Southeastern Islands and the Pacific Asia: History of Dress

Traditional Malaysian clothing

Prior to Western contact that began as early as the sixteenth century, clothing in the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific was minimal due in part to the islands' tropical conditions. Bark cloth was produced on all of these islands and was made by felting fibers from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. Simple wrapped garments were worn primarily over the lower body, and some cultures occasionally wore unconstructed garments on the upper body as well. Dress included not only the wearing of bark cloth, but also involved tattooing for both sexes. As woven textiles were introduced into these islands, bark cloth production was reduced; where still produced it is used primarily for ritual purposes.

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines

The islands of Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) are the product of multicultural influences that began with trade along the sea lanes. Portuguese, British, Dutch and Spanish colonialism had an impact on the development of traditional dress. Although Western dress is worn in the islands today, traditional dress continues to be worn in villages and throughout these islands for ritual and ceremonial occasions. Brief details regarding the dress of the three major Southeast Asian islands (Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) and the major Pacific Islands (Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Cook Islands) will be provided here.

Malaysia is a Muslim country divided into West Malaysia, a peninsula of Southeast Asia, and East Malaysia, the northern portion of the island of Borneo, the rest of which belongs to Indonesia. The traditional textiles and dress of Malaysia and Indonesia are somewhat similar. Both island nations have developed highly complex textiles, and the designs for these fabrics carry much symbolic meaning with regard to an individual's social status. Luckily, this traditional art is still considered to be important even in the face of westernization. Indonesia and Malaysia are known for textiles made with complex resist-dyed techniques; these include batik and ikat. Similarly, both Malaysia and Indonesia produce songket, a complicated fabric with a supplementary weft of gold, silver and other metallic threads.

In Malaysia, traditional clothing includes a lower body covering (sarong) worn by both sexes. Men's sarong are plaid, women's are designed with floral patterns. The upper body covering for men is a shirt referred to as a baju. For women, a sheer blouse referred to as a kebaya is worn in Malaysia. Sheerness is less acceptable today so a more accepted form of dress for women, especially in cities, is the tudung-an ensemble of a long-sleeved tunic and floor-length skirt accompanied by a head scarf.

Indonesian national dress derives from the Muslim inhabitants of Indonesia's main island, Java. Dress is an indicator of cultural change in Indonesia where history can be divided into three eras categorized by dress terms: sarong (local dress), jubbah (Islamic influences) and trousers (Western influences). Although Western dress is most commonly worn in Indonesia's urban areas today, traditional textiles are used even in Western-styled clothing, and traditional dress styles continue to be important in Indonesia, where varied forms of traditional dress testify to the wide variety of subcultural groups in the nation.

Woman wearing a kebaya
Woman wearing a kebaya

Traditional dress is still commonly seen in rural areas and is especially important throughout Indonesia for national ceremonial occasions. For both sexes, traditional dress in Indonesia includes a wraparound lower-body cover (kain, a rectangular length of fabric, generally in batik), or a sarong (more often in ikat). Women in Java and Bali wear sarongs and kain, held in place with a stagen. The kebaya is a tight, often sheer, long-sleeved blouse worn on the upper body. It is often made of lace, and can be made of lightweight, sheer, elaborately embroidered cottons. In addition, women generally have a selendang (ikat or batik) draped over the shoulder (on less formal occasions a large selendang is used to carry babies or objects), or on Bali the pelangi is worn over the kebaya around the waist.

Indonesian men generally wear kain or sarongs only in the home or on informal occasions. A black felt cap or peci, is occasionally worn; though it was once associated with Islam it has acquired a more secular, national meaning in the post-independence period. These ensembles originated on Java and have become national dress in Indonesia because the vast majority of the population lives on Java and Bali. Kebaya and batik kain are considered Indonesia's national dress for women and teluk beskap, a combination of the Javanese jacket and kain are formal dress for Indonesian men. Shirts made with traditional batik and ikat designs are worn with trousers for less formal occasions.

Indonesians and Malays settled in the Philippines prior to the Spanish colonization during the sixteenth century. The dominant influence is Spanish Catholicism; priests were scandalized by the relative nudity of the Filipinos, who wore minimal lower body coverings. Spanish colonists brought Western notions of modesty and opulence in dress that influenced the styles of Filipino national dress. It retained features relevant to the environment; loose, light and long garments made of blended fibers of pina (pineapple fiber) and jusi (sheer raw silk) rather than the heavy silks and velvets brought by the Spaniards.

The early Filipino women wore the baro't saya, an ensemble of a loose, long-sleeved blouse over a wide skirt that fell to the floor. By the nineteenth century it evolved into the Maria Clara ensemble. The blouse (camisa) is a bell-sleeved blouse with a large, triangular, stiff shawl (panuelo) worn on top. From the Spanish, Filipinas learned to do embroidery, cutwork, drawn threadwork and other forms of surface design. Camisas and panuelos were heavily embroidered. In the early 2000s, the Maria Clara is worn for formal events. The Maria Clara is still a two-piece dress, with large, butterfly sleeves. In the twentieth century, another garment called the mestiza, a sheath dress with butterfly sleeves became popular. For Filipino men, the barong tagalog is national dress, and is worn for a wide variety of activities. It evolved from the canga, a loose cotton shirt worn outside the trousers. Over time, and due to Spanish influence, the shirt evolved into a sheer embroidered shirt. For all traditional Filipino dress, pina and jusi are favorite fabrics, but less expensive silks and fine polyesters are also used. All are heavily embroidered.

