A Quick Guide to Dressing Like a Man in Bali

Sarong Series Number 3: Some thoughts on gender, the body, and the universe (and sarongs).

Dressing like a man feels like winging it every time; I am not a man. I don’t have a detailed physical routine around wearing a sarong like a man. I have no reliable physical habits that direct my hands this way and then that, hold here with the left, turn at the waist slightly, pull with the right, wrap, fold, hold, accordion, roll; I have not wrapped my sarong like a man enough times for it to feel natural. My understanding is visual, conceptual, not tactile and physical.

In this series of photographs I am demonstrating how to wrap a sarong like a man. The photographs do not have the same finely detailed, step-by-step character as my Anatomy of Ceremony Clothes description. Maybe this is partly because I don’t have the same granular sensitivity to operations. There are things I’m missing – exactly how much overlap over the belly, how precisely to engineer the folds in the center front.  What are all those subtle hand movements that make it work just right so it looks right and feels right and stays together even while doing men’s work all day, every day.

Hands on hips: angry stance in a Balinese grammar of body-language.

We did the men’s sarong images after the women’s sarong-wrapping instruction (see previous post for more description of the photoshoot). Chris was still directing and he asked me to put my hands on my hips. I did and mentioned that arms akimbo means anger in a Balinese grammar of body language. That surprised him and he commented. He asked me to take another attitude. I corrected again, saying no, I can’t do that. It’s not male. He asked what is male? So I described the gender of attitude and demonstrated dance positions – male, female, banci (androgyne) as a quick shortcut to the difference in how a woman stands versus a man. I took a strong, male dance position – opened my eyes wide until the whites showed (fierce), did a deep sort of plie with my legs wide, arms spread, fingers spread. Then I stopped dancing and just squatted in the relaxed position of a man, knees wide, arms outstretched, elbows on my knees. This is the position of men resting, or waiting by the side of a road or path for nothing in particular, or watching other men harass their roosters to prepare them for a mock cock fight.

Igel muani keras – Strong male dance position.
Bengong – staring into space in a resting (men’s) squat.

Men’s sarongs wrap in the opposite direction from women’s. Women’s sarongs wrap from right to left, the sarong finishing with the left covering the right; men’s sarongs wrap from left to right, the sarong finishing with the right covering the left. This simple oppositional organization of fabric is part of a gendered logic that pervades Balinese cosmology, starting with the human body, which is conceptualized as a small homologue to the universe.

In a Balinese worldview (epistemology), gender is a way of describing just about everything and the relationships between types of things or processes. This is how symbolism works – certain categories of things or people are granted a value or an identity that is meaningful within a universe of other values. To begin to map this out, imagine the body oriented in space, standing facing north. The sun rises on the right hand and sets on the left. The east where the sun rises is male, as is the sun; the right hand, the sweet hand, is male. The west where the sun sets is female, as is the moon; the left hand, the dirty hand, is female. North and east are male (and one should always orient the head of a bed so it faces north or east according to a Balinese version of feng shui), the south and west are female. Magic is right-handed (benevolent and male) and left-handed (malevolent and female). The right hand is social. To rest the right hand in the left is to make a polite request. Babies are taught to ask for things in this way before they can speak. The left hand is intimate and private. To give someone something with your left hand, especially food, doesn’t just demonstrate intimacy; it creates intimacy. If the relationship is not an intimate one, then giving something with your left hand, especially food, creates hierarchy and would be an insult between status equals.

Humorally speaking, heat is male where coolness is female. Sky is male. Earth is female. Every plant, situation, object, activity and relationship can be broken down into gendered complementarities. Gender is a nuanced language for talking about relationships, interdependencies, the order of things. Nothing is complete without the combination, in some way however subtle, of these gendered aspects. Gender is generative.

Back to sarongs. I intend this document as a baseline, an instruction and also a kind of visual glossary of gendered categories that are embedded in the way people wear their clothes, and which repeat, like reverberations, like sound waves or the concentric circles of disruption that reveal the submergence of a stone. This water-reference is a cliché but it visualizes something that helps me to convey the expansive, encompassing aspect of the ideas that are relevant to sarong-wrapping (and everything else). With this in mind, I’m going to relate to you a folk story. The teller recorded, transcribed, and translated it from Balinese into Indonesian. I haven’t re-read it. I’m relying on my memory of the tale as that is how oral tradition works. It was told to me. I am telling it to you. You may ask yourself what this story, and the way I contextualize it, has to do with sarongs. The answer is – it has nothing to do with sarongs and it has everything to do with sarongs. I am going to say to you what authors sometimes say to their readers – just listen. Come with me.

