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  • Denisa Mayari

Balancing Tradition and Transformation: Baju Bodo Through the Ages

Image credits: Priyo Oktaviano

The fabric of Indonesia's culture is intricately woven into every thread of the traditional clothing worn by its men and women, each garment a masterpiece of art and heritage. However, the baju bodo, the traditional attire of Bugis women from South Sulawesi, Indonesia, stands out from other popular women's traditional clothing in Indonesia, such as the baju kurung, the kebaya, or the kemben. While the latter garments typically feature cleaner lines and a more straightforward design, the baju bodo is known for its voluminous shape and bright colors. According to some sources, the degree of puffiness of the blouse is allegedly related to the wearer's social standing and wealth. The more elaborate and intricate the design, as well as the more fabric used, the higher the perceived social status of the wearer. However, the colors used in the baju bodo are thought to have a more definite significance. 

The holy book of Patuntung, the traditional Makassar belief system or religion that involves the worship of natural forces and ancestral spirits (known as animism and dynamism), outlines different colors that signify the wearer's age and social status. Girls under 10 years old are expected to wear the color orange, while those aged 10–14 can wear both orange and blood red. Women aged 17–25 typically wear blood red as well, while darker shades of red are reserved for married women. White is for shamans and caretakers. Noblewomen wear green, while purple is reserved for widows. While the color guidelines based on age and social status were once strictly adhered to, nowadays women have more freedom to choose the color they prefer when wearing the baju bodo. For instance, young Bugis women very often choose pastel or muted shades such as sage green, powder blue, or mauve instead of the traditional bright colors assigned to their age group or social status.

Traditionally, the baju bodo was worn without an inner layer, allowing the sheer and lightweight muslin fabric to reveal the wearer's naked torso underneath. This aspect of the baju bodo's design has also undergone changes over time. Sir James Brooke noted in his book titled "Narrative Of Events In Borneo And Celebes, Down To The Occupation Of Labuan" that the blouse was worn without any breast coverings during his time in Celebes, now Sulawesi, in the 1840s. Brooke was a soldier who later became the Rajah of Sarawak. According to his account, "a sarong reaching to the feet and a muslin bajo worn loose and showing all the bust and bosom compose the dress." As Islam began to gain influence in the region, changes were made to the design of the baju bodo to better comply with Islamic modesty customs. To provide more coverage around the torso, an inner layer was added to the blouse, which matched the color of the outer layer. Today, it is also prevalent to see baju bodo made using fabrics with greater opacity, ensuring a more complete covering of the body. 

The influence of Islam on the South Sulawesi region also affected the traditional color categorization of the baju bodo, allowing women to have more freedom in choosing the colors they wear. This shift in color choice can be attributed to the declining influence of animism and dynamism teachings, which previously governed color choices, and the increasing Islamic influence in the region. This modification not only addressed the issue of modesty but also highlighted the dynamic and adaptive nature of cultural practices. It serves as an example of how cultural traditions can evolve over time while still maintaining their unique identity. The baju bodo serves as a compelling example of how cultural practices evolve over time while maintaining their unique identity. 

From the original voluminous and colorful silhouette to the gradual changes made to the design to comply with Islamic modesty customs, the baju bodo reflects the continuous evolution of cultural practices in Indonesia. It highlights the creativity and adaptability of the Bugis people and their commitment to preserving their cultural heritage while embracing new influences. By exploring the history and significance of the baju bodo, we can also gain a deeper understanding of the cultural practices, values, and beliefs of the Bugis people and the wider Indonesian community. Overall, the baju bodo is not only a beautiful and timeless piece of traditional clothing but also a testament to the dynamic and evolving nature of cultural practices in Indonesia. It represents the continuous process of adaptation and change that shapes cultural identity and reinforces the importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.


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