Pacific Islands

The islands in the Pacific Ocean were ruled by a hierarchy of hereditary tribal chiefs before European explorers visited in the eighteenth century. Visits by sailors had some impact, but the arrival of Europeans determined to stay in the islands was the key element leading to change in the dress of Pacific Islanders. The London Missionary Society saw it as their duty to convert the islanders to Christianity; to that end they sent missionaries in 1797 to the Society Islands, and with the support of the Pomares, the most powerful ruling family in the islands, by 1815 British missionaries had taken control of the islands. They did not just affect the islander's religious beliefs but had a significant impact on the culture by prohibiting traditional dance and music, while concurrently eliminating evidence of native religion.

Conflict between the French and British occurred on most islands as each nation tried to assert control. In the Marquesas, the French expelled the British and secured influence over the area, leaving the ruling Pomare family as token rulers. A French colony was proclaimed when King Pomare V was forced to abdicate in 1880 and within a few years it included the Marquesas, Society Islands, Austral Islands, Gambier Archipelago, and Tuamotu atolls. After World War II, Tahitians who had fought for France brought pressure against the government to extend French citizenship to all islanders; in 1957 the territory was officially renamed the Territory of French Polynesia.

Throughout all of the Pacific Islands, there has been a rebirth of indigenous culture since the 1970s. The Tahitian and Hawaiian languages are again taught in schools, and on some islands the indigenous language is even used in government meetings. Culture is being reclaimed from its near-death experience at the hands of missionaries, and in the islands the traditional arts, dance and music are now celebrated. The Pacific islands are now home to ethno-tourism, and the cultural displays of traditional arts are featured.

Pacific Island Dress: Pre-Contact

Prior to the arrival of missionaries in the Pacific Islands, dress was an important expression of social status, political standing and religious belief. Body art and clothing were key elements that helped people to socially locate themselves and others. The body was the main focus of material expression. The body was tattooed, painted, and decorated with natural materials, dyes, and paints. In Eastern Polynesia, feathers twined onto heavy backings, provided for rich cloaks and helmets for members of the noble classes. Clothing was made from bark cloth (tapa, or in Hawaii, kapa) that was then decorated with motifs that varied from one culture to the next. Generally, only the lower body was covered with loincloths for men and wrapped skirts of tapa for women. Throughout Polynesia, skirts made of various fibers and leaves were worn by both men and women. In Western Polynesia, fine mats (toga in Samoa) were made of pandanus leaves and were used to cover the lower body. Fine mats symbolized the interweaving of lineages and are still ritually significant.

Dress was not just symbolic of status, but was used to signal submission, dominance, and respect in the islands. It was believed that clothing allowed the wearer to capture and transmit mana, a spiritual force over life, health, and death. To produce tapa was a source of power for women. These cultures had a pre-exisiting system of cultural meaning for dress that facilitated conversion to Western-style dress after contact. Although missionaries perceived islanders' adoption of new forms of clothing as proof of conversion to Christianity, they failed to understand the multi-dimensionality of dress in the Pacific Islands.

In Hawaii, the arrival of Western trade goods began with the sandalwood trade beginning in 1810. For Hawaiian rituals, the ali'i (royalty) wore the splendid feather capes and cloaks which they traded to foreigners (haoles) for high prices or Western garments.

Prior to the arrival of permanent residents from the Western world, the standard Hawaiian costume consisted of only a lower body covering for both sexes. Indigenous Hawaiians made and wore kapa garments. Men wore a loincloth called the malo, and women wore the pa'u, a wrapped garment of kapa that often had applied geo-metric designs. Occasionally cape called a kikepa might be worn. By the time the missionaries arrived in 1820, the ali'i had already come to appreciate Western textiles as a substitute for kapa, and preferred calico. Although kapa was the traditional fabric, it could not be cleaned, did not wear well, and even one layer was stiff.

The pa'u passed several times around the waist and extended from beneath the bust to below the knee. For commoners, the pa'u was short and might be composed of only one or two layers of kapa, with each layer about four yards long and three or four feet wide. Ali'i wore as many as ten layers.

Adoption of Western-Styled Dress: Post-Contact

19th century Hawaiians
19th century Hawaiians

The process of conversion to Christianity in the Pacific was a slow process during the early nineteenth century; as one might expect, during that time there were a variety of transitions in clothing. For the missionaries, covering the breasts was required for the sake of Christian notions of modesty. While much has been written about the missionaries' insistence that the indigenous groups must be clothed in a way considered morally decent to the Europeans, there was at the same time agency on the part of the indigenous groups. On many islands, where status was denoted by dress, the dominant social groups were anxious for new styles to continue to assert their elevated social status. Consequently, when the missionaries arrived in the islands, their new fashions were rapidly adopted by the ali'i.

