An Anatomy of (my) Balinese Ceremony Clothes

Sarong Series Number 2: Some thoughts on memory, personal history, and sarongs.

I took my favorite batik tulis kain (hand-drawn batik sarong), the pointillist visual texture of which always makes me think of the Cosmos, to Bruce’s studio for my first lighting lesson. I took my kebaya (lace blouse in a traditional style), the white strapless (bustier), and my black sash, which is a wide, stiff (synthetic) grosgrain ribbon that repurposed from some package. It has frayed ends that I find interesting so I don’t cut them off. I wasn’t totally sure what I would do with the garments for the shoot. I didn’t think I would be putting them on. I didn’t give myself enough time to iron anything. I haven’t worn ceremony clothes for years.

My kebaya is beautiful – ivory silk with delicate cutwork embroidery around the neckline, cuffs, and hem; it’s old-fashioned now, having been made for me somewhere between fifteen and twenty years ago. I have not revised my ceremony clothes since then. Today, the trendiest kebaya are very long, sheer lace, worn over elaborately-lacy bustier lingerie that is meant to be seen. Some claim these sheer kebaya and visible lingerie are scandalous. I’m sure they, who object, enjoy the view even while they oppose the trend. These days, old women and little girls are the only ones who wear the style I have in public; my old-fashioned kebaya is perfect for my life-stage now that I am in the age-set of grandmother.

In the studio with Bruce, I ended up making photographs of these different pieces, each on its own. I am tempted to say they were still lifes but portraits probably describes the quality of the images better. Upon reflection the following day, I realized there was a conversation, maybe a tension, between the representation of the sensuous object – how the fabrics responded to being manipulated, how they reflected light, how the light and shadow lent them volume – and the social histories and biographies of these items of clothing. My images of the sash, in particular, reveal how in love I was with the gestural lines of the ribbon. Though it is just a flat, black, sinuous (un-ironed) strip, the sash in those photographs appears calligraphic. It is my sash I photographed. But I did not photograph my sash as a sash. I photographed it as a black form in a white environment with a horizontal surface, vertical space, and gravity.

When Bruce and I worked with my favorite kain (sarong; also, literally, fabric) – the cosmological, milky-way kain – I almost made the same mistake, photographing it as fabric only rather than also as kain. I arranged it over a rod we positioned in the space so the sarong could drape vertically and extend onto the horizontal surface. I was focused on the beauty of the folds of the fabric, the darks and lights as the angle of the light urged volume out of two dimensions. At the same time, I wanted to see more of the batik design. I kept spreading the fabric, which rendered it flatter and flatter. Finally, I simply folded it and let it hang straight from the rod, then stretch onto the horizontal plane. Bruce and I had an exchange about this. I wondered if it was too boring. He reminded me that often when we work through a series of images, the last is the simplest and sometimes ends up being exactly right. He said I should just take the picture so I would have it. And he was right. That simple shot is critically important. It tells the story of the fabric as a sarong: two meters of cloth make a skirt-like garment when wrapped around the body twice. The strapless and the kebaya I suspended from the rod by temporary loops of thread I sewed onto them at the top.

At the end of the shoot, I put on the kebaya over my bra and pants. I didn’t bother with the strapless and didn’t put on the sarong. I just wanted a few shots of my hands holding the fabric to illustrate my account of searching for kain for Wayan’s grandmother. I have no photographs of her and certainly none of the gestures I wanted to represent. And even if I had snapshots, or one spontaneous, bad photograph with lots of visual noise, none would have revealed what I want to show and say about a gesture that is both specific and non-specific. It is both personal and cultural, conventional. We, as humans embedded in particular social mileu, particular cultural/historical place/times, inhabit conventions and they feel authentic. When we activate these conventions of movement, of expression, we are communicating through our bodies in ways we intend as comprehensible expressions. What precisely we do has been choreographed and curated to match the cultural moment and both reflects and elicits our personal feeling as the cultural and the individual intersect, each informing the other. If our expressions stray outside the range of legible conventional responses, we become strange. If we deviate completely from legible cultural scripts, we are crazy. My photographic portraits of Wayan’s grandmother’s gestures are intended to visualize a legible conventional way of expressing gratitude and loss, Wayan’s grandmother’s gratitude for my gift of kain and how she held the kain against her body in order to reach out to touch me.

