Johor traditional costumes

It's fashionable for couples to wear
matching sets of traditional costumes
Johor’s rich Malay culture and heritage is epitomised by Busana Johor or Johor traditional costumes in the baju kurung Teluk Belanga which is regarded as the state’s traditional attire since the 19th Century.  When Temenggong Abu Bakar Sri Maharaja succeeded the throne, His Royal Highness was residing in Teluk Belanga, Singapore and during his reign, the popularity of this style of dressing flourished.  As it was widely worn in Johor during his reign, in 1862 it was recognised as the baju kurung Teluk Belanga.  In 1866 Temenggong Abu Bakar Sri Maharaja took the title of Sultan Abu Bakar and developed Tanjung Puteri, the land now known as Johor Baru.
Generally, baju kurung refers to the lady’s costume while baju melayu refers to a men’s costume.  A simple interpretation of kurung means to ‘confine and encase’ the body and with the introduction of Islam, the Malay concept of ‘kurung’ is generally regarded as a loose-flowing, long and comfortable garment that modestly covers the entire body.  Another special feature of this traditionally hand-sewn garment is how its bodice and double panels of seams are fastened together with pesak or comfortable gussets in the underarms.
The round collar of the baju kurung Teluk Belanga
The men and lady’s versions of this traditional costume are distinguished by the number of patch pockets – three pockets in the men’s costume but only one medium-size breast pocket on the left in the lady’s costume.  The baju melayu features one small breast patch pocket on the left and two palm-size, right and left pockets on the front bottom edge of the shirt.  This top is worn with trousers that are cut in a loose Chinese design. 
The typical feature of the baju kurung Teluk Belanga is its round collar that has a slit, the length of the span between finger and thumb.  The edges of the collar are hemmed in tulang belut (eel bones) stitches and fastened by a single stud.  This costume so characterised the Malay community in Johor that it soon became known as the baju melayu Johor.  
Models showing off various styles of the Johor Baju Kurung
Even though changing fashion and personal tastes have modified the outfit with new features, the modern costumes still retains the unique characteristics of the original baju kurung.  For instance, the lady’s long skirt or kain made up of a 2-meter sarong is always fastened on the left side, usually with 5 to 6 pleats in the ombak mengalun or ‘rolling waves’ style. 

Models wearing the Baju Melayu in a distinctly Johor style
In a uniquely Johor style baju melayu, a calf-length kain dagang or samping is worn over the trousers but under the shirt in the baju melayu berkain dagang dalam style.  Men may also wear the kain dagang over the outer garment in an alternative baju melayu berkain dagang luar style where the sarong is pleated at the front center and folded down twice with a neat, flat waistband.  This smart ensemble is completed by a Johor-style 4-inch high songkok or velvet hat and leather thong sandals or chapal.

The kain dagang was a versatile
column of fabric worn in various ways
In ancient times, the lady’s kain dagang was a versatile column of fabric with multi uses.  It may be used as a head covering to protect against the elements, a receptacle to carry firewood or fruits and for special occasions, it is an accessory to dress-up the ensemble.  By the 1950’s many ladies replaced the kain dagang with other head-dresses.  In the 1940’s selendang or shawls became fashionable and were used as head-coverings and accessories especially for attending weddings and public events.

Ladies’ footwear are slip-on sandals embroidered with gold threads called kasut seret or selipar bertekat, that are teamed with anklets of solid silver or gold.  The wealthy may further accessorise with a pair of matching bangles or gelang pintal and a long necklace but her crowning glory is usually coiffeured into a knot or sanggul.

In those days, some of the popular hairstyles were the sanggul lintang angin, a chignon shaped in the number “8” that was so named because it allows good ventilation.  Another elegant hairdo was the sanggul manja, a knot that rested at the nape.  The “midday knot” or sanggul pukul 12 tengah-hari, made popular by HRH Sultanah Aminah, was also known as siput Sultanah Aminah.  Typical hair accessories to dress-up these neat knots are cocok sanggul and fragrant flowers such as roses and jasmine with a sprig of daun jermin.

A model wearing her hair designed with the
sanggul lintang angin
Another popular style that evolved from the baju melayu Teluk Belanga is the baju melayu Cekak Musang, a style that features a polo neck created by a firm collar that measures approximately 2.5cm high from the nape.  This attire, made popular during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Abu Bakar, is still making a bold fashion statement today.

Now with the passing of traditional tailors, the skill for sewing traditional costumes is an art that is gradually disappearing.  There was a time when sewing was among the most sought-after wifely qualities but modern women seem to have lost the passion for sewing clothes.  In fact, many wearers of the traditional costume today may not even be aware of the outfit’s interesting features and their significant historical references. 

As dressing up in new clothes is part of the Hari Raya tradition, there is often a pre-Raya rush to buy fabrics and have them tailored into several sets of baju kurung or baju melayu.  Most tailors are deluged with orders as many families now follow the trend in dressing in matching traditional costumes for Raya.  But those who missed the tailoring dates won’t fret because they can shop for ready-made costumes and be spoilt for choice as there are wide varieties to pick from that are even modified with modern features for ease of wear!
The baju kurung Teluk Belanga continues to be developed and is now worn in honour of the late sultan.  The timeless elegance of Johor’s traditional baju kurung and baju melayu reflects the ethical and traditional values of the cultured and conservative Malay community in Johor and are worn with pride not only at festive seasons but also for weddings and formal events.  In spite of changing fashion trends, traditional costumes are certainly here to stay.

A version of this article was published in the August issue of The Iskandarian

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