Traditional Attire

A Dazzling Tapestry of Asian Traditions


From magnificent tribal head-feathers with bark body-covers to antique gold-woven royal songket fabric, the array of Malaysia's traditional costumes and textiles are stunningly diverse and colourful.

In the early days, the aboriginal tribes wore native bark costumes and beads. With the advent of the ancient kingdoms, hand-loomed fine textiles and intricate Malay batik were used by the Malay royalty. As foreign trade flourished, costumes and textiles such as Chinese silk, the Indian pulicat or plaid sarong and the Arabian jubbah a robe with wide sleeves were introduced to the country.

Today, traditional attire such as the Malay baju kebaya, Indian saree and Chinese cheongsam are still widely worn.

Malay

Before the 20th century, Malay women still wore kemban, just sarongs tied above the chest, in public. As Islam became more widely embraced, they started wearing the more modest yet elegant baju kurung. The baju kurung is a knee-length loose-fitting blouse that is usually worn over a long skirt with pleats at the side. It can also be matched with traditional fabrics such as songket or batik. Typically, these traditional outfits are completed with a selendang or shawl or tudung or headscarf.

The traditional attire for Malay men is the baju melayu. The baju melayu is a loose tunic worn over trousers. It is usually complemented with a sampin - a short sarong wrapped around the hips.

Chinese

Comfortable and elegant, the traditional cheongsam or 'long dress' is also a popular contemporary fashion choice for ladies. Usually, it has a high collar, buttons or frog closures near the shoulder, a snug fit at the waist and slits on either one or both sides. It is often made of shimmering silk, embroidered satin or other sensual fabrics.

Indian

The saree is the world-renowned traditional Indian garment. A length of cloth usually 5-6 yards in width, the saree is worn with a petticoat of similar shade and a matching or contrasting choli or blouse. Typically, it is wrapped around the body such that the pallau - its extensively embroidered or printed end - is draped over the left shoulder. The petticoat is worn just above or below the bellybutton and functions as a support garment to hold the saree. Made from a myriad of materials, textures and designs, the saree is truly exquisite.

Popular with northern Indian ladies is the salwar kameez or Punjabi suit; a long tunic worn over trousers with a matching shawl.

The kurta is the traditional attire for men on formal occasions. It is a long knee-length shirt that is typically made from cotton or linen cloth.

Baba Nyonya

Chinese immigrants who married Malay partners wore the elegant kebaya that can be described as traditional haute couture.

Hand-made with great skill using sheer material, its intricate embroidery is equivalent to the best Venetian lacework. The pièce de résistance is a delicate needlework technique called tebuk lubang - literally to punch holes. This involves sewing the outlines of a floral motif on the fabric and cutting away the insides. When done correctly, the end result is fine lace-like embroidery on the collar, lapels, cuffs, hem and the two triangular front panels, which drape over the hips, known as the lapik.

Portuguese-Eurasian

Descended from Portuguese settlers of the 16th century, Melakan Portuguese-Eurasian's traditional attire reflect their heritage. Dominated by the colours black and red, men wear jackets and trousers with waist sashes whilst ladies wear broad front-layered skirts.

Sarawak

With its diverse ethnic groups, Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, has a plethora of unique tribal costumes. Using a variety of designs and native motifs, common materials for the Orang Ulu or upriver tribes are hand-loomed cloths, tree bark fabrics, feathers and beads. Sarawak is known for the woven pua kumbu of the Iban tribe, songket of the Sarawak Malay, colourful beaded accessories, traditional jewellery and head adornments.

Sabah

Like Sarawak, Sabah is also blessed with a rich mix of ethnic groups. Each group adorns attire, headgears and personal ornaments with distinctive forms, motifs and colour schemes characteristic of their respective tribe and district. However, culturally different groups who live in close proximity may have similarities in their traditional attire. Notable hats and headdresses include the Kadazan Dusun ladies' straw hats, the Bajau woven dastar and the headdress of the Lotud man, which indicate the number of wives he has by the number of fold points.

Orang Asli

Traditionally living in the deep jungles of Malaysia, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia wore clothing made from natural materials such as tree barks like the terap, and grass skirts. Ornaments include skillfully woven headbands with intricate patterns that are made from leaf fronds.