Cultural Wardrobe

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One of the many ways that Malaysia keeps its heritage alive is through the traditional costumes that are still worn and cherished. Sarah Rees takes a look at the various cultural outfits and their fascinating history.

Each and every nation of the world has its traditional costume – an outfit that evokes a sense of national pride and national identity – and it is a wonderful tradition that links the present inhabitants back to the lives of their ancestors.

Malaysia is no exception when it comes to traditional dress, and visitors to the country are always impressed by the parade of colours and materials that they glimpse in the traditional outfits that are often worn by hotel staff, restaurant servers and even in craft shops and museums.

A Diversity of Dress
Unlike many nations who have just one outfit of national identity, Malaysia has many, and each cultural community within the country has their own style of dress and materials that link them back to the generations past.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is that far from being regaled to the back of the wardrobe or stuck on the backs of hotel porters, the various traditional ‘fashions’ of Malaysia are often part of the day-to-day wear. Modern and Western fashions may prevail in the malls and on billboards, but for every person in jeans there is another in a sari, in a kebaya or a baju kurung, and there is something quite inspiring to see tradition and heritage celebrated and continued in this modern day.

The creation of these traditional outfits is still something of an art and shoppers are willing to pay a lot of money for their traditional outfits, often getting them tailored to fit. In select parts of cities and towns, the traditional clothes shops that have been around for years still exist and are still in business because people here in Malaysia really believe in celebrating their sartorial heritage, and that is something very special.

Who wears what?
Traditional dress is always something of a mystery to those not in the know, so here we have assembled a quick guide to what things you need to look out for when trying to spot the national outfits of Malaysians.

The traditional dress for Malay men is the baju melayu, which literally translates as “malay shirt”. This outfit consists of a loose, long-sleeved shirt with a stiff collar that is worn over trousers and is often paired with a skirt-style sarong called the kain sarung that goes around the hips. On their heads, men will wear a small hat called a songkok.

This outfit can often be a wide range of colours, but during official national occasions it must be worn in black, while the Royal Family will wear it in white when mourning the passing of a relative. You will often see Malay men wearing their baju melayu on Friday when they attend the mosque for prayers.

In the days before Islam became prominent, Malay women would wear a kemban, a sarong that was tied above the chest. Nowadays, Malay women wear the baju kurung, which is a knee-length blouse that is worn over a long skirt with a shawl or scarf over the head. The baju kurung are often admired because the choice of colours, styles and designs of the fabric used are so varied, and women often adorn their headscarves with jewelled pins to hold it in place and add a flash of sparkle to their outfit.


The outfits of the female members of the Indian community are surely some of the most stunning around. For special occasions and even just day-to-day wear, Indian women can be seen in saris in a whole range of beautiful colours, decorated with embroidery and sequins and beads. Also popular are the slightly more practical Punjabi salwar kameez, more colloquially-known as the Punjabi suit, which consists of a long, sleeveless shirt worn over matching trousers and with a shawl. Both of these outfits come in a huge range of colours and are worn with gold jewellery and matching coloured bangles.

Indian men don’t get the chance to be quite as colourful as their women! Their traditional outfit – which tends to only be worn on formal occasions – is a simple knee-length shirt made of cotton or linen, usually white in colour and worn with trousers.

Out of all the cultural communities of Malaysia, the Chinese fashions are probably the hardest to spot. Many of the older generation can often be seen wearing a samfoo, which is a set of matching shirt and trousers, both loose and comfortable.

A formal dress is the cheongsam, which has become something of a fashion-item and thus blurred the lines with tradition. This one-piece dress was traditionally less figure-hugging, and designed to conceal a women’s body whatever her age. Over time, the style and cut changed, and it has morphed into a shapely dress with a high collar and is often made with richly-coloured Chinese silk.

Within what is broadly referred to as the Chinese community are the Nyonya people, a generation created from Chinese settlers who took local wives and fused their religions, cuisines and traditions. The same happened to the traditional clothing, and the Malay baju kurung became the Nyonya baju panjang or ‘long dress’, which was worn with a batik sarong and a selection of brooches. On their feet they would wear dainty, beaded, flat slippers called kasot manek, which gradually incorporated higher heels as the fashions changed.

Keep an eye out
Many of these traditional fashions can still be glimpsed on the streets of Malaysia, whether it be a national day, a religious festival or just a standard Monday, and is a lovely way for the eager-eyed tourist and intrigued local to better understand the different cultures through their fashions. This sartorial, cultural mix is yet another unique facet in this multi-cultural country, where old and new rub shoulders and the country celebrates its fashion heritage while still surging towards modernity and progress.

This article was written by Sarah Rees ([email protected])
Soruce: The Expat April 2012 

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