Sabahan seamstresses add modern touches to ethnic costumes of Sabah

These Sabahan seamstresses are putting contemporary touches to ethnic outfits as a way of preserving cultural identity and heritage.

Rows of black velvet outfits hang from the walls and shelves, all hand-sewn by Broidie Paul, or more affectionately known as “Puan Odie” by her customers.

Among these, a mannequin modelling a frilly dress stood out. Already a peculiarity, since Broidie’s focus was on the Kadazandusun traditional costumes – long-sleeved blouses and knee-length skirts are the standard pieces, a sleeveless evening gown is not.

“I don’t do a lot of designs like that,” she said during a recent interview. While not vehemently against the idea of putting a modern twist to traditional costumes, she explained that she agrees with certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who advise seamstresses from over-modifying the original outfits.

Broidie sewing a costume at her shop. — BROIDIE PAULBroidie sewing a costume at her shop. — BROIDIE PAUL

It’s because the act could erode the younger generations’ appreciation for traditional designs and skew their understanding of them.

“It can be a problem when they keep seeing only the modernised versions depicted on social media, and come to assume those are the actual traditional costumes,” she added.

The dress in question, however, was one that she designed for an event in 2016 which was unfortunately cancelled at the last minute. Undeterred, she finished the dress anyway and now rents it out for weddings and gala nights of Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan (also known as UNK, a beauty pageant hosted annually during the Harvest Festival or Kaamatan in Sabah).

“Earlier in my career, I did try to make more of these modernised designs,” she said, holding out another dress, a knee-length piece with a halter neck and is meant to be worn with an embroidered cape, “but I soon realised my duty is to preserve, and not erase, our cultural identity.”

Hailing from Kota Marudu, Sabah, the 43-year-old seamstress is based in Selangor and has been sewing and renting out Kadazandusun traditional costumes for the past decade or so from her humble establishment in Sungai Buloh.

“I have been sewing for 23 years, when my daughter was only six months old,” she said. Her years of experience meant she not only is knowledgeable but also highly skilled.

Her daughter, now a petite 23-year-old helping out around the shop as her “assistant”, is slowly learning the trade too; she sews the gold buttons on the outfits.

“My husband will sometimes help out by cutting the cloths and sewing buttons too when I get a huge order,” she added.

Only her sons, aged 25 and six, are not quite part of the DJS Tagaroh Tailor business. The oldest has returned to Sabah, while the youngest is busy expanding his vocabulary as a knowledge-thirsty polyglot.

Broidie sells the 'basic' version of the Kadazandusun traditional costumes. — BROIDIE PAULBroidie sells the 'basic' version of the Kadazandusun traditional costumes. — BROIDIE PAUL

“May is often my busiest month, along with August and September, because people will usually rent the clothes for Kaamatan, Merdeka or Hari Malaysia celebrations,” Broidie shared. Outside of these three, weddings, gala dinners and events at schools or universities are also the reasons why customers seek these traditional costumes.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking that her customer base is made up of only Sabahans residing in the Klang Valley, or Sabah-based customers who request for delivery. She also has non-Sabahan customers, some of whom had never worn any Bornean traditional costume before but were eager to don one for special events or even family photos.

“I once had customers who drove all night from Terengganu just to be able to pick up their rentals the next morning and immediately drive back again for their event,” she recounted with a laugh, adding that she once stayed until 4am for her customers because they could only arrive at her shop at that time. It’s a good thing she has a bedroom set up there.

“Even non-Sabahans are excited to wear our traditional costumes, how can I not be excited and feel encouraged to continue doing this and promoting our culture through our clothes?”

Broidie posing with the costumes in her rental shop. — BROIDIE PAULBroidie posing with the costumes in her rental shop. — BROIDIE PAUL

There may have been some hiccups in the early days of her career, especially when certain characters stole her clothes instead of returning them after renting, but seeing just how appreciative people are of the traditional costumes that she makes, she was glad that she persevered and continued sewing to this day.

Her shop was initially a single unit, where she does everything from taking customers’ measurements to sewing. Now she operates from two separate units, the original one serving as her “production” space while the latter – which opened in 2023 – is where she does consultations now and display her finished products.

