Malaysia - Malay (Melayu) Cloth (Baju) Kurung, Kebaya

Malaysia - Malay (Melayu) Cloth (Baju) Kurung, Kebaya

Take a stroll through any street in Malaysia and you are bound to notice many women dressed in a simple shift-like tunic, paired with a sarong, in a dazzling range of colors and fabrics. This is the baju kurung - one of the official traditional outfits of the Malay woman that blends seamlessly with the multi-racial population of the country.

The baju kurung was popularized in the 1800s by the Father of Modern Johor, Sultan Abu Bakar, who wanted a costume for the Malays that was both aesthetically pleasing, yet complied with the laws of Islam where modesty is a pre-requisite, covering all of the body except for the hands and the feet. Sultan Abu Bakar was also very much responsible in the process of refining the baju kurung, adding embroidery on the sleeves, hem and neckline, transforming it into an outfit that was completely suitable for formal functions. The costume was named after the area in which he lived, and although today Teluk Blangah is a part of Singapore, the baju kurung Teluk Belanga remains an integral part of Malay culture.

The term baju kurung can be translated loosely into 'confined dress'. It is anything, but. The style in itself pays homage to simplicity: A loose shift with a rounded neckline held together with a single button or brooch. Both men and women can wear the outfit, with the difference being that men wear a shorter version of the shift over Achehnese-style trousers, with a kain samping or a short version of the sarong folded around the hips.

The women wear a knee-length baju kurung Teluk Belanga top, over a sarong pleated with folds on either the right or the left side. The baju kurung Teluk Belanga is worn in a range of materials, but light cottons remain the most popular. More luxurious fabrics like silks, songket (gold embroidered material), pure cottons, brocades and lace are reserved for special occasions.

The baju kurung Teluk Belanga has been adopted as the official costume of the Malay man, and is now called the baju melayu. Women however, have a choice of two designs - the baju kurung or the kebaya. The modern day baju kurung is a highly versatile outfit, worn by almost every Malaysian woman, from school children to civil servants, corporate figures and even members of royalty. It is agarment that transcends cultural barriers effortlessly, that it is not uncommon to see Chinese and Indians in Malaysia dressed up in baju kurung as office wear, its fluid lines offer easy movement and a refreshing alternative to the less forgiving power suit.

As with other costumes, there are many variations of the baju kurung that are found through Peninsula Malaysia. The baju Kedah is one take of is that is popular in the northern states. The sleeves and hem are shorter with a bujur sireh (elliptical) neckline and worn over a cotton sarong. It's the less glamorous and a more utilitarian outfit for the Malay women to work in her kitchen or paddy fields. Because of the durability expected, it's usually worn in breathable materials like cotton.

Another popular style is the baju kurung cekak musang. The collar is similar to that of a Mandarin collar. And again, this is a unisex style, where men don the shorter version and women wear the longer one. On the other hand, the baju kebaya traces its history back to Melaka. This was a popular form of dress for women living along the Straits of Melaka.

The original baju kebaya was a shirt-like form-fitting garment that gently flared out till the knees or even lower and paired with a batik sarong. It was worn over a chemise (in general) or a high-necked inner blouse (flavored by the Straits Chinese). This is one outfit that has a place amongst the three main races in Malaysia. Even the Chitty Indians of Melaka (Malacca) had their own version of the kebaya which is worn till today. This outfit has also evolved into a modern and sexy piece of attire with the tunic worn short over a tight sarong. The kebaya pendek was de rigueur of fashionistas in the 1960s and 1970s.

The lapels of the kebaya were held together by kerongsang - three brooches that were either separate or linked together with a chain. The kerongsang are often valuable pieces of jewellery, fashioned intricately with great attention to details. Kerongsang usually comes in a set of three, with the largest one called the ibu (mother) worn at the top, followed by the two anak (children). The kebaya is paired with a sarong but worn differently from the baju kurung where it's simply folded over in the front and held up with a tali pinggang besi (steel chain belt). The look is usually completed with a selendang (shawl) draped gracefully over the shoulder. However, a newer version combining the alluring cut of the kebaya with the comfort of the baju kurung is the kebarung - a popular outfit amongst modern Malaysian women.

The traditional and modern baju kurung and kebaya is a must for Moslem Malays celebrating Eid-Ur-Fitr (Hari Raya Puasa). But whatever the style, these outfits reflect the grace of the Malay woman which has withstood the test of time and tide over the centuries.

* Cotton is the preferred material for both the baju and the sarong.

* Traditional jewellery such as heirloom diamond bracelets are often worn with the baju Melayu during the festive season.

* The baju kurung also lends itself to formal functions with the addition of beadwork.

* The men usually complete the look with chapal (sandals).

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