TGIFriday: Batik, a practical guide to comfortable formalwear in very warm weather

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Musings on the beauty of the traditional batik. A comfortable alternative to formalwear in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Editor’s note: Batik is considered National Dress for gentlemen in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and can substitute for a business suit with tie in the day and black tie for the evening. In the Philippines, the equivalent is the Barong Tagalog which is perhaps a similar item of clothing, but made from very different materials. Today, we explore with our reader, Michael Ho the beauty of Batik Tulis and his passion for this apparel.

Three ladies walking by with their parasols and wearing the sarong kebaya, the feminine equivalent to a batik shirt worn by the seated gentlemen.

TGIFriday: Batik, a practical guide to comfortable formalwear in very warm weather

The author sat by a cafe in Jakarta in the 80’s, sipping a cup of Indonesian coffee. The coffee was bold, it was earthy and it represented the Archipelago in many ways. For a fleeting moment, it seemed possible to define a part of culture by it’s unique produce. 

The batik shirt can be short sleeved (less formal) or long sleeved.

It was a Friday. He noticed a common theme – many men and women were wearing their traditional national clothing in-lieu of other clothes. They were wearing Batik.

Some years later, he was sitting in a cafe along Shenton Way in Singapore. He saw the silhouette of a gentleman, wearing a silk batik shirt, walking past him. The man was unfamiliar, yet the shirt was familiar. He was wearing one of the national outfits of the Archipelago – Batik.

Perfect for our warm and humid climate, the batik shirt paired here with a Panama Hat makes a suitable alternative to the suit and tie required for formal business during the day.

Batik, classified as an Intangible Art by UNESCO, is an ancient art of creating meaningful patterns on a piece of cloth. In it’s purest form, it is time-consuming and arduous to create a good piece. It could take a weeks to months to create a good piece of Batik. Much like a good Panama Hat which takes many man-hours to create, the casual observer may not know the amount of work that went into making the shirt, but the well-read traveller will probably take a second-glance. 

Batik Tulis (Tulis in Malay means writing) is a form of hand craft where the patterns are applied by writing wax liquid on the surface of the cloth with a tool called cantingCanting is usually made of copper with a handle made of bamboo or wood. The making of hand-written batik takes approximately 1–3 months depending on the complexity and detail of batik. The working techniques are traditional and manual, requiring both a high level of skill as well as time to make the batik.

Canting, also spelled as Tjanting appling wax to fabric to make Batik Tulis.

Another method of making batik is the Batik Cap (Cap in Malay means stamp), which is made by using a die to print the pattern on the fabric. Yet another is Batik Lukis (Lukis in Malay means drawing), where the design is hand painted on the fabric. This results in a more free form pattern, rather than the repeating patterns on Batik Tulis or Batik Cap.

Is that a silk Batik Tulis shirt he is wearing? What meaning does his fabric represent? Which town did this fabric originate from? Who is this interesting person? What is he conveying to the world today? 

Wearing batik is actually quite a stealthy intellectual flex, much akin to a lady in Tokyo, wearing a proper Kimono to work. The price is secondary to the message.

Batik can considered formal wear in South East Asia

There was much confusion about what constitutes formal wear in the 1970’s. Colonial influence was strong back then, and many adopted the Western Suit to wear for formal occasions. 

It was an era of resentment and confusion. Resentment from being ruled over by an Overlord; confusion about cultural identity.

The former Governor of Jakarta, Ali Sadikin, was a nationalistic man. He resented the Western Suits because they represented something he did not like. Therefore, he introduced the Batik Shirt as a form of formal wear. It represented cultural roots, and a strong sense of self-determination.

These days, it is not uncommon to see good quality Batik being worn by dignitaries by politicians during high profile events in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, The Philippines and other countries of ASEAN. It is evident that Batik has become the uniting fabric of these countries united by geography. 

It is one of the most practical ways to respect formalities, and survive in the sweltering perpetual summer in the Archipelago.

The Deeply Symbolic Undercurrents

Plants, animals, birds and humans have many things in common. The usage of colour, patterns and shapes are often an unspoken language, to signify subtle messages.

Certain prints of Batik were exclusively reserved for the Royalty in Indonesia. For a well-read traveller, he/she might be able to discern the origin of the patterns. It may signify the town it was made in, the symbolism of the patterns, or even give a clue about historical events.

For example, the coastal town of Pekalongan, Indonesia, known by Insiders as the trading hub of some of the best batiks, often display Dragons and Phoenixes on their motifs. However, a paradox emerges. 

Animals and humans are prohibited from being drawn on carpets and imagery, for the religious majority. This is evident in the Persian carpets which almost never display animals or humans on the patterns. There must be another cultural force at-play, influencing the use of animals on the Batik designs. The answer lies in the influence of Overseas Chinese traders to those cities back in the olden days.

There are also patterns which clearly show the lingering trends of colonialism in the collective mindset of the Archipelago. Batik Segar Jagad is a beautiful motif, which shows islands-upon-islands, much like an old maritime map. On other patterns, one notices Tulips, drawn in a blue reminiscent of Dutch porcelain (or was it Chinese Porcelain?).

The author fell in love with a particular print of batik, which depicts clouds-upon-clouds. He did not know why. However, upon reading the history of the print, he soon found out that it unlocked an unconscious part of his collective memory of growing up in South East Asia. The print is known as Mega-mendung, hailing from the town of Cirebon, Java, Indonesia. These swirling clouds are often drawn on the walls of Temples and inlayed into the roofs.

Some patterns have a duality to them. Batik Parang, depicts paisley-like patterns. There is standard-form and a petite-form of it. The pattern is said to imbue the wearer with boldness and courage, and this is often good while at work. However, it must not be worn to weddings, as it is said to “cut ties”.

Myriads of motifs exist, and many of the deeper meanings are not easily discovered. One would need a good command of Bahasa Indonesia/Melayu, a keen sense of travel and adventure, a willingness to read and listen to stories from the locals, to accurately decipher some of the age-old-patterns passed down from generation-to-generation.

You never actually own a piece of Batik. You merely look after it for the next generation.

Tongue in cheek quote from Michael Ho.

Photo Notes

Photography by Calvin Wong. Art Direction by Michael Ho, Calvin Wong and Peter Chong. Location: Raffles Hotel, Singapore.


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