Dress: Modesty and Fluidity {Post A}

Walking through the streets and marketplaces of Indonesia today you’ll see women clad in layers of clothing no matter what the weather. All but heads, hands and feet are covered and in respect to Muslim women, even heads are concealed.

But looking back at historical artefacts such as Prambanan Temple, and Hindi temple whose construction began in 850 AD and Borobudur Temple, a Buddhist Temple whose construction began in 750 AD (Borobudur Park 2015), we see, preserved in the walls images on bas-relief (Lee 2010), an Indonesia with very distinctive differences to todays societal interpretation of modesty in dress.

Bas-relief  – Prambanan Temple (Barnes 1995)

The courts of central Java conserved many aspects of ancient culture, garb being one of them (Lee 2010). In the relief pictured above, we see bare breasted women with decorative body chains and jewellery adorning their chests. Heads are covered in ornamental headdresses and their lower half is covered by only a sheer ankle length skirt and opaque fabrics belted around the pelvis. Outside the courts however, common dress changed dramatically. From the 8th – 14th centuries, during the Hindu-Buddhist era, women’s dress was largely influenced by the Indian sojourners:


“their shoulders were bare, their chests were wrapped in a continuous piece of narrow fabric, and from the waist down they wore a sarong fashioned from unsewn cloth” (Lee 2010).


However, in the 14th and 15th centuries following the introduction of Islam and in turn in the 16th century, the arrival of Christians in Indonesia, it was encouraged for women to cover the upper cover the upper half of their body, manifesting in the adoption of jackets and sleeved blouses (Lee 2010).

Indo woman 2
Jogjakartan woman preparing local desserts

Coming to the 20th century in the 1970s, in Islam, we see the rise of conservatism. Although waves of conservatism have been seen before, this is the first time this religious shift brings about a new way of dressing for women whether in strict religious communities or not (Lee 2010). As this measure gained force, even a large population of Javanese women have assumed modest Arabic dress conventions, covering their hair and the majority of their bodies (Lee 2010).

Indo girls
Local girls in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia, wearing the Hijab

In Indonesia in the 1990s, the first Anti-Pornography and Porno-Action Bill was drawn up (Pausacker 2008). This Bill not only criminalises pornography, but also makes illegal:


“many kinds of theatre and dance performances, art, forms of dress (such as baring the shoulders and legs) and behaviour of individuals (such as kissing on the lips in public), displaying ‘sensual parts’ of the body or ‘erotic dancing’” (Pausacker 2008).


Apprehension was conveyed by critics about the bill as there was concern that it would “impede everyday life, their regional cultural practices and their freedom of artistic expression. (Pausacker 2008)”

Since the time of the Prambanan and Borobudur Temples, there has been a complete turn around in views on modesty. From bare breasts to barely exposed hands and faces Indonesia has seen the modesty of dress from one extreme to the next.


Barnes, R. 1995, The Yale Indo-Pacific collection 002116 Reliefs at Candi Lara Jonggrang at Prambanan, ArtStor, viewed 10th April, http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.lib.uts.edu.au/library/#3|search|6|All20Collections3A20prambanan|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3Dprambanan26geoIds3D26clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D||9|

Borobudur Park 2015, Fact Sheet: Prambanan, viewed 9 April 2016, http://borobudurpark.com/fact-sheet/

Borobudur Park 2015, Fact Sheet: Borobudur, viewed 9 April 2016, http://borobudurpark.com/fact-sheet/

Lee, C. 2010 The Sarong Kebaya of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Volume 4 – South Asia and Southeast Asia, viewed 25th March  2016, http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/bewdf/BEWDF-v4/EDch4056.xml

Pausacker, H. 2008, Hot Debates, weblog, Inside Indonesia, viewed 30th March 2016, http://www.insideindonesia.org/hot-debates

*All images, unless otherwise stated were taken by the author.

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