Baju kurung is a traditional costume of Malay women in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and some parts of Indonesia.
It is one of the oldest Malay costumes, originating from the 15th-century Malacca sultanate. During that era, Malacca was the center of entrepôt trade, with a continuous flow of traders from China, India, and the Middle East.
As a result, some elements from those region had found their way into the local culture, and influenced the clothing styles of the locals, as can be seen in the baju kurung. Over the centuries, the style has not only survived, but prospered, with very few changes made.
Baju kurung consists of a long-sleeved loose blouse that goes to between the hips and the knees, and a long skirt with pleats on one side.
In Malaysia, this national dress is typically worn during religious / cultural celebrations, at weddings, and at formal events. It is also worn as school uniforms by female students in most public schools, and is one of the approved attires for civil servants, regardless of ethnicity.
Wearing Baju Kurung in London
When traveling, I usually opt for outfits that can make me blend with the locals. In Indonesia, for example, I’d go for Javanese batik. And in the Middle East, I might wear a scarf and an abaya. It somehow makes my travels feel more wholesome when I immerse myself in the local cultures. And at the same time, I feel safer when I don’t stand out like a sore thumb in a foreign place.
However, in 2015, I decided to do something different.
My trip to London coincided with Eid al-Adha, and although I don’t really celebrate the festival, I just thought it would be nice to send my mom a picture of me in London wearing the baju kurung that she sewed for me herself.
In a way, it was also going to be a social experiment of sorts to see how Londoners would react to a culture they were not familiar with.
I arrived in London early in the morning and changed into my baju kurung at the airport restroom. I had deliberately chosen a baju kurung of a thicker fabric for this trip in case it would get cold on that autumn day. In any case, I always had my jacket with me.
Although baju kurung is usually paired with feminine footwear, such as high heels, stylish pumps or strappy sandals, I didn’t want to lug around an extra pair of shoes in my backpack, so I went with my regular sneakers.
Then, I went on to explore London for the first time in my national costume.
When I was in school and college, I used to wear baju kurung every day, and grew very accustomed to it. I never once felt inconvenienced by its loose fit or its long flowing skirt. But as I left college, I started to wear it less and less, and in my adulthood, it was reduced to once or twice a year — during Eid or at weddings.
So, when I first set foot in London city, having to navigate the Underground system and board the double-decker buses in this getup felt a little bothersome, especially with my backpack, jacket, and tote bag. But it wasn’t too long before I got into my stride.
My baju kurung and I managed to go to a few London attractions.
Wearing baju kurung in a foreign country was my way of showing how proud I was of my traditions and culture. And wearing it in the country that used to colonize mine for over a century added another layer of meaning to it.
So, how did the Londoners react to my outfit?
Well, some of them gave me more than a cursory glance, but the rest didn’t even bat an eye. No one discriminated me because of it, but none complimented me either. It’s good to know that London is multicultural enough to be able to accept differences. At least, that was what I felt in one day. Perhaps if I were to stay longer, I might have a different opinion.
Have you ever worn your traditional costume abroad? Or have you been discriminated because of what you wore? Share your experience in the comments below.