In the Cook Islands and on Tahiti, bark cloth ponchos were worn until woven textiles became available midcentury. Expatriates wore clothing from their original homelands, but Europeans created garments that were Western-styled and made of woven textiles for indigenous groups, as a means of ethnic classification. The indigenous groups made European-styled garments of native tapa, as seen in ponchos from Tahiti and the Cook Islands, and the kapa holoku was made in Hawaii. Tongan and Hawaiian nobility wore European garments regularly, and often wore Western clothing covered waist or hip wrappings of kapa (Hawaii) or woven mats (Tonga and Samoa). Woven mats over skirts of leaves in Samoa gave way to the use of tapa as a substitute for woven cloth. Christian Samoans were identified by the use of tapa rather than mats in the nineteenth century.

When woven textiles became more readily available throughout the Islands in the mid-nineteenth century, they were readily adopted for a number of reasons; for comfort and durability, to engender good relations with the missionaries, and, yes, for fashion.

Missionaries brought Victorian notions of style to the Pacific islands; that legacy is seen in brightly colored floral prints throughout the islands. The contemporary dress of islanders is derived from what has come to be known as "traditional" dress. The high-necked, yoked, loose garments introduced by missionaries, and made in bright floral prints, continue to be worn. Their origin was in 1820 when the Hawaiian queens requested dresses like those worn by the missionary wives. As the American women were quite small and wore empire-waisted dresses in the style of 1819, they decided that because the Hawaiian women were quite large, the high waistline would not be attractive, and it was eliminated. The missionary wives designed the holoku as a long, loose dress with a high neckline and long sleeves. Until the 1930s they were made primarily in cotton calico prints and silk. The missionaries required the Hawaiian women to wear holoku when at the mission to signal ethnic differences. At the same time, they gave the Hawaiians chemises (knee-length slips), called mu'umu'u. The holoku was eagerly embraced by the upper-class women as a sign of their superior status. The mu'umu'u was not worn as a slip, as intended by the missionaries. Instead, it was used as a dress for sleeping in, or for swimming. It was not until the 1930s that the holoku became formal wear, and the mu'umu'u began to be made in bold cotton prints, and then became a common daytime dress.

As missionaries left Hawaii to convert other islanders, they took the mu'umu'u with them and introduced it to women on other islands. The holoku and mu'umu'u were the forerunners of the nightgown known in America as the Mother Hubbard, and that is the term for the floral print day dress worn in Vanatu. Similarly, this high necked, loose dress appears in many islands and now is considered traditional dress. Though they are quite similar throughout the islands, these garments have different names: they are referred to as Mother Hubbards (Vanatu); vinivo (Fiji); pareau (Tahiti), and holoku and mu'umu'u (Hawaii).

After Western contact, island men rapidly adopted Western dress, however on many islands wrap skirts of bright floral prints are worn (lava lava) while on some islands the wrap skirts are solid colors over which finely woven mats will be worn for special occasions. Aloha shirts developed on Hawaii in the early twentieth century, designed in the bold florals common to the islands. In twenty-first-century Hawaii, aloha shirts are daily wear for most men, and mu'umu'u are also common for women.

From the nineteenth-century beginnings of missionary activity in the islands, clothing has been and continues to be the focus of much debate. Missionaries wanted to do more than change the religious persuasion of islanders; they considered the adoption of Westernized dress as a symbolic manifestation of civilization.

Maintaining traditional island dress symbolizes reverence for the past and a preference for formality in the face of global change. Dress has become a focal point of conflicting values in the Pacific, as the older generation clings to old-fashioned standards of conveying modesty and respect through dress, while the youth wish to liberate themselves from the heavy legacy of the islands' missionary past.

In the Pacific, fashion activists and artists emerged in the 1990s; they use dress to illustrate issues of conflicts regarding ethnicity, globalization, and postcolonialism. In doing so, they use dress to critique their colonial pasts, and to overturn the status quo.

See also East Asia: History of Dress; South Asia: History of Dress; Southeastern Mainland Asia: History of Dress; Southeast Asian Islands Textiles.


Acjhadi, Judy. "Traditional Costumes of Indonesia." Arts of Asia 6, no. 5 (1996): 74-79.

Arthur, Linda. "School Uniforms as Symbolic Metaphor for Competing Ideologies in Indonesia." In Undressing Religion: Commitment and Conversion from a Cross-cultural Perspective, pp. 201-216. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

--. Aloha Attire: Hawaiian Dress in the Twentieth Century. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publications, 2000.

Arthur, Linda, ed. Undressing Religion: Commitment and Conversion from a Cross-cultural Perspective. Dress and Body Series, Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Colchester, Chloe, ed. Clothing the Pacific. Dress and Body Series, Oxford: Berg, 2003.

Southeastern Islands and the Pacific Asia: History of Dress