To the people of South East Asia, the sarong has been the main item of clothing, both for men and women. Where as in the West, men wore trousers while women wore skirts. In South East Asia, both men and women wore the sarong. Indeed, for the islander male in the hot tropics, the sarongs has been up till today, the only thing they wore! How or where did it all began?
According to Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer, the Malay man of Malacca wore only a sarong for everyday pursuits at the beginning of the 15th century. It was a home spun garment- spun from banana or pineapple fibre and coloured with vegetable dyes--reaching from the waist tot he calf or ankle, with its end unsewn.
It was a garment that had endless practical uses. Besides being worn as everyday apparel, it could be pulled up to cover the whole of the body when retiring to bed, or used as a bathing cloth (adult Malays do not bathe naked in rural areas). It was also used as a cradle, a litter or a carrying bag. It also served as a shroud. Can you think of any other garment that serves humankind from cradle to grave?
The Sarong, as defined by a length of cloth (usually batik) wrapped round the torso has not lost one bit of its allure. Not since the day travellers like Munshi Abdullah on his voyage to Kelantan in 1835, quote about "Malay women in Pantai and Kelantan wearing an unsewn sarong round their busts, just below the armpits."
Or journeying back further in time, when Chinese and Portuguese writers of the 15th century stated that Malay men and women wore nothing above the waist.
In more recent time,--right up till the 70s-- older women in Bali and Sarawak still wore the sarong girdling the waist and were charmingly unself-conscious about baring their breasts. Younger women, more self-conscious, covered up with a bra, worn incongruously with just the sarong!
When did the west discover the versality of the sarong and the allure it gave its wearer? Probably when Dorothy Lamour slinked around in a sarong, seducing Hope and Brosby on the Road to in Bali in 1930s. She launched a fashion style that has since become a staple.
The sarong has in the bands of designers from Parish to Singapore, emerged season after season. As beachwear the sarong , disphanous and colourful, is worn mini-length; as office wear, in a sober print, it rests at the knee. For evening, the sarong drops right down to the ankle, to be compensated with a slit up the crotch.