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Traditional Ethnic Clothes


Even though Penang can be called a metropolitan city, traditional ethnic clothes, which have been worn for the last two hundred years or so, still survive.

Baba and Nyonya
A group of Peranakan China (Babas and Nyonyas), with the ladies wearing kebaya and batik sarong. (Photo from the private collection of Dr. Farish A. Noor and the www.Othermalaysia.org research project)

modern day nyonya
Modern day Nyonyas with some of the ladies
wearing kebayas in several styles.

The best times to see them are during weddings, special occasions, religious festivities and also whenever there are cultural showcases being performed for tourists and visitors.

Young ladies of Penang wearing minority ethnic Chinese costumes
Young ladies of Penang wearing minority ethnic Chinese costumes

Some government or formal functions also call for traditional ethnic clothes as dress codes, so they do get a bit of attention once in a while.

Usually for semi-formal functions, clothes made using batik (either silk, polyester or cotton) are widely used.

Traditional ethnic clothes are hardly practical to be used in all their glory for daily wear, due to their elaborate way of wearing and also the high cost. So, it is quite understandable that most of them had to be tailor-made, which drives the cost even higher.

Cheaper version can be had. They are mass produced and sold at normal stores but of course the quality and the fit are not as good as the more expensive ones. The fashion also evolves over the year especially for ladies wear.

pendekar costume worn by a Malay man.
This is a "pendekar" (Malay warrior) costume. The samping uses "kain pelikat". The kris is worn as a weapon.

In order to be fully decked in such traditional costumes, a lot of accessories are required to complete the look. For example, it would not do for a man to wear baju Melayu while wearing a pair of western style shoes.

They have to be worn with a pair of sandals instead. These sandals are known as "chapal". They are also no buttons for the top, instead, five sets  of cuff-links are used to secure the collar, "baju cekak musang".

The fabric? Since Penang is in the tropics, it makes sense to use materials which are light and airy. The sarong is universally worn by many races. 

For the immigrants of Penang back in the 19th century, wearing batik and eating the local food were some of the ways to blend themselves with the native people.

It is very common to see a Nyonya wearing batik sarong, neat with a chignon and a cotton blouse or kebaya. We can also see Indian ladies wearing batik sarong with her top too.

For the Malays, batik sarong is worn as daily attire, in every which way for both men and women.

Peranakan Jawi, China or Arab resulted from intermarriages between all these ethnic groups and add to the colors of attire worn by people of Penang.

Batik using cotton or synthetic materials are widely used. For more regal occasions, songket, saree and brocade are chosen. These materials are truly expensive because they use gold and silver thread.

Modern variations of the simple kebaya. arab madura ladies wearing kebaya
Modern variations of kebaya (left) compared to the older versions.
Photo on the right is from the private collection of Dr. Farish A. Noor and the www.Othermalaysia.org research project.

What about the style? You can bet, with all the ethnic groups in Penang, the styles are mixed and matched following the current trend. We can see Chinese nyonyas wearing kebaya with batik sarong. We can see a Malay lady wearing baju kurung using the material meant for saree. It is also possible to see a young lady with tight jeans using sheer kebaya as a jacket instead of a western style top.

Indian men and women in their traditional clothes during Thaipusam
Indian men and women in their traditional clothes during Thaipusam

If we check the men's clothing, elderly Indian men wear dhotis, Malay men wear samping which could be made out of songket or kain pelikat and Chinese men wear loose trousers and sam foo. The cut sometimes steers away from the tradition, for a more comfortable fit.

A variety of style of Indian traditional clothes for ladies
A variety of style of Indian
traditional clothes for ladies.

Traditional ethnic clothes are divided by racial groups but there are some common traits. For example, it is normal for the ladies to use a shawl. It is a sign of modesty.

Ladies also invariably wear long dresses or skirts, except for the salwar kameez, an Indian costume, which consists of a loose top paired with a pair of pants. The salwar kameez suit for official functions is very elegant when it is worn together with a pashmina shawl.

A lot of press has been received by nyonya kebaya lately. What are they? Let's check out this article which examines these unique traditional ethnic clothes worn by the Straits Settlement Chinese ladies. 

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