Enduring charm of the baju kurung

“BAJU Kurung has suddenly risen up the ranks in terms of popularity. My phone has been practically ringing off the hook ever since news broke about the Raja Permaisuri Agong’s intention to breathe new life into this once-popular traditional ladies’ garment,” quips a relative who owns several boutiques in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Ampang during our meet-up recently.

He was visibly excited at the thought that Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah has taken an interest in our national dress that wasn’t only hugely popular with Malay women in the past but also with Indians and Chinese ladies as well. To many, the baju kurung has a simple yet elegant design that’s suitable for almost all occasions.

Despite the promise of an uptick in business, he confides his worries about the dearth of seamstresses who can sew baju kurung the traditional way. “The traditional baju kurung bodice seams have to be sewn by hand and the same goes for the tulang belut neckline. It’s laborious and not many know how to do it these days,” he laments before going into detail about other issues related to his garment venture.

My interest is piqued by the time my relative takes leave to fulfil a scheduled lunch appointment. His comments about steps taken by the palace to revive interest in traditional Malay textile definitely deserves further research.

Before long, the wealth of reference material at the Alor Star State Museum library start revealing interesting nuggets of information about this traditional art form which would surely have ebbed past its sunset years if not for the timely royal intervention to champion this much anticipated resurgence.

EARLY DRESSING STYLES

 

 Early 20th century photograph showing Malay women dressed in baju kurung.
Early 20th century photograph showing Malay women dressed in baju kurung.

 

Like the other races, the Malay clothing pattern evolved over a long period of time, beginning from the prehistoric era. In those early times, natural sources were used as clothing material until cotton and silk were introduced to the Malay Peninsula as early as the 1st century by Indian and Chinese traders.

In the days before the arrival of Islam, the lives of the local Malay community were deeply influenced by Hindu-Buddhist practices introduced by these foreign traders and this was reflected in their dressing which has been described as simple but practical.

Back then, the typical male dressing only involved two pieces of cloth – a smaller piece tied around the head formed a headdress while a larger one wrapped around the waist became a sarong which covered the lower part of the body.

Meanwhile, the womenfolk had their kain kelubung (shawl) to cover their heads and a kain kemban, which was essentially a piece of sarong, worn from the bust downwards. These straightforward attire were comfortable and served the purpose of keeping them cool in the tropical heat.

The only difference between the clothes worn by the members of nobility and the common folk was that the former used better quality cloth that was more expensive to own and wore elaborate jewellery made of gold and precious stones.

ISLAMIC INFLUENCE TAKES ROOT

 

 Baju kurung-clad Malay women trained to use firearms to protect their homes during the Malayan Emergency.
Baju kurung-clad Malay women trained to use firearms to protect their homes during the Malayan Emergency.

 

Islamic influence began making its presence felt in the Malay Peninsula when Arab traders began making their presence here from the 7th century onwards. Over time, the Middle Eastern values began to make an impact on the local dressing styles.

It took a further 800 years before Islam was firmly established in Melaka. During that long transitional period, some locals began to adopt changes in the way they dressed. Apart from the customary sarong, both sides of the gender divide became more appropriately attired when they began wearing a simple yet comfortable tunic-like cotton blouse to cover the upper parts of their bodies.

The blouse gave women the freedom to wear their sarongs lower, usually around the waist like the men. The only difference was that the womenfolk favoured the ikatan ombak mengalun (side knot) when securing their sarong as it allowed them to walk with ease even when taking long strides. The men, however, preferred to tie their sarongs in the middle, close to the navel.

 

 Malay women dressed to the nines attending a festival in the late 1940s.
Malay women dressed to the nines attending a festival in the late 1940s.

 

At the same time, the proliferation of regional trade and commerce ensured that the Malay dressing style gradually became intertwined with those of the other cultures found within the Malay Archipelago. This phenomenon eventually gave rise to a common identity that was unique to the Nusantara.

Among the many Malay clothing styles, the baju kurung is considered by leading historians as one of the oldest and most widely adopted. Baju kurung patterns that are closely related to our local versions can be easily found throughout the region like Bentan, Bengkulu, Jambi, Riau, Padang, Acheh and Palembang in Indonesia as well as in Thailand and Singapore.

In Malaysia, the baju kurung was said to have made its first appearance some six centuries ago during the golden age of the Melaka Sultanate. According to the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), Sultan Mansur Shah, the sixth Melaka ruler, forbade Malay women from wearing the kain kemban as it ran contrary to basic Islamic teachings about personal modesty.

Further guidelines formed following the royal decree were gradually incorporated into the way Malay women dressed themselves in public. Even at that time, self-effacement, from the Malay perspective, was largely considered synonymous with Islamic teachings that forbade any flaunting of intimate body parts, particularly when a woman was away from the safe confines of her home.

ORIGIN OF THE BAJU KURUNG

 

 Johor women wearing the baju kurung Teluk Belanga.
Johor women wearing the baju kurung Teluk Belanga.

 

A few years later, Temenggung Hassan, who lived during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Shah, made landmark improvements on the existing dressing style then. He expanded the size of the Malay dress bodice to give allowance for a loose-fitting shape and lengthened the sleeves to wrist level after drawing inspiration from the robes worn by Arab merchants in Melaka.

It was said that the term baju kurung was then coined for the creation as it successfully shielded most parts of the female body from public view, leaving only the face and hands exposed. The style then remained largely unchanged over the next three and a half centuries until it was brought to the fore in the late 19th century and made popular once again by Sultan Abu Bakar, the father of modern Johor.