I haven’t yet told you how to wear ceremony clothes. My photographic portraits of kain, strapless, sash, and kebaya, all pictured separately, don’t show you how to wear ceremony clothes either. I had no human subject on whom to build a baseline image of how to wear ceremony clothes. I couldn’t make the images myself; indeed, I needed Bruce to take the pictures of my hands holding the kain. In order to offer this foundational, visual account, I had to become the model.

Here is how it happened. Bruce asked me to be the model for his lighting class, the one he was practicing for when he and I worked on my first set of ceremony-clothes pictures. He also asked me to play the role of a client, coming to his students (four men and a woman) with a purpose in mind. I could have come wanting all kinds of things: professional headshots; sexy boudoir photos; a stark and unapologetic documentation of my ageing. What I chose to bring was a pile of sarongs, two corsets, my ceremony sandals, three sashes, two jackets, my kebaya (lace blouse), and four stories in need of visual starting points for the imagination.

How can I illustrate remembered events in the absence of any images from those times? I have no photos or videos of any of them. I run them in my mind – multi-sensorial memories to which I have probably unknowingly added or subtracted things over the years. I keep meaning to excavate my research materials to find the printout of fieldnotes and emails home, to see what I wrote about these moments at the time, if I wrote anything at all. Given the fact these memories stand out and persist, after more than two decades, suggests to me I would have noted them then. But it’s possible I never did. Yet, it’s clear to me that the memories that comprise the Sarong Series, even if I didn’t write about them at the time, were formative. The influence of those situations on my thinking has expanded over time and contributes to a conceptual framework I use to understand the world around me and what happens in it.

The Sarong Series memories are part of a kind of ethnography of situational identity I am writing as personal history. What I mean by this is that I think I am exploring how our identities form and disintegrate, reintegrate and shift depending on the situations – social dramas – in which we act. Who we think we are shifts depending on our (social) location(s). Who we think others are – how we categorize each other, and what then we expect from them and us based on our always-limited understandings of individual pasts and cultural contexts – is unstable in its meanings. Different situations conjure different parts of the self. The self is an amalgam of individual and cultural, a convergence that is disruptive and productive; meaning-making plays out improvisationally amongst cultural actors, people who simply happen to be there doing what they do in the way they do it.

In the photoshoot with Bruce’s students I wore the ceremony clothes that I wore years ago in Bali. I also wore clothes I wanted to use to approximate the native (in the sense of local, contemporary) dress worn by others. Those others are specific (nameable individuals) and non-specific (cultural categories or subject-positions into which nameable individuals fit in different ways at different times). Standing in my ceremony clothes I stand for myself as well as for ‘women in ceremony clothes.’ When I wrap my sarong as a man I am standing in for a ‘man in ceremony clothes.’ In my kain and selendang (usually draped over the shoulder, though I wore mine as a sash in the photographs) from Minangkabau, I am standing in for the old woman who explained to me how Songket (rich ceremonial fabrics woven with gold or silver threads) changed during the twentieth century and why. Her story comes later.

For me, the photographs the students took during the lighting class are visual prompts, sketches. They are both informative and not informative. That is, they give us that visual baseline for the imagination – what do ceremony clothes look like? But they still don’t show us the specifics of what I describe, the particular events as they occurred to particular individuals. The photographs are placeholders I can not replace with something more persuasive – images that would feel native – in the absence of a re-creation on site, a play I would stage in the places where the events occurred with local actors playing the parts in my memories. At the same time, these local actors would play the parts of cultural conventions – the rules, and the rules for breaking the rules, the specific of individuals and the non-specific of culturally legible (re)actions. It strikes me how in fantasy and memory, the mind plays all the parts.