In the story of Chandra[1], a commoner has abducted his high-born love-object in an attempt at marriage by capture (malagandang) but he doesn’t violate her.  He wants her to give herself to him. She tells him she will marry him, but only if he will climb a magnolia tree to get her the flower she points out in the tree’s crown. The Cempaka magnolia (Magnolia Champaka) is the most beautiful, with the most exquisite perfume, of the seven white, scented flowers used to infuse holy water. It is a small blossom – the petals roughly two inches long – for such a massive tree, that can grow to 160 feet tall with a trunk up to six feet in diameter. The tree in the story, of course, is one of such magnificent proportions.

Cempaka flowers are picked by men[2] who climb the trees in the early morning before the dawn coaxes the buds to open fully; in the dark, the Cempaka’s petals remain soft and straight, modestly concealing the flower’s sexual center instead of arcing back to reveal the stamens and pistil. The hopeful lover climbs the tree in the dark and calls down to Candra when he reaches one of the buds – this one? She says no, the one farther up. Can’t you see it through the branches? He climbs higher, again reaching a flower, again calling out – is it this one you want? No. It’s the one above that. Can’t you see it glowing white amidst the leaves? He climbs higher, every time calling out, every time told that the bloom Chandra wants is still above him. When he gets to the top of the tree without obtaining the particular flower his beloved wants, he looks up at the sky from the Cempaka tree’s topmost branches and suddenly realizes the glowing white, unopened bud he has been searching for is the moon he sees glowing out of the morning-dark. He understands, then, that she is utterly unobtainable; her very name – Chandra – means moon. In despair and shame, he throws himself from the top of the tree and dies. His body, then, begins to change and each part of it becomes a botanical element that sounds improvised in the words of an excellent story teller – his cheeks become the white flesh of the Durian fruit; his eyebrows transformed to become the perfect arc of the leaf of the Intaran tree (Azadirachta indica, also Neem); his fingernails now cloves of garlic; his teeth the seeds of the white pomegranate (delima); the whites of his eyes now tiny cakes of yeast; jasmine blossoms where his nostrils were; sweet spices – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove – replace pubic hair; Salak fruits for testicles; a long eggplant for a penis; Pepper vine for sinews; the blue water lily for the glance of his eyes; a coconut for a skull, the leaves of the water lily wrapped around it are where the membrane covering his brain used to be, the music of a palm frond left in place of the sound of his breath.

The botanical equivalents for the body – each body part proxied by a fruit, a flower, a seed, a leaf, a stalk, a root, fungus, mold, vine– are established in this story in a seeming improvisation.  Yet, these same botanical equivalents for the body are discoverable in the contents of two huge mortuary offerings in which every part of the small world (buana alit) of the human body is represented by its counterpart in the big world (buana agung) of the universe: from this we know there is a logic. These proxies are used to adorn a corpse when it is bathed and wrapped in meters of white fabric, doused repeatedly with holy water containing the seven scented blossoms, including the Cempaka.

So you see, the metamorphosis of the despair-inspired lover’s corpse is not only a story told late at night to entertain. It’s an inculcation that describes and teaches a critical act of transformation and un-making that must be performed for the dead, part of which involves assembling the offerings about which I am telling you, and which are later burned with the corpse during cremation.[3] After the burning, the body’s botanical proxies are used to adorn another proxy made of Chinese coins strung together to form a stick figure with all the fingers and toes articulated. The coins are laid on top of a reiteration of the body made of its vestiges. The bone fragments of the deceased are retrieved from the ash of cremation by hand, through sifting and searching for every discernible piece, placed in three shallow dishes made of leaves. In each dish are collected the bone-shards of the head, upper body, and lower body.  The ash-proxy’s head is made from head shards; the proxy upper body and arms from upper-body shards, the proxy lower body, legs, and feet from the lower-body shards.[4]

I did an interview once with a neighbor. It was a structured conversational interview – I had a set of questions I asked all of my interviewees, but the questions in between those questions were determined by the specifics of each conversation. Part of the interview asked the interviewee to draw a picture of the human body. My neighbor, whose name escapes me, was then in her forties. She was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, her legs straight out in front of her. I gave her the piece of paper and a pencil and asked her to draw the body. She held the pencil awkwardly and stared at the paper for what seemed to me like a long time. I think about it now and there were so many assumptions embedded in my request. I had a notion of an abstract body that could be separated from the specificity of particular bodies. I had a notion that this abstract body could be represented in a drawing. I started with an assumption that asking my interlocutors for such drawings would be a comprehensible request. I was starting with pictures from anatomies in my mind. I actually had no idea what my interlocutors were starting with. Of course I wanted to find out. The fact I handed my neighbor a piece of paper and a pencil suggests the body could be described in that way, with those tools. But why should it be? (I asked her later to draw the contents inside the body and again she paused before saying (roughly, in Indonesian of course) – well, I’ve never seen the inside of the body but I’ve cut pigs and I’m guessing what’s in pigs might be similar to what is in humans . . . Humbled again. Of course I have never seen the inside of the human body either.)

