I was raised around colour and elegance. My Nenek and Mama would regularly whirr around our family home most evenings, dressing in gorgeous colourful tailor-made baju kurung and applying their make-up expertly in the humidity of a Kuala Lumpur evening. I would watch quietly from my Nenek’s bed, jumping up at the opportunity to locate a pair of earrings or to help zip up her top.
While I had my own baju kurung - the national dress of Malaysia - in the form of a school uniform and mini versions created from my Nenek’s excess fabric, I was so surrounded by this world of textiles that I did not realise the connection it held until we moved to Australia. It was only after leaving Malaysia that I began to realise how intrinsic our culture, our national dress, was to our lifestyle.
Two of the biggest misconceptions I continue to experience about Malaysia, particularly Kuala Lumpur where I was born, is the level of development as a metropolitan city of more than 8 million people, and its English levels. Given Malaysia only gained independence from the British in 1957, it seems ridiculous that I still regularly field questions about my English literacy prior to moving to Australia, "Did you know how to speak English, or did you learn here?"
A two-piece outfit, the baju kurung is made up of a knee length top and long skirt.
After moving to Australia, I was desperate to fit in and would regularly dodge questions from my Nenek asking me why I would not let her send me baju kurung for everyday wear. A two-piece outfit, the baju kurung is made up of a knee length top and long skirt. They are loose-fitting, ideal for tropical climates and flattering for all body shapes. Baju kurung styles can differ from region to region and can be accessorised with brooches, head scarves, shoes, or most simply by the choice of fabric.
When I would make excuses about the Adelaide chill, my Nenek would remind me that she exclusively wore baju kurung as a student in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in the 1940s and 50s, often to ride a bicycle around town. She would lecture me on how I could wear wool stockings underneath to combat the cold. Unsuccessful, my Nenek took a hands-on approach to remind me of the beauty behind the process of what felt like something no more elaborate than a t-shirt. Each time I returned to visit her in Malaysia, I would be encouraged to trawl through my Nenek’s seemingly endless collection of fabrics (the Thai silks were my favourite) that she had collected from her world travels. She would look over me as I went through container after container of these beautiful textiles, encouraging me to pick my favourites. We would then make our way to Jalan Masjid India in the old part of Kuala Lumpur (also known as Little India), where the buildings were grey from humidity, pollution and rot, but came alive with the colours of fabrics yet to be made into clothing.
Finally, we would travel back across town to a tailor, so that Nenek could oversee that the baju kurung and baju kebaya was made to her satisfaction. The style of a baju kebaya, with a more form-hugging top and elaborate collar which calls for brooches to pin the top together down the middle, remains my absolute favourite style. While I mostly wore these during the Eid back in Australia, I still felt so proud to have these clothes that were so lovingly and specially created just for me. I felt as glamourous as my Nenek and Mama who would wear our national dress anywhere they pleased because they felt comfortable and that it represented them.
Now that my Nenek has passed away and I rarely visit KL long enough to withstand multiple fittings with a tailor, I still make a point of collecting at least one new baju kurung or kebaya every time to honour that memory, and to have something current to wear for formal occasions. My Mama even reminded me that when she was in her early 20s, it would not be uncommon to remove the long skirt from the baju kurung after a dinner or event where parents were present and ditch it to go clubbing.
While I mostly wore these during the Eid back in Australia, I still felt so proud to have these clothes that were so lovingly and specially created just for me.
Recently, a Dutch designer living in Malaysia, Lisette Scheers, was interviewed by the South China Morning Post, saying that her “dream is to see the baju kurung return, to see Malays dressing beautifully again” and that “I want people here to feel proud of their heritage. Growing up this country was full of beautiful fabrics and colour. I’m on a crusade to make sure that doesn’t disappear.”
Thankfully, many Malays and Malaysians quickly responded on Twitter reminding the founder of Nala Designs that, not only were her cheapest offerings priced out of the range of the average Malaysian, but that our living culture does not require any saving. Nala Designs has since removed all its Malay national dress from its website and I was able to find some fantastic local designers so I could incorporate more of my culture into my everyday life once again.
Haneen Mahmood Martin is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @puterihaneen