While giving the baju kurung a revamp to differentiate it from the rest of the other Malay garments and to make it special for the people in his state, the monarch was said to have considered two main factors – conforming to the rules of the religion and making the style as aesthetically pleasing as possible. The result was the hugely popular baju kurung Teluk Belanga.

Several vintage Johor photographs in a book featuring women dressed in baju kurung Teluk Belanga catches my attention. Apart from giving them the elegant look, the Johor baju kurung version looks so stylish that it’s no wonder that this garment style has managed to endear itself to women to this day.

At the turn of the 20th century, the blouse length was measured as sejengkal (forefinger tip to the tip of thumb) from the ground. The length slowly shortened to mid-calf level and stayed just below the knee until the early 1940s. At the same time, the kain kelubung remained relevant as it was used as part of the dressing for formal functions right up to the 1930s.

POST-WAR PROGRESS

 

 The selendang began replacing the kain kelubung in the 1950s.
The selendang began replacing the kain kelubung in the 1950s.

 

The end of the Second World War and the return of the British in September 1945 brought sweeping administrative changes and the promise of rapid progress. Exposure to foreign influences through the mass media, especially movies and fashion magazines like Muda-Mudi, gave Malay women ideas on ways to simplify their dressing to suit their new surroundings and lifestyle.

As a result, the baju kurung was shortened to just below the knee and, by the 1950s, women were confident enough to lift them, for the first time in modern history, above the knee by more than an inch.

This change in style also came at the expense of the kain kelubung which was replaced by the less cumbersome selendang in the late 1950s. Even then, the use of a head cover remained optional as more Malay women were joining the workforce as office workers and teaching staff and they found it essential to keep their garments simple.

Malaya’s independence in August 1957 also brought about a change in mind-set among working Malay women. Salaries earned gave them the freedom to make personal and lifestyle choices which their mothers and grandmothers could only dream about.

Instead of making their own like in the past, many began to approach professional tailors to enjoy better fitting clothes. The measurements taken were systematic and more accurate and this gave rise to new designs and cuts for the baju kurung.

 

 Singer was the most popular sewing machine brand in Malaya in the 1960s.
Singer was the most popular sewing machine brand in Malaya in the 1960s.

 

By the 1960s, fashionable fabrics imported from Europe such as French lace and Swiss voile began making their appearance in Malaya. Together with synthetic fabrics from China and Japan, they became customer favourites almost overnight.

Seamstresses embraced these changes in taste without fuss as modern innovations such as sewing machines enabled them to try out novel sewing techniques, which were economical in the sense that they could finish their work at a faster rate.

Other new inventions like zippers and waistbands simplified their work further. The lower workload and accelerated demand prompted Chinese tailors to jump on the baju kurung-making bandwagon by the early 1960s.

The introduction of pop culture from the west in the 1970s was the next phenomenon to have an invariable impact on Malay garments on the whole. The period marked the beginning of the erosion and dilution of traditional baju kurung styles.

More women wanted the bodice made according to their body curvature so that they could look shapelier and more attractive. Another request had the garment length shortened so significantly that many nicknamed the end result as the mini kurung.

LADY DIANA EFFECT

 

 Princess Diana's glamorous dressing style had an impact on baju kurung styles in the 1980s.
Princess Diana’s glamorous dressing style had an impact on baju kurung styles in the 1980s.

 

By the early 1980s, the baju kurung moden, which closely followed western fashion and detailing, was born. A variant of this new type of baju kurung took shape when Malaysians watched the royal nuptial between Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles which was televised live from St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981.

Captivated by the Princess of Wales’ glamorous fashion sense and astounding array of garment designs, Malay women began incorporating what they saw on screen and in print to their clothes, including the baju kurung.

As orders began flooding in for baju kurung with wide shoulder construction that were heavily padded, sweetheart-shaped necklines and high ruffled collars, younger garment makers tried their best to accommodate the unusual requests by checking out the latest photos of Princess Diana. Meanwhile, those who weren’t nimble enough or were unwilling to adapt to changes saw a drastic decline in business as long as the fad lasted.

 

 Tamil actor Shivaji Ganesan and actress Yvonne Berger in full Malay costume while filming the movie Foreign Bride at the Shaw Brothers Malay Film Production studios at Jalan Ampas, Singapore.
Tamil actor Shivaji Ganesan and actress Yvonne Berger in full Malay costume while filming the movie Foreign Bride at the Shaw Brothers Malay Film Production studios at Jalan Ampas, Singapore.

 

By the 1990s, the baju kurung length reverted to knee level when the classic look prevailed in the Malay fashion scene. While certain quarters lauded the return to traditional values, others, especially the young, began avoiding the baju kurung as a daily garment. They believed that the reversion stifled their creativity and checked their need for self-expression.

Closing the last book in my pile, it suddenly dawns upon me that the evolution of the baju kurung, especially those in the second half of the 20th century, reflects the changes in the identity of Malay women as they joined the workforce and became self-reliant.

The changes they embraced in the past shouldn’t be seen as an opposition to traditional values but, instead, viewed positively as novel ways of maintaining modesty, decency and appropriateness while at the same time injecting a modern twist to a garment type that has been around for many centuries.

BY  Alan Teh Leam Seng ON NEW STRAITS TIMES

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