10 Things You Should Know About: Baju Melayu

10 Things You Should Know is a series of short animated videos on aspects of Malay culture and heritage, made in partnership with Wisma Geylang Serai.

In the second video of this series, we share 10 things you should know about Baju Melayu, a form of traditional wear worn by the Malay community. The video features research by Dr. Noramin Farid (Soultari), illustrations by Joy Ho and animation by Jawn.

The accompanying text below, prepared by Dr. Noramin, includes more facts for an in-depth look at the form.

You can view and share the video on YouTube or on Facebook.

1. Baju Melayu is a form of traditional wear worn by the Malay community. In the wider Malay archipelago, Baju Kurung particularly refers to female traditional wear, while Baju Melayu is worn by males.

Although it is commonly worn for specific religious and cultural events such as Hari Raya, weddings and family gatherings, historically the Baju Melayu was used as everyday wear, and holds rich cultural significance.

2. The Baju Kurung for women comprises a two-piece outfit, traditionally a knee-length loose-fitting tunic with long sleeves that is usually coupled with a sarong skirt. The common skirt fold is called the “ombak mengalun” (rolling waves), with the sarong fastened to one side, usually with 5 to 6 pleats.

It is believed that the Baju Kurung was popularised at the height of the Malaccan Sultanate in the 15th century to replace the common sarong that women used to wear from the chest downwards.

3. The Malay term “kurung” (“to contain”), highlights the main function of the Baju Kurung, which is to ensure that most parts of the body are modestly covered. This is believed to have been an influence of the Islamic faith.

The selendang is an additional cloth that can be made of different types of textiles, and is usually worn on one side of the shoulder to add a feminine touch. In addition, some women also wear the Islamic headscarf, or tudung, of a suitable colour to complement the look.

4. Other popular traditional outfits worn by women today include the Baju Kebaya, Baju Kurung Kedah and the hybrid Baju Kebarung (Kebaya and Kurung).

The Baju Kebaya is favoured by young people because of its figure-hugging style and its assortment of colours, prints and materials such as lace and cotton. It is usually complemented with a sarong batik with vibrant flower designs. Accessories can also be worn to dress up an outfit – for example, the kebaya is often worn with the kerongsang (brooches used to pin the blouse together).

5. Baju Melayu is the male equivalent of the traditional Malay outfit. It traditionally consists of a shirt-top and trousers of matching colour. There are two versions, distinguished by their distinct neck designs: Telok Belangah and Cekak Musang.

6. The Telok Belangah design is believed to be the earliest version of the Baju Melayu. It is named after the area in the south of Singapore, which was once the centre of the Johor Sultanate more than two centuries ago.

The design is collarless, featuring a specialised stitching technique on the neckline known as the “tulang belut” (eel’s bone). It has only one button and two pockets at the lower half of the top shirt.

7. The Cekak Musang (fox’s lease) style features a standing collar that has two buttons attached to it and three additional buttons on the shirt. It has two to three pockets.

8. A complete look for both these versions usually includes the songkok, an oval-shaped headgear made of either velvet, felt or cotton, that is usually black in colour; and the kain samping, traditionally an ornamented textile worn around the waist.

For the Telok Blangah version, the kain samping can be wrapped underneath the shirt top, a style known as “dagang dalam”. For the Cekak Musang version, the kain samping can be wrapped above the shirt, a style known as “dagang luar”.

9. The Baju Melayu can be worn for both casual and formal occasions. It can also be worn in various ways and styles, depending on the context. Formal versions are usually hand woven and made of expensive materials such as songket, brocade, lace and silk.

At weddings, the ceremonial outfits take on a more royal appearance. Matching coloured outfits usually made of songket are worn by the bride and groom. They are dressed in royal regalia with elaborate hair accessories such as the sanggul for the females, and the male headwear known as the tengkolok or tanjak. It is no wonder that the couple is often referred to as the “raja dan permaisuri sehari”, or “king and queen for the day”.

A cotton Baju Melayu is a classic choice for more casual, everyday use that harks back to the yesteryears. It is important to recognise that historically, the Baju Melayu was used as everyday wear and it still holds rich cultural significance for the Malay community. Today, trendy and affordable alternative options include the Baju Melayu made of synthetic fabrics such as polyester.

10. Over the years, the Baju Melayu has undergone various changes and transformations in relation to the fashion styles and cultural influences of the day. However, the basic forms are usually adhered to, leading to its longevity and enduring appeal till today.

Resource List

10 Things You Should Know is the first of a series of videos on Malay culture and heritage, created by ArtsEquator and commissioned by Wisma Geylang Serai. It is a continuation of an earlier series by ArtsEquator, featuring Dikir Barat, Nanyin and Kavadi Attam, which you can check out here.

The videos in this series is sponsored by Wisma Geylang Serai. The money earned from paid advertising goes towards covering ArtsEquator’s running costs and paying our writers and content creators. We have a strict policy regarding which content which can and cannot be sponsored. To read more about our editorial policy, please go here.

About the author(s)

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Muhd Noramin Mohd Farid (Soultari) is a choreographer, arts educator and researcher from Singapore. He received his Doctorate in Theatre and Dance studies (2021) from Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. He is a recipient of the ASEAN-India Youth Award (2018), Singapore Youth Award (2017), National Arts Council Scholarship (2017) and Goh Chok Tong Mendaki Youth Promise Award (2016). Amin is the Joint-Artistic Director of Bhumi Collective, a multidisciplinary performing art and producing company. He writes occasionally for Arts Equator, Straits Times and the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay.

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