Timeless elegance that is Baju Kurung

Owner of Aleia Boutique, known only as Puan Hajijah, has been in the Baju Kurung tailoring business for many years. She has been running her shop in Miri for almost 15 years.

Owner of Aleia Boutique, known only as Puan Hajijah, has been in the Baju Kurung tailoring business for many years. She has been running her shop in Miri for almost 15 years.

EVERY year during the month of Ramadan, many tailors of Sarawak would accept ‘orders’ for the traditional Baju Kurung to welcome the first day of Shawal — or Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Owing to a lot of handwork required to finish each of the two-piece dress,

the tailors would be busy for several months before the fasting month — to the extent that they would put a deadline for orders, after which they would not accept any more from customers.

“(It’s) time to send my materials to the tailor. I have been doing this without fail every year for the past 20 years and usually, my tailor is able to deliver four suits two to three weeks before Hari Raya. If I don’t do this, I won’t be getting any new Raya clothes!” Hajjah Sharifah, a dear friend of mine, said.

In truth, she meant that she sent her orders four months before Ramadan — not long after the Chinese New Year celebration.

Sharifah also noted that many Muslims had become more fashion-conscious since Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak came to power — many had been emulating the styles worn by the premier and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

For Sharifah, this trend presents a small change in the design of her Raya clothes — normally, she would wear the traditional, non-fancy designs.

“My husband and I would wear matching styles for all formal occasions, as a show of our union in marriage. This first day of Raya, it’s emerald green for my whole family, to be complemented with ‘Kain Songket Borneo’ — the thick cotton variety that I bought the material in Kuching during the Chinese New Year holidays. All of us are really looking forward to Hari Raya this year,” she enthused.

This set of Baju Kurung and Baju Melayu from Aleia Boutique in Miri incorporates the Kain Songket Borneo design on each piece.

This set of Baju Kurung and Baju Melayu from Aleia Boutique in Miri incorporates the Kain Songket Borneo design on each piece.

Once-a-year affair

According to Asnah, a tailor running her business at Park Hotel building in Miri, the majority of her customers would send in their orders as early as four months prior to Hari Raya.

“This year, the trend is still ‘songket’ but not the stiff hand-woven fabric with elaborate gold or silver thread embroideries; rather, it is the printed variety. Colour-wise, the customers seem to favour red, maroon, dark green and pale blue. Many families use the same material.”

Asnah then highlighted one family of 12 members, of which every member ordered three pieces of Baju Kurung.

“Now that is a large order — all 36 pieces of Baju Kurung, just for them. But, you know, I cannot refuse my loyal customers.

After all, it is only once a year.

I have some helpers — they do the work from home, while I’m here at the shop meeting the customers and handling the fittings,” said the tailor, whose customers included teachers, teacher’s trainees and locals in and around Miri city.

Asnah has been renting the small shoplot in Park Hotel building over the past 12 years, throughout which she has gained a solid reputation as a very kind, friendly and patient tailor to her customers.

“For a small Baju Kurung, I only charge RM12 per order because it is not too complicated to make; plus, it’s very cute. For adults, I charge between RM49 and RM60 per suit — very cheap by Miri standards.”

Mariam, a Kenyah tailor who has been working in Miri for more than 15 years, said Baju Kurung making had always been a seasonal trade. For her, business would pick up during the fasting month.

“We don’t get good business every day — sometimes it’s good; at other times, we customers are few and far between. Still, we survive, even with competition from the off-the-peg business. I dare say that the materials bought by the customers themselves last longer and are of better quality. Besides, we tailors make the clothes to fit customers; those bought off the racks may not be so. The clothes might too long, too short, too tight — the list goes on.”

Asnah and her orders.

Asnah and her orders.

To tailor or not to tailor

Some local Muslim women choose to buy ready-to-wear Baju Kurung and in this respect, Rahil Rapiee has a lot to offer.

The entrepreneur runs an outlet on the ground floor of Bintang Mall Miri, which has some of the trendiest Baju Kurung and Muslimah collections in the city. The pricing ranges between RM49 and RM399.90 per suit.

“Very affordable,” she declared.

Malay fashion heritage

Baju Kurung literally means ‘dress that encloses the body’. It is regarded as the traditional costume of the Malays in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and also some parts of Indonesia and Thailand.

Nevertheless, it seems that many people are wearing Baju Kurung nowadays — Malays and non-Malays alike. For example, many schoolgirls opt for the Baju Kurung uniform over the shirt-and-pinafore pieces, while many teachers, executives and office personnel say the dress is not only modest in its design, but it is also very comfortable and appropriate for women of all ages.

However in talking about Baju Kurung and its significance in the Malaysian culture, credit must go to the late Azah Aziz — regarded as the authority in Malay arts and tradition.

The former journalist, who was the wife of Royal Professor Ungku A Aziz and mother of former Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, wrote two highly-acclaimed books — ‘Selayang Kenangan’ and ‘Rupa dan Gaya: Busana Melayu’ — that explain the history and development of Baju Kurung in detail.

The traditional two-piece was also Azah’s signature style. She would wear Baju Kurung in any function or occasion — there was never any event that people had seen her in other kind of style.

This had resulted in Azah being dubbed the ‘Mother of Baju Kurung of Malaysia’.

Azah had once said: “Baju Kurung is a resilient costume — simple and practical, yet beautiful.”

This is because it is a dress for people from all walks of life. Every state seems to have its own version of the Baju Kurung — the blouse can be shorter or longer than the typical variety, or the cut can be quite different from one another.

Pieces of Baju Kurung ready for collection at a small Chinese tailoring shop in Miri.

Pieces of Baju Kurung ready for collection at a small Chinese tailoring shop in Miri.

Rules to observe

There are some dos and don’t’s when it comes to wearing a Baju Kurung.

A kind Malay gentleman once reminded the writer, saying: “For women, especially the young ones, they must make sure that they do not choose flimsy, transparent fabrics for the dress; or else, they would get into deep trouble. This is a definite no-no.

“Secondly, the wearer must ensure that the ‘baju’ is not too tight to the extent that it could reveal the silhouette of her ‘assets’.

“Thirdly, floral prints are the best pattern for Baju Kurung, especially small flower designs that look really nice on cotton fabrics.

“Fourthly, Baju Kurung suits slim and tall women more than those who in the ‘voluptuous’ category.

“Fifthly, as with the first, women should choose suitable materials for their Baju Kurung not only for modesty, but also for compfrt and ease of movement.”

Nowadays, there are more options. For Selina Muhammad, she always does her best to make at least one new Baju Kurung for the first day of Raya.

“In my opinion, Baju Kurung and ‘jubah’ (abaya — a robe-like dress that originates from the Middle East and West African countries) are the best when visiting relatives during Hari Raya. As much as they look formal, they are also practical and appropriate.

“However, seeing the women and girls in their Baju Kurung together with the men and boys in their Baju Melayu, really highlights the festive mood of Hari Raya.”

For teacher Zawuyah Zainon, Baju Kurung together with Baju Melayu will always be a part of the Malay legacy.

“My children and I always wear Baju Kurung and Baju Melayu for whatever occasion, especially so during Hari Raya. This is the traditional Sarawakian way,” she said.