Traditional Attire in Malaysia
From magnificent tribal head-feathers with bark body-covers to antique gold-woven royal songket fabric, the array of Malaysia’s traditional costumes and textiles are stunningly diverse and colourful. Many of their origins are millennia-old and represent Asia’s entire fashion heritage.
The traditional attire of Malaysia began with the native bark costumes and beads and by time of the ancient kingdoms had evolved to hand-loomed fine textiles and intricate Malay batik motifs. As foreign trade, influence and immigrants increased, costumes worn across the Malaysian landscape became more diverse with Chinese silks, Indian pulicat and Arabian jubbah.
Today traditional attire, from Malay kebaya labuh and locally inspired Muslim women’s fashions to Indian saree and Chinese cheongsam are still in vogue.
Before the 20th century, Malay women still wore kemban bodice-wraps in public – just a sarong tied above the chest. Growing Islamic awareness gave rise to the more modest yet elegant baju kebaya long sleeve blouse with sarong and the baju kurung, a longer dress over a tailored kain. A variety of fashionable headscarves accompany the observant lady. For men, the trousered baju Melayu, coupled with a samping hip wrap remains the time-honoured traditional dress, with the handcrafted baju batik shirt popular with all Malaysians. Hand-printed or drawn batik, woven songket and embroidered tekat are some of the popular Malay textiles. Headgear such as men’s tengkolok and Minang ladies’ buffalo horn-inspired headdress are a few more of the exotic accessories.
Chinese textiles and costumes, especially silks and fine embroideries are known worldwide. The traditional cheongsam or ‘long dress’ worn by ladies is a popular contemporary fashion in all its exciting variations. The dress is easy to slip on and comfortable to wear. Its neck is raised, with a closed collar. Sleeves may be short, medium or full length. The dress has a loose chest usually buttoned on the right side, a fitting waist and slits on either one or both sides of the costume. Traditional male costumes, such as the Ming robe however, are less ubiquitous.
Indian fashion is synonymous everywhere with the elegant saree. Likewise in Malaysia, the saree is a long unstitched length of fabric draped around the body in various styles or folds, which traditionally could be used to indicate the social status of the wearer. Considering the variety the materials, textures and designs that are employed in saree usage, it is truly a fascinating fruit of the loom. The kurta on the other hand, is associated with Indian male attire. There is also the trousered salwar kameez or the ‘Punjabi costume’ as it is originally associated with Sikh ladies.
Malaysia’s largest state also has numerous tribal costumes unique to each ethnic group. Using different clothing designs and organically curved native motifs, common materials would be hand-loomed cloths, tree bark fabrics, feathers, woven hats and also beadwork especially for Orang Ulu tribes. Among internationally known Sarawak textiles are the Iban woven pua kumbu and Sarawak Malay songket as well as colourful bead accessories, traditional jewellery and head adornments.
The many different ethnic groups in Sabah exhibit various traditional costumes that are unique to the state. Each group adorns attire, headgear and personal ornaments that have distinctive forms, motifs and colour schemes characteristic of their respective tribe and district. However, culturally different groups who live in close proximity may have similarities in their traditional attire. Hats and headgear are particularly interesting, especially the KadazanDusun ladies’ straw hat designs, the Bajau woven dastar headgear and the most peculiarly, the Lotud man folds his headdress with the number of points signifying the number of wives he has.
As the aboriginal groups, referred to as Orang Asli, come in over 18 ethno-linguistic communities, broadly categorized under Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay subgroups, there is also a good diversity in their attire. Nonetheless, being traditionally forest dwellers the clothing of deep jungle Orang Asli from ages past are made from natural materials, for example bark of tress such as the terap as well as grass skirts. Ornaments include heandbands woven from leaf fronds skillfully made in intricate patterns.
Descended from Portuguese settlers of the 16th century, their traditional attire comes from the Portuguese-European heritage. Men wear jackets and trousers with waist sashes, ladies wear broad front-layered skirts. There is a preponderance of black and red colours. Otherwise ladies also like to wear the kebaya.
Also called ‘Straits Chinese’ and ‘Peranakan’, the Baba-Nyonya descendants of Chinese nobles who married Malays adopted much of Malay culture into their Chinese heritage. As many were merchant families, they could afford refined clothings that were taken from both communities. The elegant women’s Kebaya Nyonya embroidered dress is one such legacy, as well as expensive brocade shoes and Nyonya heirloom jewellery.