Lasting impression

Although I’ve been back from Jakarta for a while now, the strong impression the city made on my senses still lingers on, especially its fashion.

During my visit to the bustling city for Indonesia Fasion Week (IFW), I was totally overwhelmed by how stylish and gorgeous Indonesian men were in the way they dressed. So many of them wore the sarong, but not in the conventional, old-fashioned way. They seemed to take great pride in outdoing each other in coming up with innovative methods of wearing the sarong. The results were so fantastic, I’ve been inspired to think of ways to introduce sarong fashion again, but with a modern twist.

Prior to this trip, I had thought of the sarong as something that was worn at home or perhaps over swimwear at the beach. For men, the designs are usually plaid or checks, while the choices for women are generally more colourful and in batik prints.

In Indonesia, however, I learnt that you can use any kind of fabric you like for a sarong, be it kain tenun, batik, plaid or songket. So long as it is 2.3m in length, it will do. What’s more, the sarong can be as casual as something one would wear around the house to an outfit suitable for formal occasions.

A sarong, or “sarung” as it is sometimes spelt, consists of a length of fabric about 0.9m wide and 2.3m long. In the centre of the sheet, across the narrower width, a panel of contrasting colour or pattern, of about 25cm wide, is woven or dyed into the fabric. This is what is known as the kepala or the “head” of the sarong. The sheet is stitched at the narrower edges to form a tube.

To wear the sarong, you are supposed to step into this tube, bring the upper edges above the level of the navel with the hem kept level with the ankles, position the kepala at the centre of the back, and fold in the excess fabric from both sides to the front centre, where they should overlap. Then, secure the sarong by rolling the upper hem down. The sarong is a staple form of clothing for closets in many countries, especially in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India (where it is known as phanek in the northeast and mundu in the south) and Myanmar (where it called the lungi).

Yet, obviously, there are cultural differences in how acceptable the garment is for public consumption. While Javanese men wear the sarong to formal events, such as fashion shows, in Malaysia, the only men who wear the sarong in public are Muslims, who don it for Friday prayers at the mosque.

That’s why it was truly amazing to witness everyone at the Indonesia Fashion Week (IFW) wearing batik that was adapted and designed into modern dresses and kebaya sets for thewomen, and sarong in various materials paired with tuxedo jackets or trendy shirts for the men.

I have been so inspired by this very strong cultural element that I no longer feel that wearing a sarong, even in batik designs or tenun, is traditional or old-fashioned. In fact, I’ve been thinking hard about how I can innovate my sarong fabrics and batik designs in the near future – perhaps for my coming Raya collection.

I fell in love with the whole Indonesian fashion scene because designers there are just so fearless; they are not afraid to try out new ideas using heritage fabrics to promote fashion-forward styles at an impactful event. I have to say, 80% of the designers who were showcased at the IFW used tenun or batik prints, and 99% of the visitors wore batik sarong, kebaya or outfits made with the same amazing fabrics. To me, this was really impressive because the habit of wearing traditional costumes on a daily basis is quickly dying, if not already dead in Malaysia.

For example, when I visited Vietnam 10 years ago, I was charmed to see the women wearing their national costume, the ao dai, a long fitting qipao-looking shirt dress with a mandarin collar worn over trousers, and topped with a straw hat. They would wear this at work, riding their bicycles, in the padi fields, everywhere.

Sadly, when I returned three years ago, I saw hardly anyone wearing the ao dai. When I asked the local girls why, they said they only wear their traditional costume on special occasions or as uniforms because they consider it quite old-fashioned for daily wear, and not very comfortable.

It is my dream to see more of our batik, songket and other traditional textiles worn by Malaysians daily, whether it be in a modern style for casual use or for a more formal event. I have made it my mission to bring about this change … slowly but surely!

During my trip, I took many photos of all the different fashion styles I was exposed to, which I hope you will enjoy (especially those of the gorgeously attired men).

Meanwhile, as March has just begun, do have a happy month. I know I will, as this is my birth-month. I will be away in Korea when you read this because I’ve been invited by a textile fair organiser to explore what they can offer us.

As usual, I am very excited about this trip, and look forward to be inspired by more elements of culture and fashion. Rest assured that I will share all the juicy details with you in my next article!

Mel’s Place is a fortnightly column by Melinda Looi for The Star newspaper.

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