Fashionably evergreen sarong

From the traditional kain pelikat to trendy resort wear, the sarong keeps evolving.

IF there’s one garment that transcends race and creed in Malaysia, it has to be the sarong. Everyone of us would remember seeing our grandparents, parents, an uncle or two, or even the kedai runcit owner pause to tuck his/her sarong into place before continuing with the day’s activities.

Traditionally, men wore the kain pelikat, a folded square piece of checked material, during prayers, and around town too.

For the womenfolk, sarongs were ideal for bathtime and confinement, as home wear and for going out. These were usually cotton kain batik which had a use even when old and faded – as makeshift cots or baby slings.

Little boys wore the sarong to religious classes and for prayers, and especially after their circumcision.

Today, the sarong has evolved into a multi-purpose garment which flaps gracefully at home, in the mosque, on the catwalk and at the beach and resorts. But it remains a part of traditional wear, paired with baju kurung or kebaya, in batik, silk and satin.

In her book, Rupa & Gaya Busana Melayu, Azah Aziz writes that the sarong is a significant aspect of Malay culture.

Considered one of the oldest forms of clothing in the world, it is still worn today by men and women in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Africa, Asia Pacific and Hawaii.

It has made its way to the West too, probably taken back home by the English, Americans, Portugese, Spaniards and Dutch, who invaded parts of Asia.

The book also states that the word “sarong” was so commonly used that it was absorbed into the English lexicon 150 years ago and can now be found in dictionaries and encyclopedias.

The kain pelikat can be traced all the way back to the Malacca Sultanate, when it was mainly worn by the Malays, says Faizal Hamid, a lecturer cum fashion and design consultant at the Faculty of Art & Design, Universiti Teknologi Mara.

“Malacca thrived as a port-of-call and a centre of trade with ships and merchants from China, Japan, India, Arab and South Africa. A number of travellers during the Malacca Sultanate wrote about their impressions of the sarong, including Castaneda, who was originally from Portugal.

“Castaneda mentioned merchants from PaLaiyakat who plied the Malacca straits with sarong and other fabrics. As the garment became more and more popular, it came to be known as kain pelikat in Bahasa.”

Faizal explains that Malay men and women wear the sarong as a kain basahan (lower garment). This consists of a length of fabric about a yard wide and two-and-a-half yards long. A panel of contrasting colours or patterns about one foot wide is woven or dyed into the fabric along the centre of the sheet. This is known as the kepala or “head” of the sarong.

This sheet is stitched along the sides to form a tube. To wear it, one steps into the tube, pulls the upper edge above the navel (while keeping the hem level with the ankles), positions the kepala at the centre of the back, and folds in the excess fabric from both sides to the centre front, where they overlap. The sarong is secured by rolling the upper hem down over itself.

Faizal says Malay men wear sarongs woven in a checked pattern while women favour those dyed in batik prints, with flower motifs and in brighter colours.

“Kain pelikat is mainly available in cotton so it can withstand regular washing and is comfortable to wear. Malay men wear the sarong/kain pelikat mostly to go to the mosque. Both men and women also wear it for ceremonial, religious and cultural activities.

So how popular is the sarong/kain pelikat today?

Some people not only wear the sarong, they also collect them, Faizal says. (See Pieces of heritage, SM6) It is part of our heritage and is here to stay because it is unique.

“The sarong shows how we combine the traditional with the modern. It reflects how we thrive in modernisation while maintaining our traditional values. It expresses the spirit of the people who make and wear it.

“We definitely need to create awareness of how unique it is so that it can be preserved with the changing times. It’s definitely interesting to see how the new generations will use the sarong.”

Women, of course, would continue to wear it with traditional outfits and on the beach. But are men still hanging on to theirs?

Ahmad Azman says there is a differencehere: “Sarong is for girls and kain pelikat is for men.”

The 30-year-old entrepreneur wears the kain pelikat at home, and not just for prayers, as it’s ideal for our weather. “A lot of men wear it at home, and why not? It’s comfortable, cool and perfect for lounging around.”

Rizal Azhar, 28, also wears the sarong at home and for prayers. “I hardly ever wear it elsewhere as I find it a bit too restrictive. It does seem to me that most (Malay) men tend to put them on only for religious activities. But I know of some expatriates who wear them at home as ‘lounge wear’!”