Then she looked up at me and she began to pat her body – her chest, her lap, her legs, back to her chest – with both hands as she asked me – you mean this? You mean me? So (going with whatever she was thinking) I said yes. And she began to draw. She pressed hard on the paper with the pencil to make her lines thick and dark and drew a stick figure with intense focus I didn’t understand at the time. To me it seemed strange she would work so hard on such a simple figure.  She narrated as she drew – this is me after I have died, after I have burned. A man from my family will make this for me . . . then if it has been done correctly, some time later, one of my sons will dream I have come to the gate of the compound, then entered the yard and asked for food (minta nasi, literally request rice, the word rice being a gloss for food generally). If/when this happens, they will know that the next child born in the house will be me; I will have returned.

At the time I didn’t understand what my neighbor was telling me. I was trying to make sense of it on the hoof – watching, listening – but it didn’t make sense. It was only later, I don’t remember how much later, that I realized she was talking about her own cremation and the final reiteration of her body after her corpse was finished burning, using her bones and ash arranged on a white cloth, then overlain with the coin proxy and adorned with the botanical proxies, doused in holy water, bundled up with a small inscribed shroud, placed in a miniature replica of a cremation tower, something like a sedan chair for bones and ash, and taken on its last physical journey to the ocean for the final dis-integration – water to water. My neighbor’s rhetorical move is fascinating to me. The abstract, generalizable human body I asked her about becomes her specific body. She drew a self-portrait, but not of her living self. She drew a self-portrait in ash.

I only know a small percentage of the botanical elements that correspond to the body; probably only the eldest and most skilled ritual offering specialists have memorized the contents of the most complex mortuary offerings and know what all of the possible proxies are. Sometimes a particular ingredient isn’t available so she has to know what else can stand for the veins or whatever. I watched an offering specialist call for the frond of a particular species of palm that proxies the ribs and no one could find one quickly so she instructed her assistant to go to the nearest metalsmith (there were many in that village) and request a tiny proxy in metal of the ribs curving out from the spinal column.

I couldn’t see the landscape the same again after that. Intaran leaves on the ground around the tree are perfect eyebrows. That particular palm that makes a quiet tuned percussion with its leaves is the ribs and their flexing with breath. The blue water lily is the glance of the eyes. That is how the anatomies called Tatwa Wit – Root Teaching – begin: the blue water lily is the glance of lovers’ eyes.

I first worked on a series of Tatwa Wit with two, later three, teachers, all high-caste men in their 60s who read, translated, and wrote palm leaf manuscripts in Old Javanese, which can perhaps be compared to reading, translating, and writing in Latin. The Tatwa Wit’s Western correlative texts are anatomies, with their meticulous visual deliberation on the particularities of the body and their representation. Considering Tatwa Wit alongside Western anatomies I was (and am still) struck by the disembodied, unlocated nature of Western anatomic representations of the body. The flayed and splayed bodies in our anatomies are chronicles of dissection. These disembodied bodies are particular but not specific, an additive model that begins with an armature, the skeleton, and builds the body layer by layer. The (Western) anatomy I have adds these systems, roughly, in the reverse order of the dissection that was the mode by which Western men came to understand the body and its ‘systems’ and then, perhaps, by order of perceived importance: the muscular system, nervous system, limbic system, parasympathetic system, orthosympathetic system, digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, excretory system, and, finally, at the very end, the reproductive system. In the particular anatomy I am consulting, there are two headings below “Reproduction” – Man and Woman and The Male Reproductive System. “The female reproductive system” is a sub-heading under “the male reproductive system.” The very last discussion in the book is “Insemination, pregnancy and nursing.” Anatomies are maps of power. The conceit is that authoritative texts are simply true. Embedded dynamics of power, gender, and race are effaced and implicitly these documents purport there is no culture; there is only nature. I don’t accept that. You probably know that about me already.

Tatwa Wit anatomies start with the desire of lovers.

Sex is the foundational productive act/relationship that launches the continual, transformative process of making and unmaking that is the body over the course of a life and into death.

This is a tough part to write because what I am writing seems so obvious.  Sex makes new bodies. But I’m writing about anatomies. And there is a contrast between indigenous Balinese anatomies (Tatwa Wit) and the Western anatomies I grew up looking at, which depicted White, adult, male bodies as the exemplary representations of human contents and characteristics. The body was a fully-formed (male) body in stasis, perpetually flayed, taken apart, every functional aspect already disarticulated from every other – what the Balinese do through mortuary at the end of life.  Western anatomies, within this framework, are snapshots of corpses. not representations of living bodies in flux. And, indeed, we know it’s true that they are snapshots of corpses.

