History & Culture / Asia Wide

A sarong’s story: Reclaiming Asia’s versatile cloth

by Zafirah Mohamed Zein
Length 11 min

More than just a beautiful woven display of Asia’s rich traditions and cultures, the sarong has been used time after time as a tool to both control ethnic communities and challenge oppressive systems. Here’s how the sarong’s symbolism has evolved from pre-colonial times to global fashion trends today.

The sarong, loosely defined as a long piece of fabric wrapped around the body, is one of the oldest garments used across the Nusantara and the wider Asian region. Originating from the Malay/Indonesian word sarung, which means “to cover” or “to sheath”, it is traditionally tied around the waist like a tube in everyday and formal wear. The sarong is believed to have been the first type of woven fabric used by both men and women in the region. 

Today, a sarong is typically produced at the loom or in mill, and is around 1 metre high and just over 2.2 metres in length.The cloth is secured at the hip or under the arms by either bringing both ends towards the center or pulling the sarong to one side of the body and folding the remaining fabric to the front. The top is then rolled down and tucked in, or tied in a knot. 

Variations of the sarong exist across Asia, parts of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. In the Mekong countries, where textile weaving is a significant part of local culture, wrapping lengths of uncut fabric around the body can be traced back to ancient times. Sarongs allow air to circulate around the body, keeping their wearers cool in hot and humid climates. 

Easily folded and stored, the sarong’s versatility shows in its ubiquity across the Southeast Asian landscape. Slung around the shoulders, the rectangular fabric can even hold a sleeping baby, and it can protect wearers from the sun and its heat when lifted above the head or draped around the shoulders.

Each sarong pattern tells a story

The sarong found its way to the Indonesian archipelago through Arab and Indian merchant sailors, who settled near Sumatra and the islands of Java. These Muslim traders donned the sarong to cover themselves properly during prayera practice later adopted by local inhabitants. Today, many Muslim men in Southeast Asia wear plaid sarongs to the mosque on Fridays.

The forms and patterns of sarongs say a lot about their wearers and the communities they come from. A sarong can reveal which social class or tribe a person belongs to, as well as the level of formality of an occasion. Malays, for example, reserve the songket—a specialised type of sarong embroidered with gold and silver thread—for special ceremonies such as weddings.

In East Sumba, Indonesia, only royalty were allowed to wear bright-coloured and intricate fabrics, whereas regular folk were restricted to one or two colours and plain patterns. Sarongs come in a diverse array of fabrics: batik, woven and silk plaids, warp and weft ikats, and songket, to name a few. 

A fabric that binds: sarong and colonial domination

Held in high esteem by native communities in Southeast Asia, the sarong lost much of its honour and nobility during the colonial period. Colonial administrators looked down on local garments as inferior and primitive, imposing their own rules of dress to further enforce their cultural hegemony.  

In 1872, the Dutch introduced a law in the East Indies requiring each person to don their ethnic clothing in public areas. This established a clear social hierarchy in the colonies: the Dutch, the Chinese, and indigenous Indonesians, in that order. Dutch and Eurasian women were also discouraged from wearing the sarong in public, as it implied that they had “gone native”. 

Photo album of colonial images taken in Sumatra

Photo album of colonial images taken in Sumatra. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While it is less clear how local women responded to or felt about these colonial perceptions of the sarong, we do know that European women in the colonies appropriated the sarong for themselves. Even though the Dutch largely perceived the sarong as backwards and demeaning, some Dutch women still wore it at home due to its ease of movement and suitability to the tropical climate. 

However, these women differentiated themselves from local women by creating their own sarongs, sporting European-influenced batik designs and luxurious fabrics. Traditional Javanese patterns, in contrast, often feature dark shades of brown and strong cultural motifs in their designs. 

These European-influenced sarongs were so desirable as exotic goods that they were even exported and sold in the colonial metropole, especially in the early days of colonisation. Back in Asia, however, the traditional sarong marked local women as inferior, backwards, and primitive in the eyes of colonists.

Sarongs sold at a market in the Hague.

Sarongs sold at a market in the Hague. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even worse, colonial authorities in both Indonesia and the Philippines—including the Christian clergy—eventually dictated that women should not wear the sarong at all. 

Under Christian standards of morality, which shaped Western encounters with indigenous communities, the sarong fabric was seen as too thin and revealing. The kebaya top, traditionally paired with a sarong bottom, was seen by the colonial gaze as a local version of the Western chemise—in other words, an undergarment—while the sarong was seen as a petticoat meant to be worn under a skirt or dress.

As missionaries spread Christianity across the colonies, local dress evolved to reflect these interactions between coloniser and colonised. In the Philippines, the Spanish introduced a long skirtthe sayawhich local women were made to wear under the tapis, their traditional version of the sarong. 