“We Kadazandusun have so many different variations of our traditional costume, we should cherish them all. I do wish I could make the outfits worn by each subgroup,” she said, but she had to forgo the idea as it would be too costly time-wise and money-wise.

Broidie posing with a half-complete blouse. — BROIDIE PAULBroidie posing with a half-complete blouse. — BROIDIE PAUL

“I used to have people coming up to me and lamenting the fact that it can cost them hundreds just to rent a single Kadazandusun outfit. For students and low-income earners, even the deposit alone would be too much to bear,” she shared.

Wanting to help, she pivoted from sewing random orders just for the sake of earning money, to sewing and renting out Kadazandusun clothes at low prices (sans deposit, to boot) so more people can afford to rent them.

She continued, “I asked the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA) for permission to rent out a ‘basic’ version of the Kadazandusun traditional costumes, something that all subgroups can wear.”

A modernised take on the Kadazandusun traditional costume. — BROIDIE PAULA modernised take on the Kadazandusun traditional costume. — BROIDIE PAUL

Threads of heritage

Now, what exactly is a “basic” version?

If the traditional outfits of Sabah’s Kadazandusun people were to be deconstructed into their most basic components, the result is essentially black velvet adorned with gold trims and buttons. Broidie has streamlined most of her designs, be it for men, women or children, to feature only these features.

According to the Sabah Government official website, there are officially 33 ethnic groups in the northern Borneo state, which can be further divided into more than 200 ethnic subgroups that communicate in over 50 languages and 80 ethnic dialects.

The largest ethnic group is the Kadazandusun, comprising roughly 40 subgroups such as Coastal Kadazan (largely residing in Penampang and Papar), Dusun Lotud (Tuaran and Tamparuli), Dusun Tatana (Kuala Penyu), Dusun Kimaragang (Kota Marudu), Dusun Tindal (Kota Belud) and Rungus (Kudat).

Dusun Tindal’s colourful traditional costume. — JJURIEEE/Wikimedia CommonsDusun Tindal’s colourful traditional costume. — JJURIEEE/Wikimedia Commons

Each subgroup has its own iterations of the traditional outfit that, as aforementioned, are typically made from black velvet. It’s the way that each one is adorned that differentiate which subgroup it originates from.

Take, for example, the Kadazan Penampang version, which is possibly the one that is most easily recognised even by non-Kadazandusun folks. The epitome of “beauty in simplicity”, the pairing of a sleeveless top (sinuangga) with a long skirt (tapi), with minimal embellishment in the form of gold trimmings (siling) on both pieces and gold buttons only on the top piece, create an elegant silhouette.

Typically, the sinuangga is worn by younger, unmarried women while the sinompukung (a blouse similar in design but with 3/4 sleeves) by older married ones.

(Fun fact: Datuk Sri Siti Nurhaliza wore the Kadazan Penampang costume at the Tadau Kaamatan Open House in 2003 and 2006. Of course, both times she layered a black long-sleeved top underneath the sinuangga she was wearing to minimise skin exposure.)

Men typically wear black long-sleeved shirt and trousers. — JJURIEEE/Wikimedia CommonsMen typically wear black long-sleeved shirt and trousers. — JJURIEEE/Wikimedia Commons

The Kadazan Penampang attire stands out because other Kadazandusun traditional clothes typically consist of blouses with short or long sleeves paired with knee-length skirts called gonob.

For example, the Kadazan Papar outfit called sia kinadazan (which translates to “Kadazan clothes” and is paired with a conical hat called siung) and the Dusun Tindal outfit called sinipak (which is easily recognisable by the three colourful strips that adorn each sleeve).

Then there are also pairings of a sleeveless top with knee-length skirt (like the Dusun Kimaragang’s lapoi), or long-sleeved blouse with long skirts (like the Dusun Tindal’s sinugot).

The ones mentioned here are only a few out of the many beautiful variations, just to illustrate how diverse the traditional attires are when it comes to the Kadazandusun subgroups.

It may be noted that so far only the female attires have been discussed. That’s because the male attires have fewer variations (though no less beautiful) across the different subgroups. Typically, Kadazandusun males will wear a long-sleeved top and trousers made from black velvet.