When past events exist/persist only in the mind, the imagination populates every subject position, not just the character “self,” if the self even is a character in the memory. How often in memory or fantasy or a dream does one see through one’s own eyes, occupy one’s own body, engaging from the place we can gloss as “I”? Are memories always the constructions of voyeurs?

When I first wrote the paragraphs above, I used the pronoun ‘we’ throughout. In my revision I worked hard to get rid of the ‘we’ in favor of language that is more general and also less personal. When I used “we”, I felt I was describing my own experience of dreaming and memory at the same time I was positing my experience of dreaming and memory is cultural, and thus shared.[1] “We” reveals a presumption that you will understand what I assert and may agree with it if you recognize an alignment of shared experience. By shifting away from this intimate and inclusive language and its presumptions, I feel I have taken a different kind of risk and universalized an experience that I/you can argue is not universal and forcing you to opt out if you don’t recognize yourself rather than inviting you to opt in if you do.

I want to feel connected, to feel I am not alone with my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences, anomalous in a world of interlocutors who don’t understand me and who I don’t understand. The premise behind anthropological analysis is that there is a kind of collective conceptual infrastructure. This infrastructure is sufficiently complex and flexible that it can support seemingly endless variation within a set of constraints that give meaning to the specific while also representing cultural understandings that are non-specific. I can feel a specific love to which I attach particular memories, associations, sensations, and aspirations. The fact I call it love and not something else, and that the person to whom I declare my love understands what I mean, or thinks (s)he does, and answers back with the same words, even as (s)he has different memories, associations, sensations, and aspirations, reveals the non-specific, the shared cultural value(s) plied together with the specific intimacy and attachment felt by the beloved.

How to Wear a Sarong

This is an instruction in how to wear a sarong like a woman, offered in pictures and words.

Images 1 & 2: Taking direction from the student photographers who were doing a few test shots to get the lighting right. I had told them what I was up to and they asked me to hold the fabric first before starting the instruction series. In the first image, my head is turned so I can see the picture on the computer across the room. In the second image, @itslikeread8 was posing me.

Image 3-: Take the kain (fabric) and start it at your right hipbone so that the hem comes to the ground and the excess extends up onto your torso straight. Wrap the kain around the back, across the ass, around the left hip . . .

(@itslikered8 asked me to take my bra off in case you are wondering; I decided to use these because in the series wearing the bra, the bra is distracting by comparison. @itslikered8 arranged my hair strategically. Take a look at the beautiful images of women wrapped in textiles in her Modern Muse Series @itslikered8 has posted on her Instagram.)

Images 4-7:  . . . across the belly . . .

Images 8-11: . . . then around the back again until the end comes to just inside the right hipbone or to the center front. Arrange the fabric so it’s smooth against the torso all the way around.

Images 12-15: Put the strapless bustier on over the fabric. The strapless holds the kain up as well as shapes and conceals the body under the kebaya.[2]

I was having trouble starting the zipper on the strapless so I looked up to ask for help.

Images 16-19: Once the strapless is secure over the kain, you put on the kebaya, which fastens with tiny snaps over a placket.

Images 20-23: Over the kebaya you wear the sash at the waist. I tie mine in an unconventional way, using a two-loop symmetrical bow positioned in the center-back with the ends hanging down below the knee. In Indonesia, women mainly wear their sashes tied at the center front, with the ends hanging down to the knee. These days, too, many women wear short sashes pinned at the waist so there are no ends. Traditional dress has its fashions and trends like everything else.

Image 24: Put on fancy sandals.


[1] In a Balinese cultural understanding of dreaming – at least as I understood it years ago when people described their dreams to me and the meanings of those dreams – what happened in dreams was really happening; the events in dreams were not sub-conscious desires or the work of the imagination. The Balinese men and women who talked to me about dreaming understood dream-narratives to be real events happening in real time in an alternate plane of existence called the niskala, the unseen/invisible world. The visible world is called the sekala.

[2] Traditionally, women in the past wrapped a 9-12 meter long band of (approximately) 6-inch-wide woven fabric around and around the torso, creating a strapless binding from the middle of the hip, over the bust, to just under the armpits.

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist, Writer

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