While the baro’t saya (blouse and skirt) later became a national dress of the Philippines, the original tapis remains a symbol of native pride even today. It is still proudly worn by non-Christianised ethnic groups in the highlands. 

Chinese-Filipino mestizo (mixed race) costume featuring the tapis over a long underskirt, 1800s.

Chinese-Filipino mestizo (mixed race) costume featuring the tapis over a long underskirt, 1800s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Local women, unless they were part of the elite, were known to resist Western dress styles more than local men did; they were selective about what they absorbed into their closet. In India, women mixed both, using European fabrics to make traditional dresses or adding Western accessories, such as shoes and jackets, to saris.

Reclaiming the sarong as a new nation

As colonial empires came to their end and the colonised sought to build a shared new identity, traditional garments were used to advance nationalist aims and resist Western imperialism. 

At the heart of these political and cultural struggles sits the sarong. In the case of India, the sari became a “virtual synonym for an Indian woman”, as the new state’s leaders encouraged women to wear it all the time as a display of national identity and womanhood. 

In the late nineteenth century, Mahatma Gandhi urged women to weave and wear their own cloth, believing that boosting India’s homegrown industry was central to winning independence from the British. Women began producing and wearing handspun saris, playing a huge role in developing the local economy and establishing autonomy from foreign influence. 

Throughout this period, nationalist discourse portrayed female citizens as upholders of national loyalty and identity. Women were seen as the embodiment of Mother India, as they nurtured the newly independent and growing country. This contributed to Indian society’s association of women with the concept of land and nation. 

The fraught gender politics of the sarong

It is commonly acknowledged that women’s bodies and dress take on cultural significance in post-colonial societies. But reclamations of the sarong by nationalism often comes with its own problems. As women’s bodies and dress take on national significance, both find themselves thrown into fierce political and gendered debates—with real consequences for women themselves. 

According to traditional Hindu beliefs, the sari maintains a woman’s modesty, both because it conceals her figure and because its unstitched cloth symbolises purity. Many conservatives in India have called for women to wear saris to prevent drawing unwanted attention from men. Ironically and tragically, this implied causal relationship between a woman’s dress—specifically, how covered she is—and sexual harassment has actually contributed to more violence against women and religious minorities

The sari, in this case, has been used to confine women to a conservative form of dress as well as the traditional roles of motherhood and domestic labour that attend when one views women as pure and nurturing. This has led to the further discrimination and violation of their bodies. 

What happens when women take back the sarong?

Clearly, the sarong has been imbued with a lot of symbolic meaning. So when women themselves reclaim the sarong and turn it against oppressive systems, the effects on the ground can be revolutionary. 

During pro-democracy protests to mark International Women’s Day this year, women hung clothes lines of htameinsthe Burmese sarongto shame military officers away from walking under them even as a military coup raged on. According to superstition, a man’s masculine essence can dissipate if he passes under the htamein. Here, women wielded the humble sarong to resist and even fight against the status quo. 

In Manipur, India, women similarly use their sarong, the phanek, to symbolically inflict humiliation on men. Since the phanek is believed to emasculate men—by making them more “feminine”, itself a patriarchal notion—women hit them with it or hang phaneks across roads during protests to deter police and military forces. 

The sarong has been a tool of both oppression and liberation throughout Asia’s history. In using it fiercely for the latter, women have chosen to use the symbolic power they have to rise up against the unfair, violent systems they face.

Who tells the story of the sarong today?

Despite its rich and storied history in Asia, the sarong has taken on a different face in contemporary Western fashion. Designers promote it as a sexy and trendy product of the East, from Hollywood films to high fashion shows—often without a word on its complex roots. 

Re-fashioned as a knee- or thigh-length wrapper that exposes the hips and legs, the sarong in Western fashion comes with a feminine hypersexuality that does not stray far from Orientalist perceptions of women’s bodies during the colonial period. Hollywood films such as “Road to Singapore”, which features visits to ex-colonies, attached the “exotic native” character to their female leads and dressed them up in revealing sarongs more akin to swimwear.

Movie poster for pardon my sarong

Movie poster for the Hollywood film Pardon My Sarong. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As fashion designers sell sarongs at exorbitant prices and re-style them to suit a Western, cosmopolitan audience, the traditional sarong’s deep meanings and its connection to Asian cultures are being erased, misappropriated, and commodified once again.

A length of traditional fabric can be a tool of oppression, a banner for resistance… or simply a sexy piece of clothing stripped of its cultural context. As Western brands show off “modern” sarongs and their patterns on the screen, they do little to honour the cultures that inspired their trends or the fraught ways in which this inspiration was found.

Choosing to remember and speak the histories of the sarong is itself an act of power. There is much buried in the folds of this simple garment—and we will not forget.

 

Illustrations and research by Munirah Mansoor