Indonesia has a rich fashion tradition, and since tailoring is quite affordable, many are tempted to go for tailor-made pieces. You’ve probably heard about batik and kebaya, but do you know what is really fashionable and what is just cheap and shabby? To understand a bit more of Indonesian fashion, what to wear and what not to wear, I met with Putu Andayani Prasuti Pradnyana, the designer behind Poutou Couture.
What are the main elements of Indonesian fashion?
There are two main elements, the kebaya and the batik. The kebaya today is basically a very fitted blouse that would showcase the women’s curves. Traditionally it would be long-sleeved and modest, but with variations added nowadays, it can be no sleeves and “peekaboo” transparent. It is actually the sexiest garment you can get away with wearing. Different parts of Indonesia have different cuts or styles of kebaya. For example, the Sundanese (West Java) kebaya would have a trapezium heart-shaped neckline, whilst the Balinese kebaya would have a boxed-cut neckline and front opening. One would wear the kebaya usually with a piece of handmade kain, or loosely translated as sarong, and here the options are limitless with each ethnic group (in Indonesia we have more than 300) claiming their own (contemporary or old) batik, ikat, and songket motifs. If one ethnic group does not already have a typical motif (such as the Betawi—the original ethnic group of Jakarta), you can be sure they are working with the local government to explore and produce their own, which is always fascinating to keep an eye on. Contemporary motifs for kain are also trending; if you are a math geek look out for the computer-generated fractal batiks.
If expat women want to wear traditional Indonesian clothes, what is appropriate for a wedding, a cocktail party, a birthday party, a diplomatic gathering, a business meeting?
For a wedding you can actually go as glam, or even as white as you like, there is really no rule as you can be assured you could never outdo the bride’s maxed-out, heavy-beaded style, however hard you try.
For a cocktail party, go for beautiful modern kebayas or wear something traditional, but styled more contemporarily, perhaps have a piece of kain turned into a long cocktail dress. For birthday parties, wear something fun that doesn’t constrain you, for example a cute oversized kebaya with fitted pants and a statement belt or your casual clothes, but styled with a light kain scarf.
As for diplomatic gatherings or business meetings, go for something tailored like a batik blazer/top and some chunky accessories matched with a plain bottom, or wear a dress-suit made completely from a piece of kain if you are daring and do play with colour. It is actually quite accepted here at a serious office setting.
And for men?
Definitely have that piece of batik or ikat shirt, choose one with a softer material or one that doesn’t make you sweat. As the handmade pieces can be quite pricy, do take your time to choose a motif you will not regret wearing elsewhere. And also have a batik tie, they are great conversation starters.
What is a big no?
Especially with kebayas, make sure they are fitted to your body (unless they are intentionally designed to be big). Have them tailor-made and avoid buying off the rack if you can because all women’s body sizes are different. There is nothing more unflattering than wearing a flabby kebaya. Also, please don’t buy the computer printed batiks, they are much cheaper, yes, but really do make an impact on closing down the practice of small “real” batik workshops that make everything handmade. Traditionally, we believe that each handmade piece carries the “soul” of the crafters, and computer-printed motifs are just bland in this regard. On top of that, it kills the local economy.
When not to wear traditional? I can’t really pinpoint as we love seeing it worn more and more today. It keeps the tradition and the Indonesian spirit alive in such modern times. I suppose the only no-no is don’t wear a kebaya that makes you itch at your event (try the fabric out before purchasing).
What is trending right now in Indonesia?
There is a lot more play in cuts, trims, and appliqués. Indonesian trends used to focus on anything over-the-top and feminine, but now we are seeing a shift towards cutting back and fashion being more subdued or edgy. Modern textiles are being introduced to work with traditional settings. What is great that is still trending is the workmanship alive in couture houses. Expats wouldn’t have guessed straight away that in Indonesia there exists a vibrant layer of the couture houses like you would have in Paris, only much more accessible to all classes. Here, Indonesians have one-of-a-kind garments made for them as often as eating nasi goreng.
It is hard to talk about Indonesian fashion without talking about skin. Most beauty products sold in Indonesia are advertised as whitening products. Why is it so important for people, especially women, to have a white complexion?
That is indeed sad, but true. It started in the early 90s when one mainstream drugstore brand made their line of whitening products and suddenly every skincare brand followed and has their own. Even the very upscale brands release their whitening products that are only sold in Asia. As someone dark-skinned myself, I found it impossible at one point to find a powder or foundation that matched my skin tone. Everything on the market used to be fair and made me look like I wore a mask. It is one thing to want clear, unblemished skin, but a whole other borderline-racist thing to want different skin tones that blatantly state white is what beauty is. It wasn’t an issue before the 90s, I think, but the media have a way of moulding people into this very narrow way of self-imaging. I wouldn’t say it’s about women wanting to look like bules, but women become insecure of their natural skin colour because the media supports this. Women, therefore, think it’s important because it is so expected that it becomes a whole “culture”. It’s a trophy thing; men look for mates who are fair, mothers hope their babies are born fair, brides-to-be are shunned from going out in the sunlight in fear they will get a tan. It’s ridiculous. I am happy to say that more fashion and products are using dark-skinned models, choices for news anchors and TV presenters are darker-skinned nowadays, and hopefully this will have some impact.
One last question. What is the best thing about making clothes for expat clienteles?
The thought that my babies (garments I create) will be taken home and worn all over the world and will be topics of conversation at events, which will then start conversations about Indonesia. That is always a good thing.
Born in Indonesia, Putu grew up in the UK and is a graduate in Design from Monash University in Melbourne.