Traditional costumes reveal Brunei's fashionable flair and rich, varied heritage


IN A land that blends traditional comforts with contemporary style, most Bruneians are concerned with matching their appreciation of heritage with modern fittings and forms.

Most of us still live in a society where traditional Malay wear features prominently in the country's dress code. Many Bruneians may have overlooked the fact that this phenomenon is rare and uncommon for most other cultures.

If you walk around the cities of neighbouring nations such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, one notices that their traditional attire, which is analogous to that of Brunei's, is not as frequent or commonplace to be seen. Many traditions and customs of other ethnicities have regrettably faded into novelty or reclusion.

A notable example with such practices would be the Chinese ethnic group. The only place in China where you can commonly find ladies wearing the cheongsam would be in the restaurants as contemporary culture influence has completely obliterated the need to wear this traditional costume on a daily basis. The same applies for many cultures.

Globalisation has made items such as jeans, T-shirts and Western accessories become the normative mainstream, increasingly made popular by the media — leaving little room for cultural diversity.

Although it can be argued that modern clothing has a better sense of practicality and convenience, the end result of its influence is the diminishing of individualism and cultural values. But this is hardly the case for our country.

Despite the impact of contemporary culture on the local dress code, it is still conceivable to see people dressed in traditional Malay wear such as the baju kurung or baju kebaya for women and the baju melayu for men.

For civil servants, this form of attire is a compulsory staple. For others in the private sector, traditional Malay wear is an alternative to their wardrobe of dress suits and work shirts. However, there has been some modification, with men opting to wear only the shirt paired up with slacks and women exploring all possible variations of the traditional baju kurung which has come to be known as the baju fesyen.

According to Siti Norkhalbi Haji Wahsalfelah, Dean of the Academy of Brunei Studies in Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD), she believes that "clothing is the most significant marker of identity". With the proclamation of the traditional Malay attire as the national attire, Bruneians proudly adhere to this dress code, which "expresses national identity and unity through homogenous dress".

Rabiatul, a civil servant, is one of those who feel a great sense of pride about the influence of the traditional Malay dress in Brunei. "I feel comfortable wearing baju kurung to work because I have been wearing it as a school uniform since I was in primary school," she explained. Most Bruneians typically regard the traditional attire as a form of formal dress code — hence it is the custom in most formal functions and events to be appropriately attired in such. "It is also more appropriate as we live in a society that holds Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB) as a philosophy," she added.

"As a Bruneian, I feel proud that not only can our society preserve our traditional wear but we also practise it in our daily life and it shows that the Bruneian society appreciate its own culture." When questioned if the traditional wear may seem restrictive, Rabiatul said, "For most women, the traditional wear has evolved into a fashion statement, with new designs and embroidery, and I think this has helped to preserve the popularity of the attire until today, in comparison with other cultures."

"In the most general sense, baju melayu and baju kurung are customary in Brunei and in an odd way, to dress outside this norm would make you stand out, especially in government offices," said a government servant who prefers to remain anonymous. "We live in a country that holds religious and traditional customs in high regard, hence clothes that may be overly revealing are frowned upon and the traditional wear complies with all the necessary values of dressing modestly."

Ain, a seamstress from a local dressmaking boutique in Lambak, has been working in Brunei for eight years and has witness the ever-changing trends in the baju kurung industry. "When I first came here, people usually requested for kebaya-styled dresses but recently it has shifted towards plain-cut dresses with embroideries and stones." However, the volume of orders has not declined over the years, according to Ain. "I think our business has been improving because many are getting into the trend as well."

For those working in the private sector, where the traditional dress is not deemed compulsory, there are some who enjoy its addition to their dress code. "In other Westernised cultures, people only wear typical office clothes, which I appreciate as well, but it can get rather boring," said Liana, a local bank employee. "I like having the option to dress traditionally because it adds variety to my work wear and it is also part of my cultural heritage."

The Brunei Times
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