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  • Alyssa Rosvita

The Decline of Women’s Traditional Fashion

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Indonesia is a diverse country made up of thousands of ethnic groups, each with their own unique culture, customs, and traditions. With various ethnicities come different traditions, including the manner in which people dressed, which has evolved over time as a result of influences from religions, social norms, and foreign impact. Prior to the arrival of westernization in Indonesia, most traditional clothing was topless, mainly featuring coverings using kain. However, after the arrival of the Dutch, this practice was largely abandoned by most cultures, giving way to a more modest approach of dressing.

For centuries, the Balinese for example, mostly wore a strip of kain called a kemben around their chest, while Javanese women preferred clothing like the kebaya. These pieces of cloth were worn to preserve modesty and decency without covering the entire upper body. This was the case until the Dutch colonizers entered Indonesia in the late 19th century, bringing along their Western culture and values. Much like their governance, the Dutch had a strong influence on the locals regarding their way of dressing. Many Indonesians initially opposed Western clothing, seeing it as an attack on their traditional identity. However, the influence of Western society became too great to ignore over time.

The practice of covering oneself began during the Dutch East Indies period. The Dutch, who were devout Christians, believed in modesty and saw the uncovering of the upper body of Indonesian women as taboo. They saw it as a sign of backwardness and used it to justify imposing their beliefs on the locals. Since then, Indonesian women began to cover their chests with blouses and kebayas to adjust to the new period and meet Dutch expectations. This was particularly common among the urban elite, who had more exposure to Western culture, as traditional topless clothing soon became associated with the lower classes, and it was considered outmoded.

The introduction of Islam in Indonesia was another cause for the change in clothing. Islam spread across the archipelago in the 15th century, having a significant influence on the locals' clothing habits. Muslim women began to wear the hijab, or headscarf, to conceal their hair and neck but not their faces. Because the hijab proved to be a more modest option to the topless dress, many women began to wear it, particularly in conservative areas.

A variety of factors impacted the evolution of Indonesian traditional clothing from topless to modest. While the Dutch East Indies government had a significant effect on the locals' clothing habits, the influence of religious practices also had an impact on how Muslim women dress. Traditional clothing in Indonesia today is a blend of Western and Eastern influences, with traditional clothing such as batik, kebaya, and sarong still having an important role in the country's culture, despite the changes.


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