Top singer Siti Nurhaliza dressed in a modified Kadazandusun costume 'moludu' performing her songs at the National Harvest Festival Open House in Kota Kinabalu recently.(picture goes with story slug 'pkextra' for metro south-east)Top singer Siti Nurhaliza dressed in a modified Kadazandusun costume 'moludu' performing her songs at the National Harvest Festival Open House in Kota Kinabalu recently.(picture goes with story slug 'pkextra' for metro south-east)

As with their female counterparts, the clothes are embellished with gold trims and buttons, as well as colourful woven patterns, beads and sequins. A headgear called siga or sigar is usually worn, though the way of wearing one differs between the subgroups.

Very rarely do the Kadazandusun outfits appear in all-black, devoid of the glimmer of gold or glitter of sequins. So much so that the appearance of one (albeit a more accessorised version) at the 2019 State UNK sparked much debate on whether it should be considered a traditional costume or not.

Much to the dismay of Ranau’s Dusun Bundu and Dusun Liwan communities, who have traditionally worn the all-black kubaya tungkat or abaya for a long time, the debate continued for some time and the costume risked losing its “traditional” status. Finally, the issue was settled when it was announced in July 2023 that it is indeed a traditional costume.

It may lack the embellishment of its more colourful cousins, but when paired with accessories like coin brooches and belts, it shines just as elegantly.

Ocelynevia runs a business modernising Sabahan traditional costumes. — OCELYNEVIA JULIANOcelynevia runs a business modernising Sabahan traditional costumes. — OCELYNEVIA JULIAN

A contemporary take

“I actually had abaya in mind for my collection this year, but due to time constraints, I was not able to include it,” said Ocelynevia Julian, 25, a Ranau native who currently runs an online business selling traditional costumes.

“Traditional” probably isn’t the most apt description of her work, however, as what she does is take the most basic form of the black velvet costumes to create modern interpretations that are suitable even for daily wear, not just limited to special occasions.

“I wanted to maintain what we have, our cultural identity and heritage. So, I decided to take the elements of our traditional costumes and put it into modern designs,” she explained of the motivation behind her Kaamatan Collection.

Sleek and minimalist, the collection features black dresses and tops with just enough gold trims to highlight either the edges or a pocket or two. Ocelynevia plans to incorporate other traditional elements, like the pinakol (the Rungus beaded accessory) and linangkit (traditional form of embroidery), to further add a cultural touch to her designs.

Ocelynevia modelling one of her designs. — OCELYNEVIA JULIANOcelynevia modelling one of her designs. — OCELYNEVIA JULIAN

The daughter of a tailor, Ocelynevia grew up watching her mother sew, iron and stitch. “I even helped her stitch sometimes, and she used to sew my clothes whenever I had dance competitions during primary school,” she reminisced.

Funnily enough, it was her sister instead of mother who taught her how to create her first design. Needing to earn an income during the pandemic, she turned to sewing and selling clothes online through her shop, OJ Collection.

“I started with a batik tank top that I learned how to make from my sister Jausaine,” she shared, adding that she continued to sharpen her skills by learning how to sew from videos on social media.

“I believe what I’m creating for the younger generations will actually encourage them to learn more about what they are wearing,” she replied when asked whether modernisation is a boon or bane when it comes to sparking the youths’ interest in preserving their cultural heritage.

By modernising the designs, Ocelynevia said that she hopes to see these culturally-inspired clothes be incorporated into daily wear more. “This is my main goal, for them to be worn anytime and anywhere.”

This certainly offers a different perspective. Perhaps in this modern time, there is a way for both traditional and modernised designs to co-exist without one overpowering the other.

Finding the perfect balance of preserving cultural heritage and modernising traditional costumes to regain and retain interest is no easy feat, but this is an important step in ensuring that their existence do not simply cease.

The “disappearing act” is already happening. Broidie recounted a colourful ensemble she once wore for a traditional dance performance during her primary school days, but sadly she has no knowledge of its name and – aside from a single set kept at her home in Sabah now – she has never seen it worn anywhere any more.

She may have her reservations, but she is not completely against the younger generations modernising the designs and sharing them online in order to regenerate interest and hopefully prevent more “disappearances”.

“As I mentioned, it could be a problem if taken out of context. But it could also be effective if the viewers’ attention can be redirected to learning more about the traditional costumes that the modern designs are based on,” Broidie concluded.

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