By Elise Leise
Although archeological evidence shows that people have woven textiles for more than 3,000 years, clothing styles change on a whim. Fabrics that are ‘in’ one year, raise eyebrows the next and methods of mass production have only increased the rate of turnover.
Yet there are some traditions that will never go out of style. Celebratory garb remains a way for people to honour their ancestors while carrying on their rich legacy–and despite globalisation leading to Westernisation, tradition is here to stay in these five Southeast Asian countries:
Traditional Cambodian attire is simple and durable, rooted in a rich history of fishing and farming. Rural farmers still dress this way, while in urban centres such traditional attire is reserved for special occasions.
The main staple of a traditional wardrobe for both men and women is the sampot, a sarong introduced during the Funan Era by the king at request of a Chinese diplomat. A wrap-style pant common in many Southeast Asian countries, tailors take five to six feet of fabric, sew the ends together, and knot the front to provide a loose covering. Women pair their sampots with plain white blouses. If the occasion calls for it, they switch it up with more formal tops called av paks, which are hand-painted with elaborate designs and embroidered with silk and gold thread.
No overview of Cambodian fashion is complete without the krama, a checkered cotton scarf introduced during the regime of the Khmer Rouge. Traverse the country and you’ll see all different styles and colors, although the traditional form is checkered mauve and white. The krama is a multipurpose wonder. At first, you spot elderly men and women using them to protect their necks and faces from the sun. Keep searching. You’ll notice kramas fashioned into makeshift towels, strapped onto feet, wrapped into sarongs, and tied into knapsacks to carry…well, anything–even babies!
Laotian traditional wear is a tapestry of social distinctions hidden to the untrained eye, in which weaving techniques and designs reveal the wearer’s region, ethnicity, community, and family. Take the sinh, for example. Pronounced ”sing,” this silk tube skirt for women is divided into three parts: a hua sinh, or tucked-in waistband, phuen sinh, the body, and tin sinh, a hem embellished with textures and patterns to signify the beliefs to which you ascribe and your place in society.
Men opt for salongs, or large peasant pants that take four to five metres of fabric to make. They’re not trying to blend in, either. Salongs come in a smorgasbord of styles, from checkered patterns to patterns featuring traditional plants, animals, and cultural symbols. Feeling adventurous? Decorate your salong with coins, beadwork, and embroidery.
The wedding scene, however, is where Laotians display their most extravagant ceremonial outfits. The groom and bride wear traditional costumes embellished with gold details and designs signifying status and wealth. The richer the family, the more sophisticated the fabrics–in Southeast Asia, this often means that wealthy and noble families will import cloth from Chinese and Indian suppliers.
Foreign trade and influence along with a steady influx of immigrants produce a diversity of popular clothing styles, from the Chinese cheongsam to the Indian pulicat and Arabian jubba. Yet Malaysian cultural attire still manages to shine. At festivals and weddings, men wear the bayu melayu, a loose tunic and trousers, along with a black songkok to cap their head.
Women historically wore sarongs called kemban tied above their chests before the 20th century. As Malaysians converted to Islam, however, many started covering more of their body with the modest baju kurung, a long-skirted blouse dropping down to their knees, the selendang, or shawl, and the tudung, or headscarf.
It’s almost impossible to describe just one traditional outfit when you’re speaking of a nation with 7,641 islands, spanning Luzon to Mindanao and a compendium of cultures. Customarily though, men wear thin and lightly embroidered shirts, barong tagalogs, which are woven from banana or pineapple fibres and sometimes even raw silk–which look ever so elegant. Curious? Check out photos of this little fashionista, this dashing young man, and…strangely enough, even Jeremy Renner.
The female equivalent is the barot at saya, often shortened informally to the baro’t saya, which is a baro (short-sleeved blouse) paired with a matching saya, (long-wrap skirt). For special occasions, white blouses with puffy, butterfly style sleeves mirror the allure of the moment. Such is the Filipino style. Across cultural variations and ethnic distinctions, it’s cool, light, and elegant–completely befitting the Pinoys.
Akin to Malaysia, men wear the baju melayu and black songkok caps and women robe themselves in baju kurongs and tudongs. In contrast to their darkly-dyed counterparts, however, you’ll find fabrics of olive green, sky blue, and rose pink brightening up celebrations. Imagine the conservative Islamic dress norms of Malaysia and then spice them up with more colourful designs and fabrics. Welcome to Brunei cultural fashion.
While younger generations may be flirting with Westernised styles in modern Southeast Asia, cultural attire that’s lasted for centuries is still relevant. Whenever outside influence and globalisation has touched the region in the past, Southeast Asians have managed to integrate the new while preserving the elegance and tradition of the old. Rather than destroy the traditions of cultural attire, globalisation evokes a desire to rekindle cultural identity. It inspires clothing sellers to introduce modern yet traditional styles to woo the next generation, while simultaneously sparking a movement to bring back ancient ways of weaving and wearing one’s expression of culture.
Southeast Asian traditional attire maybe 3,000 years old, but to celebrate life’s most meaningful occasions, it’s irreplaceable.