Dress Code: BATIK

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Most expats would only sport a batik if they were required to do so by some special event or function. With the help of some fashion expertise, however, any expat can find a batik which suits him or her, Amy de Kanter discovers

We all have one, hidden in the back of our closets like a dirty secret, a rotting skeleton. We should not fear it so much but we do. It makes us feel vulnerable and foolish, but in Malaysia – where you probably acquired it – you need it for emergencies, for those times when you get an invitation you cannot turn down, even if it contains those dismaying words: “Dress Code: Batik.”

It is not that we do not love batik, because we do. It is at the top or close to the top of any visitor’s favourite Malaysian craft list. The workmanship can be exquisite. We drape it over our furniture, cover cushions in it, frame it and put it up on the walls. We buy it as a gift for friends back home, delighting at their oohs and ahs when they receive it.

As for the clothes, those can be lovely as well and we love the way they look on Malaysians… but not on ourselves. There have been very few times in Western fashion history when clothing with big flowers on it was acceptable. Especially for men.

“When I wear it I feel like I’m going to a luau,” says one expat source who would prefer to remain anonymous.

But there are occasions, from weddings to office parties to concerts where wearing batik is required and we find ourselves admiring – perhaps envying – the way our local friends look while we try to appear less awkward than a person wearing upholstery at Paris Fashion Week. So when I set out to do a story about Batik high fashion, I was taking for granted that this would be about fashion for Malaysians.

Lynn Chick, former manager of Galeri Seri Endon, had other ideas.

“I can see that you like earth colours,” Lynn said briskly. She could see more than that. From a visitor’s dress and demeanour she can tell how adventurous or conservative they are and what sort of accessories they would be comfortable with. She also knows what would suit them and make them feel comfortable.

Before I could tell her not to bother, Lynn had made a beeline to a rack by the window and after a quick frisk through, came back with an exquisite brown chiffon scarf with batik flowers in shades of dusty pink. Although I have neither the interest nor the shape for fashion and had never owned anything that looked close to that scarf, it felt so… me.

Then Lynn let me in on The Secret. “Just because the theme of an event is batik does not mean you have to buy a batik dress. You can wear this with a dress you already have.” Lynn draped the scarf low over her shoulders so it fell over her arms. “If you have a sleeveless dress, you might want to wear it like this,” she said. “If you are wearing a blouse with sleeves and a high collar…” Lynn listed clothes one might wear and as she did the chiffon scarf twirled up, down and around, loosely knotted at the throat, as a soft belt around the waist, gently covering the head or hanging down the back.

Galeri Seri Endon is named after a woman who deserves much of the credit for renewing national interest in batik when just a decade ago Malaysians worried this dyeing art could be a dying art. Tun Endon Mahmood, late wife of Malaysia’s former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, worked tirelessly to reignite interest in designers, customers and the international fashion industry. Fashion designer Aaron Von Jolly believes that it was through Tun Endon that “the fashion world saw potential and the beauty of batik.”


Aaron Von Jolly benefited directly from Tun Endon’s vision; he was the first winner of the Piala Seri Endon, an annual batik design competition. Since then, in partnership with his uncle, Aaron’s creations have been on catwalks and red carpets around the world.

There is a growing number of talented Malaysia designers – Masrina Abdullah, Karl Ng, Suhairi Marlina Shamsuddin, Slash Saiful and Azizi Hassan to name a few – using this traditional art form to take the fashion world by storm.

“High Fashion,” explains Karl Ng, “Means one of a kind; unique.” Which a garment can’t help being if it has been painted by hand. Some of the designers create their fabric according to the item of clothing they have in mind, others get their ideas for the design once they have seen the fabric.

If you are lucky, the dress you fall in love with at the Seri Endon Galeri or one of the designers’ boutiques will fit you or can be altered to fit. Just as often, you get a piece ready-made. An original piece takes time, about four weeks, primarily because of the time required to dye the fabric. Most designers work very closely with their customers, from first consultation to final fi tting to suggestions for hair, make-up and accessories. With the care and pride they take in their work it stands to reason that they want their design to look its best.

So fear not the dreaded dress code and do a bit of hunting for that piece that fits both Malaysia and you. With luck and help you will find that something special that makes you move your batik to the front of the closet and gets you to wear it on every possible occasion, whether it is required or not.

This article was written by Amy De Kanter 
Source: The Expat January 2011

This article has been edited for
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