Nizam Khamis, 33, an account supervisor, still wears sarongs, “though not as often as before, when I lived with my parents. Mum and dad are quite religious so shorts in the house is a no-no. Nowadays, I wear the sarong during prayers at home, then change into a pair of shorts; during kenduris, or when relatives come to the house. It looks more proper and reinforces the fact that I’m still very much in touch with my Malayness.”

Nizam thinks the sarong will continue to be popular, although he thinks men don’t wear it at home as often as before because it can get in the way of comfort – “at least to me”.

“I really don’t like fixing the ikat (knot) ever so often and it’s quite difficult when you’re using the toilet. Having said that, I have never gone to the shop and actually purchased my own sarong/kain pelekat. All mine are inherited from my late father. I don’t think it’s getting obsolete, but I do think it has become less popular.”

Manager Sharul Rezan, 35, thinks sarongs are not practical for daily wear, and tend to be reserved for religious purposes.

“My dad and the older generation used it as sleepwear. In Kelantan and Terengganu, fishermen use it as pengidang – they wear it during the day and use it as a blanket to sleep in when fishing overnight!”

Zubin Mohamad not only collects sarongs, he wears them all the time.

“I even wear it to sleep in California, as it is very hot even in the fall. I use the sarong or cotton pareo for my dance class. When going out, I would wear it with Baju Melayu for Raya or official functions.

“Once I wore the Baju Melayu with sampin songket for a classical concert at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. Well, if you go to Kelantan during Hari Raya Haji, you’ll see most people wearing the sarong instead of the Baju Melayu and sampin.”

Ooi Poh Khoon says as a collector, it would be strange if he didn’t wear them!

“I wear the sarong at home most of the time and also to bed. It’s very comfortable. Tying the sarong securely at the waist may take awhile for beginners but do it frequently and you’ll be a pro.

“There’s one thing I want to stress about wearing the sarong – make sure you place the ‘kepala’ behind your back,” Ooi adds.

Typical of garments that remain popular over time, the sarong has swept into the international arena.

“The influence of the sarong in contemporary fashion is most evident in aspects related to the material (surface patterns, fabrics and colours), shape, silhouette and usage,” Faizal explains.

“Fresh interpretations have appeared in many international designers’ ready-to-wear and haute couture collections in recent years. This further strengthens the influence, versatility, history and cultural appreciation of the sarong, as well as its position as one of modern society’s celebrated fashion statements.”

Faizal notes the interesting evolution of the sarong.

“It has been interpreted in diverse ways – as hip wraps for resort or beach wear, or as a wrap over swimwear. It is often made of thin, light cotton, or rayon, silk and linen. Sometimes there are decorative fringing on both sides. Sarongs are sewn with long thin fabric straps which can be tied together to prevent it from slipping down.”

Kartini Illias, who designs batik under the label i.Karrtini, says the sarong is unique because of its versatility.

“It has been used for centuries and as we progress we find new ways to use it. Locals and tourists seek it all the time – it’s still relevant because of that.”

For evenings and formal occasions, satin silk sarongs are the ultimate choice. For day wear, it’s crepe de chine. And for resort attire, cotton rules.

“These days you find Hollywood actors wearing sarongs at the beach. When their photos appear in the fashion magazines, youngsters will follow them to stay trendy,” Karrtini observes.

Well, Jessica Alba donned a sarong in the movie The Sleeping Dictionary, which was set in colonial Sarawak. And David Beckham has been photographed wrapped in one.

Kartini favours the more subtle styles for her sarongs – no matter if she’s designing them or wearing them.

“Depending on the impression I want to make, I will wear either hand-drawn or block-printed sarong. The former is usually more dramatic but the block prints exude a quiet elegance. Yes, I do wear the sarong for most functions as they are so easy to wear. And depending on the top you pair it with, you can create an impact. I prefer motifs in black and white as they have the most impact.”

Designer Tom Abang Saufi is another big fan. “The sarong is either a tube or two loose ends you tie together. The tube can even be used to swim in, as a baby carrier, a hammock or a screen divider,” she says. “In the old days, the weave (sampin) was used as a shield during wars. It fits most sizes as a form of clothing and is a classic, so it will never go out of fashion.”

Tom, who has countless sarongs ranging from traditional to antique pieces, counts some old pieces as her favourites. “I got them from my mother. They’re in the Straits Chinese Nyonya colours and are very comfortable. I wear handpainted silk and satin sarongs with kurungs, kebayas and short tops.

“I don’t believe the sarong will ever go out of fashion – it’s evergreen. And you can’t go wrong with a sarong.”

Related Story: Pieces of heritage Stylish slings

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