Dresses And Daydreams Of Bali

Words and Images By Joy Muldoon

You can tell a lot about a culture by it’s fashion. Is it a hot or a cold climate? Is it liberal or conservative? Trends evolve, tastes vary, and the opinion of beauty is fleeting. And it’s the same here in Bali, Indonesia, the island that I currently call home.  While everyday wear has certainly been modernized over the centuries, skinny jeans and hipster frames are alive and well, Balinese women are still regularly seen wearing the same style of dress as their ancestors.

Bali is arguably the most famous island of the vast Indonesian archipelago. It is known worldwide for it’s beaches and it’s surf. But, thanks to books & films such as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bali is also becoming known for it’s distinct culture. The Balinese Hinduism religion/culture defines every aspect of life for a Balinese, including their clothing. I recently talked to my Balinese neighbors [in Indonesian!] about their unique dress, and I loved what I learned.

If traveling in Bali for more than a week, it’s completely possible you will see a Balinese Hindu ceremony. If you live here, it feels like they are non-stop. Which is kind of true. The Balinese could perform religious ceremonies every 7 days, every 15 days, and every 6 months. That could mean 4 - 6 ceremonies every month! Some are small, and performed within the home, and some are large and close down the city streets.

For these events, women are expected to be in full dress with a sarong, a lace top called a kebaya, and a chiffon belt cinched at the waist. Because this is how Balinese women have dressed since the beginning of Balinese culture. Most women will wear a white or yellow kebaya top, because those are the most holy colors. Sarong prints vary wildly in color and pattern. Creativity and individualism can be expressed through the pattern of a sarong or the cut of the top. How mothers are wearing the kebaya today will not be how teens will wear them in a decade. Styles have been allowed to change or modernized, but all 3 elements of a woman’s dress must be included. Girls begin wearing these ceremony clothes as young as 1 year old!

For some of the formal community ceremonies, many women will prepare by getting ready at the salon, for full makeup and to wear a specific hair piece up-do as well.  If the woman is a dancer, which is a common element in a Balinese Hindu ceremony, her outfit takes on even more elements, such as corset and elaborate headpieces. Young girls that show an interest in dance will learn from an early age not only how to wear these intricate clothes, but also how to apply their makeup just so. Wedding day brides and coming of age teens for their tooth filing ceremony(!) also have specific clothing for the events. If only one word could describe Balinese culture, I’d choose “ceremony”. Because there are so very many.

When I talked to my neighbors about these ceremonies and the clothes they are required to wear, I wanted to know a few things. Did they enjoy it? How did they feel about it? I was surprised that each woman I asked expressed joy over their ceremony clothing. Most women liked the white top, as they felt the most holy wearing it. They also liked that wearing the ceremony wardrobe is a statement. It lets the whole world know they are Balinese women. Just as their offerings, their language, and even their names mark them as Balinese, so does their clothing. And they are proud of this identity.

As an American, I can not think of something that I could wear to identify myself as an American. Not even blue jeans and an American flag tee would necessarily indicate I was a born & bred citizen of the US. Our culture, which is so new in comparison to the Balinese culture, does not have permanent markers & fixtures such as this. If I wanted to dress in Revolutionary War era women’s attire several times a month, most people would assume that I was either crazy or auditioning for the cast of Hamilton. But these Balinese women find pride & identity is dressing as their ancestors, and carrying these traditions to the next generation. I love the richness of the Balinese culture, and their clothing is just the beginning. I’m a constant student of my new home, learning and absorbing as I live life as a stranger in a foreign land. And loving it.