I love a wearable souvenir; to translate my travels into everyday life with a little globetrotter glam. The sarong is not just a beach accessory, but a traditional dress piece of many island and coastal cultures. In this post, we share how to wear the summer staple and why it’s a must-pack for any traveller. By the end, you’ll wonder why you need anything else in your suitcase!
History and geography
The word sarong comes from the word sarung meaning sheath in the Malay/Indonesian language of Bahasa. The garment has a long history as ladies and men’s wear throughout Asia Pacific, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. For now, we will focus on how to wear your sarong taking inspiration from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
How to wear a sarong Peranakan style
A typical Peranakan sarong is made of batik fabric and has two parts, a kepala (head) and badan (body). The kepala forms approximately a third of the total sarong and is located halfway along the length of the fabric. The kepala is a contrasting section of the sarong which usually features a different print, and is designed to be worn to the front of the body. Some Peranakan sarongs are open pieces of rectangular fabric, and others are sewn into a tube. They are traditionally worn with a kebaya, beaded shoes and jewellery. This video demonstrates how to tie a tubular version with the help of a skinny belt.
NOTE: The Peranakan style of wearing a sarong is the skinny jeans of Southeast Asia, and limits the length of your step. Therefore it is better for dressier, less active occasions.
How to style a Longyi like you’re in Myanmar
The sarong in Myanmar is a tubular style piece of fabric worn by both genders. A male sarong is known as a paso, and a womens as htamein, they are broadly referred to by the gender-neutral term longyi. The design of mens’ and womens’ longyi differ by pattern and colour. Womens’ longyi also have a black cotton band sewn to the inside of the waist to prevent slipping. Men and women tie their longyi using different techniques. Men formerly paired theirs with a crisp white, button-down, tailored shirt. Women would wear a blouse known as an “Aingyi,” which buttons asymmetrically to one side.
NOTE: Much like the Peranakan sarong, Myanmarese ladies wear their longyi in a style that restricts your gait.
How to tie a Pareu à la Polynesia
Polynesian people are those ethnically grouped by their use of Polynesian languages. They share a common origin with the indigenous people of Southeast Asia, so it is no wonder they also wear a version of the sarong. In the Cook Islands and Tahiti, a sarong is referred to as a pareu. In Samoa it is a lava lava and in Tonga a tupenu. Historically the Tahitian pareu was made from tapa, a cloth created using tree bark. Later this was replaced with cotton, silk and synthetic fabrics. Traditionally it was only women who wore pareu and men wore a loin cloth. Men adopted the pareu later. Prior to exposure to Western culture, women wore the pareu as a skirt only and went topless.
How to fashion an Indonesian sarong
The sarong is the prevalent form of traditional dress throughout Maritime Southeast Asia which includes Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Timor Leste and Indonesia. Like the Peranakan sarong, the Indonesian and Malay versions usually have a kepala and bedan (Malay people wear their kepala to the back). Sarong fabric, decoration, colours and tieing styles all vary between islands. The first video demonstration makes use of the average tourist sarong that can be picked up cheaply at beachside markets, to demonstrate a women’s Balinese tie. Then we get a little bit fancy in the second video with a silk sarong and some dressier ways to tie it from a Jakarta fashionista.
Sarongs have long been absorbed into Western culture and transformed into everyday wardrobe items. It is easy to pick up a generic one that has no cultural reference. However, if you are wearing a truly traditional dress piece, remember to be respectful of its origin. It is not a costume, but the symbol of a nation and/or its people.
Sarongs can serve so many different purposes, beyond getting you through laundry day. They can be used as a lightweight towel or a sling for carrying other items. Use it to cover your shoulders when it gets cool, or entering a place of worship. A sarong can even be used as a light sheet for taking a nap or substitute for a picnic blanket. A good sarong is every travellers best-kept packing secret.
The sarong stretches well beyond simple beachwear and is an absolute travel essential! There are endless fabrics and tieing techniques to transform a humble piece of cloth into the perfect pareu. Let us know how you wear your sarong in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travels,