts for the sarong and board the trains in friendly Malaysian spirits. Those abroad found it to be a unique way to meet up with fellow Malaysians while also having the chance to introduce the Malaysian culture to their local community.

A garment offering utility of all sorts.

Despite its ordinary appearance, the sarong can shape-shift into an item that serves a surprising number of uses. In the olden age, it was used as a surface cover, baby carrier, baby hammock (dodoi), headscarf, shawl and even as a weapon for self-defence.

An old photo of women preparing the hidden hantaran
Credit: Photo by Insun Sony Mustapha Fenner on LOCCO

At Malay weddings, it’s common for dowries to be the subject of conversation for gossip-mongering elders. The practice of hidden dowries (hidden hantaran) have become the obvious solution for newlyweds and though a covering of any sort can be used, the sarong has easily become one of the more sought-after choices for its traditional aesthetic.

The rank of a heritage piece in the digital age.

A quick YouTube search for the word ‘sarong' in 2021 would yield a plethora of tutorials on how to tie sheer, usually tie-dye or batik-printed fabrics into swimsuit cover-ups. Designer labels like Emilio Pucci, Valentino and Missoni are popular for incorporating their signature patterns onto these westernised sarongs (typically at hefty prices too!) and are often loved by celebrities and the like.

The sarong proves to be a wardrobe staple for any occasion
Credit: Knot skirt by Whimsigirl

The love Malaysian women and men have for the sarong is not one that’s difficult to fathom. The kain batik is a staple in many women’s closets for its effortless femininity-manifesting nostalgia. With the launch of every new Raya collection and the hype of comfy chic dressing, wearing the sarong out as casual wear has become progressively ubiquitous with many matching them with crop tops, graphic tees and blouses. One style of the sarong that we regularly see now is the
pareo, where the sarong is secured with a buckle. Malay men, on the other hand, often have a kain pelikat within reach (sometimes sitting in their car trunk) for prayers at the mosque. Although the sarong meets global demands, it risks losing cultural context. In this case, cultural context is vital because without it, the sarong is simply just another tube when it is in actuality, an important part of our heritage and cultural identity. Wearing the sarong not only brings the story it tells to life, it is an empowering act of appreciation that honours our ancestors' lives in a modest fashion.

Reference links:
Malaysian Batik Sarongs: A Study of Tradition and Change by Rafeah Legino, August 2012