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The life of sarung in Indonesia

By: Ade Tanesia

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

They have veered in and out of fashion over the years, but sarung are still everyday attire for many Indonesians. Ade Tanesia traces the history of sarung, and some of the changing meanings attached to them.

What would have happened if Indonesia hadn’t been colonized by the Dutch? From the point of view of fashion, it’s possible that Indonesians would still be wearing a sarung (a length of fabric, sewn into a tube, and worn wrapped around the waist) as their everyday apparel. Certainly, clothing like trousers for men, or skirts and dresses for women, only became known across Indonesia after the Dutch tightened their grip on the archipelago. The first group that regularly wore these new foreign clothes were Western-educated Javanese—such as the students of STOVIA, the colonial teacher training school, and a select group of Priyayi (Javanese aristocratic) men, who became low-ranking civil servants. The trend spread fast as more of these colonial schools were opened during the first decades of the twentieth century, after the implementation of the Dutch ‘Ethical Policy’.

These privileged pribumi (indigenous Javanese) men usually wore long trousers, topped off with a hat. Prince Djajadiningrat of the Sultanate of Banten wrote in his Dutch-language memoirs that, until around 1902, Javanese men still wore sarung, jackets cut in the “Javanese scissors” (gunting Djawa) style, and cloth headgear called destar. They didn’t wear shoes—just cloth slippers. The shift from sarung-based attire to European clothing did not happen seamlessly. Many of the older generation were not pleased with the changes. The general opinion that Java and sarung were inextricably linked was enduring. On the other hand, those young Javanese who had received a Dutch-style education considered trousers to be a symbol of progress, freedom and modernity. Traders and merchants also caught on to the trend, feeling that trouser-wearing eased business relations with Europeans and Chinese. Around 1910, Haji Muhammad, an entrepreneur from Batam, pronounced that sarungs and turbans are no longer efficient to wear at work. Haji Muhammad changed his clothing to long trousers, jackets, kopiah (the typical Indonesian black rimless cap) and shoes. Dressed like this, he claimed it was easier to deal with his (foreign) business partners.

Gradually sarung were discarded as everyday clothing; and they began to be thought of as ‘backward’. But in parts of East Java, such as Gresik and Pasuruan, sarung are still an important element of male dress—particularly for attending Friday prayers (ibadah shalat Jumat), wedding feasts or circumcisions. “When I was small, I was delighted when my mother gave me a BHS brand sarung. That was my dream sarung, the best quality and most expensive in Gresik. The price now is between two-hundred and seven-hundred thousand rupiah. Wearing a BHS sarung to Friday prayer made me feel really proud. Sarung can still be status symbols in my area—like with branded jeans: Levi’s are the coolest. Sarung are no different; BHS are the ‘top’, with Cubung scoring lower; but that’s unless you consider the ‘sitting elephant’ brand sarung, sih [a cheap imitation of a better sarung],” recalls Sahlul, a young man from Gresik.

In the area where Sahlul lives, the owners of fishing fleets usually have very good, silk sarung. The fineness of the fabric means that these sarung are very quick-drying and can be folded down to the size of a cigarette carton. “If the boss is rich, and wants to marry off his child, then a sarung is given as a gift or souvenir to his guests,” says Sahlul. At Lebaran (the celebration to mark the end of Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month), the bosses usually give sarung to their employees. Those who have worked the longest and most loyally are given the best.
Although sarung are worn more often in East Java; in the home of every Indonesian there will be a sarung in the cupboard. For Muslims, the sarung is used during prayer. It is also used as a blanket. When a baby is born, a sarung may function as a cradle. Men patrolling their village at night also use sarung. They wrap up their bodies and cover their faces with them, guarding against the nocturnal chill while they sit at the security post (pos ronda). In Indonesia, in cases of social unrest or natural disaster, the victims are usually helped through people’s charity. In addition to money, food, and medicine, people provide sarung to be used as blankets. For example, after the eruption of inter-ethnic violence in Sampit and Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, former President Abdurachman Wahid donated eight thousand sarung to the refugees.

They are not only ‘friends’ during the bad times, but they also play a part during the good times, such as the celebration of Lebaran. Sarung sales rise sharply at this time of year. In Indonesia, with its Muslim majority, millions of new sarung will be worn each Lebaran. This is when many sarung producers do their best business. Some of the most famous sarung are produced in Majalaya, West Java, which, as a result, is often called Sarung Majalaya. These sarung are easy to recognize, with their repetitive checked motif, the slightly coarse fiber of the yarn, and the loose weave that easily picks up fluff. Besides their use at Lebaran, Majalaya sarung are often ordered by charities, to distribute all over Indonesia. Although these sarung are cheap, Majalaya traders nonetheless try to increase their desirability by attaching brand labels—which look very similar to those of better quality or more trendy products—to their own sarung. In the 1970s, for example, when ‘padi’ (rice) label sarung were popular, Majalaya producers launched their own brand versions: ‘padi jaya’ (glorious rice) or ‘padi mas’ (golden rice). During the height of the ‘gajah’ (elephant) brand’s fame, buyers of Majalaya sarung could choose from ‘gajah mangga’ (mango elephant), ‘gajah duduk’ (sitting elephant) and ‘gajah jongok’ (squatting elephant) labeled sarung.

Sarung, which have often been considered to be poor people’s clothing, on the fringes of fashion, are now being revitalized by Indonesian designers who want to appeal to national or regional identities when presenting their creations. Famous fashion designers like Iwan Tirta, Ghea Panggabean, Asmoro Damais, Afif Syakur and Carmanita have appropriated and recycled a wealth of motifs from all over Indonesia. At high-class parties now, it’s not uncommon for sarung to be the dress-code. For these groups, the sarung has become something exotic and fashionable. Asked if there is one thing that unites Indonesia as a nation, perhaps “sarung” is the answer. Sarung can be found anywhere in Indonesia, and they can be worn by anyone—from refugees to celebrities.

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