BAJU MELAYU
Brief History and Ethical Aspects


BAJU MELAYU HISTORY

What is Baju Melayu?

Baju Melayu is the general reference to the traditional Malay costume for men and it is said that the style has been in existence since the 15th Century. Actually it has two specific style names, the Baju Kurung Cekak Musang and the Baju Kurung Teluk Belanga.

The man widely acknowledged as the creator of the male Baju Melayu, and the person who first popularized it in the 15th Century in the Malacca Sultanate is Tun Hassan Temenggong, the son of Bendahara Seri Maharaja Tun Mutahir. 

The Malacca Empire was enjoying its heydays during the 15th to early 16th Century until the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. It was the strongest empire in the region then stretching from Sumatra in the south to Thailand in the north, and was a center of entreport trade, with traders from India, China, Middle East and Europe coming and sailing to trade there.

With the influx of foreigners to Malacca, they also brought with them their own fashion styles. These eventually influenced the Malay attire, which combined the flowing loose fitting styles (robes) of the Arabs and Indians, trousers and pants of the Mongols and Turks, with the simplicity and elegance of the Europeans. And the Malay Baju Melayu was born.

The Malacca Empire was enjoying its heydays during the 15th to early 16th Century until the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. It was the strongest empire in the region then stretching from Sumatra in the south to Thailand in the north, and was a center of entreport trade, with traders from India, China, Middle East and Europe coming and sailing to trade there.

With the influx of foreigners to Malacca, they also brought with them their own fashion styles. These eventually influenced the Malay attire, which combined the flowing loose fitting styles (robes) of the Arabs and Indians, trousers and pants of the Mongols and Turks, with the simplicity and elegance of the Europeans. And the Malay Baju Melayu was born.

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MALAY MEN'S ATTIRE DURING THE MALACCA SULTANATE

What was the Malay men’s attire during the Malacca Sultanate?

Well, it was said that Malay men during the Malacca Empire in the 15th Century, wore rather simple attires.

The clothes they wore were said to be short sleeved and tight fitting. The shirt is basically a tunic, and the pants are cut in the style of the "gunting Aceh", that is, a little tight and ending at the middle of the lower leg.

This design and cut of the Malay men’s attire can be seen today, and is the usual wear of silat exponents during silat performances.


THE CHANGES BY TUN HASSAN TEMENGGONG

And what are the changes Tun Hassan Temenggong made to the Malay attire then to warrant him to be known as the creator of the present Baju Melayu?

Well, Tun Hassan Temenggong was the person who first extended the over-all length of the men’s shirt dress down to the length of the arms. At the same time, he made them very loose-fitting, with the shirt dress widening downwards.

He also lengthened the sleeves of the shirt to the wrists, and widened the end of the sleeves of the shirts to make it loose fitting. The cut ensured that the shirt sleeves could be folded up to the arms, when desired. This is useful when taking meals, for instance.

And this cut and style of Baju Melayu remain with some slight variations until today, and considered as the traditional costume for the Malay men.

Although there are slight variations in the costume, such as the neck design of the Teluk Belanga (Johore) style, the over-all simple cut and design of the Cekak Musang style, however, remains true to the Baju Melayu style pioneered by Tun Hassan Temenggong.

This rather abrupt change or difference on the design attire for Malay men pioneered by Tun Hassan Temenggong was recorded in the Malay Annals or "Sejarah Melayu".


ETHICS ON WEARING THE MALAY BAJU MELAYU

The Baju Melayu is not just merely a dress or costume, but when wearing it, certain traditional practices and ethics are followed (knowingly or unknowingly) by the Malays.

If you look at the Malay Baju Melayu Cekak Musang shirt, you will see that it is opened at the front from the neck up to the middle of the chest. The shirt usually contains five buttons, two at the collar or neck area and three for the upper body.

This is the traditional cut and is of ethical significance, for the fact that Malays follow the Islamic faith or are Muslims, and this number of buttons on the shirt dress of the Baju Melayu signifies the five pillars of Islam.

It is very rare indeed for the traditional Baju Melayu to have more than five buttons.


SIDE-NOTE

The five pillars of Islam are:-

  • Shahada – that is , belief in One God and that Mohamed (peace be upon him)is the Messenger of God.
  • Salat, or the obligatory prayers to be performed 5 times a day.
  • Zakat, that is, the giving of wealth or charity to those in need.
  • Fasting, from first light until sundown during the month of Ramadan,and
  • Pilgrimage to Mecca, for those financially and physically able.

END OF SIDE-NOTE


And in the case of the Baju Kurung Teluk Belanga style, which has no collar, there is only one button or a "kancing" (threaded hook) that is used to strap the shirt at the neck.

Having one button or "kancing" in this Johor styled Baju Melayu shirt is also symbolically significant as it signifies the only One God or Allah (subha nahu wataala) worshipped by the Muslim Malays.

Another ethical concept is that the Baju Melayu, as a fashion style, the whole dress from the shirt to the trousers cannot be tight. It is not Baju Melayu if it is tight-fitted. The traditional attire is loose-fitting, for both shirt and trousers. This of course also fits with the usage of the costume for Islamic prayers, when bending and sitting are required.

And of course the traditional Baju Melayu is not for the discotheque. The Baju Melayu is worn especially during major religious festivals celebrated by the Malays, such as Aidil Fitri and Aidil Adha.

It is worn for prayers, and it is also the attire worn during traditional Malay weddings (during the bersanding as well as during the akad nikah) and performances of traditional dances like joget, zapin, and others.

For those reasons, it is ethically incongruous to wear Baju Melayu to the modern discos. It doesn’t jive if you dress in this costume to the disco and dance the western dances. You will actually look weird!! And people will probably laugh at you.


SIGNIFICANCE OF ATTIRE COLORS

The colors of the Baju Melayu costume also have significance especially when attending formal occasions involving royalty. There are certain colors which must not be worn during such ceremonies.

For instance, Royals can wear any color they like, but yellow or tinges of yellow are usual. Others are not allowed to wear such colors during formal occasions. And there are protocols and guidelines given for such occasions.

For high officials the Baju Melayu is worn with the tanjak. The Baju Melayu is worn "sedondon", (of one material or fabrics, color and pattern) that is, the shirt, trousers, sampin and tanjak, are of the same color, fabric and pattern.

They are prohibited from wearing white yellow pairs of Baju Melayu. These are reserved for royalties.

For the commoners or laymen the attire is Baju Melayu with a dastar or a headwear like the songkok.

When wearing the sampin and tanjak or tengkolok, which are the essential accompaniments of the Baju Melayu, the ethics and significance of the colors and the manner they are worn or tied must also be borne in mind.

Certain colors of the sampin and certain styles of the tanjak or tengkolok are reserved for royalty and high ranking officials.


EVERGREEN STYLE

Well, the Baju Melayu has tested the evolution of time and yet it still retains its popularity, and amazes with its style and elegance.

But while aesthetically pleasing, the Baju Melayu also has ethical and traditional values that cultured and conservative Malays follow.

That’s it. So much for a brief history of the Baju Melayu and some of the ethical aspects connected with the Baju Melayu, the traditional Malay costume for men in Pahang and Malaysia.

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