The Balinese anthropologist, Degung Santikarma, once gave a marvelous description of his meeting a Western woman at a temple ceremony. She had outfitted herself so authentically that she looked, he said, more Balinese than the Balinese. But, after admiringly describing her costume in some detail, he went on to observe:
Determined as she seemed to maintain her elegance, I was sure that in the blazing heat and bustle of the open temple courtyard she must be uncomfortable and finding it hard to breathe. Indeed, as I approached her, I could see that under her thick, artful makeup the expression on her face was unmistakably one of anguish and of the struggle necessary to overcome it …
Alas, dear reader, I fear that my own efforts to dress properly fall far short of this level of sacrifice, in Bali as elsewhere. Still, wearing pakaian adat (traditional dress) is both polite and necessary for anyone doing more than casually visiting the occasional temple; and at this time of year, filled with festival days and odalan (temple anniversaries) we shall all be wearing it quite regularly. So it seems fitting to give a brief account of a typical ensemble of mine, with the proviso that I do not want you to assume that I am explaining the correct way for women to wear pakaian adat. I am not. In fact, other descriptions I have read of pakaian adat in Bali appear much more involved and ‘authentic’. I am simply telling you what I have been advised to wear, and how I was taught to wear it.
There are four basic parts to my traditional attire, as you can see from the photograph at the top. Let me start by talking about what I normally put on first: the kain. The kain is a rectangular piece of material (seen in the photograph at the bottom righthand side), two metres in length, which is wrapped around the lower part of body. It is usually either made from cotton or silk, and is often batik. To put it on, I stand with my legs wide apart, because it is almost impossible to walk in a kain that is too tightly wrapped. I take one corner of the kain in my right hand and wrap it behind me and then around my body with my left hand. I tie it on my right hand side at the front with a small knot at the waist, and fold the waistband over.
On top of the kain goes the streples, the corset you can see in the top right hand portion of the photograph. It is a useful means of keeping the kain in place and is, I believe, a Dutch invention. I am willing to bet no French woman in her right mind would consider it lingerie. It has over a dozen small hook and eye fasteners, should be quite tight but (in principle?) not uncomfortably so, and goes around the waist, covering the top of the kain.
The kebaya, the embroidered blouse on the left hand side of the photograph, is worn on top of both kain and corset, hiding the latter from view. If I am going to be at a temple, I usually wear a white kebaya since most women do. There is no formal requirement to do so, however, and if I am a guest at an odalan in a family compound I will wear a brightly colored kebaya instead. Kebayas are worn throughout Indonesia and in other parts of South East Asia as well. While the one in the picture is cotton, they can also be made of lacy material, and there are many utterly exquisite kebayas in this world. Go look on Google Images if you don’t believe me.
Lastly, a long scarf (selendang) is tied round the waist. If you want to visit temples in Bali, but don’t want the bother of getting all dressed up, you should at least wear a selendang as a mark of respect. If you are without one, you may be politely asked to leave. And, indeed, if you are wearing shorts or a short skirt you’ll be asked to put on a kain—something one can rent for a small fee at many temples and other historic sites.
‘Traditional dress’ conjures up the idea of clothes that haven’t changed over centuries. In fact, this is far from the case. Pakaian adat does change. It varies regionally, and fashions seem to come and go. Kebayas, for instance, are appreciably longer in length in Southern Bali today than they were even four years ago. Since it can be fun to buy new clothes, the excuse of having to keep up with the times is a good thing—at least for those who can afford it. If I ever catch myself excitedly posting a picture of a new kebaya to Facebook, however, I will know that it’s time to go home.