Meeting the Sarong
Sarong and blouse used to be both festive and working attire. For use in the fields the sarong is well worn, or of a cheap quality; the blouse is simple, the jewellery put aside, and the thin headshawl is both sun protection and sign of modesty.
Let us imagine that we are entering a Malay village in the 1960s. The country is on the verge of an extremely fast development yet to come, and people are full of optimism because of the newly won Independence. Most villagers have their basic needs covered, but the growth of prosperity has not yet really taken off.
There is a frugal utilisation of resources, also as far as clothing is concerned. We are stricken by the ubiquity of the sarong: there are new and crisp sarongs, old and washed-out ones, and they all make up a colourful medley on clotheslines. This piece of fabric seems to go through a life course from festive garment to washrag.
At this period the sarong is the very quintessence of batik. The production of batik in the East Coast States is well established, but still the sarongs from Java are considered the best: most expensive, and of superior quality.
An indispensable garment
The sarong material is a piece of cotton fabric about 110 by 180 centimetres, printed in intricate polychrome patterns. A new piece gives off a pleasant fragrance of wax and resin. When this piece is sewn to make a cylinder, you have a sarong. The sarong is usually draped around the waist and tied in such a way that it stays in place without a belt, although special sarong belts made of metal buckles can also be used. Incidentally, the word sarong was not frequently used; the garment was more often referred to as kain (cloth). For preciseness, people might say kain sarong. To be dressed or to get dressed was simply pakai kain (put on/wear cloth).
In the sixties the sarong was normally combined with different types of blouse. When a good, new sarong was worn with an elegant kebaya blouse, gold jewellery and a thin shawl that is draped over the head for modesty in public space, the lady was dressed up for any festive occasion. The same sarong, when worn and washed-out, could become working attire and was then worn with a loose-fitting blouse of the Kedah type, and a shawl that was now sun protection rather than token of modesty. The sarong can also be tied under the arms, leaving the shoulders naked. This way is strictly reserved for private space. It is for relaxing in the house in the afternoon heat, and it is bathing gear. The bathing takes place in a shed by the well. The batik sarong is the women's sarong.
Men's sarong is different, in a woven chequered pattern and a range of colours limited to blue, green or brown shades. Men wear their sarong with a baju melayu (a tightly buttoned tunic) when visiting the mosque. The sarong is also home gear and used when working in the fields.
Multiplicity in use and meaning
The sarong piece was not just an element of dress. Not all sarong-sized pieces were ever sewn into sarongs. It could be used for a multitude of purposes. It could be bedding, sheet as well as cover. It could be used as a hammock for a baby, hung from the ceiling on a rope or a spring. It could be tied into a carrier bag. A man in the field could protect his naked shoulders against the sun with a washed-out sarong. The same worn-out sarong could be split up and used as a sunshade over the resting-place in the field. It could end as a doormat or a washrag.
It was convenient to have a stock of cloth; there was always a use for it. All families with some self-respect had a glassed cupboard in the front room. Visible behind the glass doors, besides the best crockery, were stacks of unused sarong pieces. The family would normally have received many of these as gifts, and some pieces could be chosen from this stock when a gift had to be given. The stock behind the glass doors carried a lot of meaning. It mirrored the family's social activity, and testified to orderliness. And since the price and quality of the cloth could be easily judged, it was also a token of the family's standing in society.
Commodity and gift
The sarong piece was a medium for social contact, circulating briskly as a commodity as well as a gift. It was a handy gift - of convenient size, not too expensive, and useful for many purposes. It was given away at the birth of a baby, for weddings, as a gift of farewell, as a gift to the hostess at lengthy visits, or just as a token of friendship.
The sarong piece was also an important commodity that flooded the small market booths and larger textile shops in town. It was retailed in neighbourhoods by enterprising women who habitually bought a few pieces on shorter or longer travels, just to sell them to friends and acquaintances with a small profit.
Many retailers in market booths were also women. Batik was an important commodity in female entrepreneurship and one of several conditions for the economic self-reliance of women in many Malay villages.
Everyday item and marker of identity
Not only Malays dressed in sarongs, so did also ethnic Chinese, particularly the so-called peranakan. But it was primarily in Malay milieus that batik took on this overwhelming range of uses and meanings.
Because batik was so deeply ingrained in the Malays' lives through production, trade, gift exchange, and its multiple usefulness at everyday and festive occasions, it grew into a marker for Malay ethnic belonging. Starting from its importance in everyday practice, batik acquired a more distinct symbolic function, and this has become even more distinct in recent years.