The originary combinatory impulse is initiated by the glance of would-be lovers. Their first insubstantial exchange of emotion, legible in a look, leads to a feeling. Their hearts beat faster, their breaths become shallow, their ears ring, the world constricts. They have sex. In the terms of the Tatwa Wit, their souls meet, their bodies meet and then their procreative fluids (kama putih and kama bang, literally white desire and red desire) meet to form an embryo the word for which (ajur mula) means molten metal, the creation of an alloy of white (male) and red (female) to form the body of a child. The fetal body develops out of an ongoing combination of gendered fluids mixing in a woman’s body over the months of a pregnancy. Old people admonish young couples to have regular sex during a woman’s pregnancy so the child will develop fully with no deficits; they clarify that sex is the work of marriage.  In this way, new bodies are made through sex, made of sex. Sex is the responsible creative act that brings bodies into being through their complementary contributions.

It’s gendered turtles all the way down.[5] Every productive process or relationship references sex, viewed most simply as the combination of male and female (androgynes are not the absence of gendered relationships but their combination in one body instead of two).

Sarongs are no different; sarongs are located in this symbolic scape. The way they wrap is not coincidence or random. It is determined by this cosmo-logic.

For men, the sarong is wrapped like this:

Image 1. You start the fabric at the center front or just to the right of the center front so it covers the genitals.

I’m not sure if the left hand position is correct or not. I did not watch adult men wrap their sarongs but my guess is that the left hand would start over the genitals.

Image 2. Wrap around the back, to the front again and accordion the remaining fabric to form a phallic drape down the center.

Arranging the phallic drape in the front.

Image 3. Over the sarong goes a shorter – in both width and depth – piece of fabric called a saput.  

Trying to organize the saput. I think you can tell I’m not used to this.

Images 4-6. A sash or leather belt secures the folds of the sarong and saput, which are then rolled down over the belt to hold all the layers in place at the waist.

Starting the belt.
Still working on the belt.
Rolling the sarong and saput down over the belt.

Image 6 (above)  In contemporary Balinese ceremony dress, men wear a kemeja, a simple button-down shirt with long or short sleeves. In these photos I wore a jacket rather than a kemeja. Historically, men wore no chest covering except in the temple or other context in which the most polite or reverent attitude was required, and then they wore the saput pulled up under the armpits and secured with a sash around the ribs (actually, I’m not sure if that’s correct. I don’t know if the fabric pulled up to cover the chest was also called a saput).

Image 7, I stand like a man.

I am not really standing like a man here, more like a dancer about to dance a male character. My toes are up in a dance move. My hands are tense with fingers spread in a dance move. This posture looks like I’m about to raise my arms into the stance of a strong character, like I’m gathering the energy to become a powerful figure. My teacher taught me to start the development of a male character at my feet, gather energy there first, then pull that energy up my body and fill the stance with power and intensity.

About the textile:

Before I left for the photoshoot I sewed the two pieces of a Songket Alam sarong together. Balinese Songket are hand-woven in two lengths the width of the loom and less than the 2 meters you would typically get with a batik sarong; because Songket are fine, you don’t get excess length the way you do in other fabrics that are less precious. Prior to the photoshoot, I had never worn any of my Songket Alam textiles as a sarong.  Songket Alam (alam means natural) are a modern style of hand-woven, supplementary-weft textile in which the motifs are created by colored cotton or silk instead of the gold or silver threads of traditional Songket, which were luxurious fabrics reserved for nobles and royalty. In supplementary-weft textiles, generally, the threads that make up the design are described as ‘floating’ on top of the base fabric; they are ornamental, integral to the visual design, but not structural. If you cut all of them off you would still have a length of cloth. I was told that what makes Songket Alam ‘natural’ is a combination of natural and commercial dyes so that once the cloth is woven and washed, the natural dyes run and combine while the commercial dye stays bright. The result is often a muted palette with splashes of color that can be extremely beautiful. For awhile, this style of weaving was the latest trend in luxury sarongs. It has been supplanted since but it’s still my favorite.


[1] The “C” is always pronounced like a “ch” in English.  Candra is pronounced Chandra. Cempaka is pronounced Chempaka, and so on.  I use the Indonesian spelling throughout.

[2] Sky is male. Anything that involves climbing trees or scaling heights is men’s work because of this association. Women do not climb trees.

[3] The main tasks of Balinese mortuary are to return the body and soul to its original forms and locations. The two souls must be separated from the physical body. The eternal soul – atma  – is returned to the undifferentiated divine from which it was borrowed. The personal soul – jiwa – is coaxed out of the body so that it may be prepared for return; a Balinese understanding of reincarnation entails the personal soul returning within the family rather than returning in some other higher or lower form of living creature unrelated to the deceased. The persuasion and shepherding of these souls to their proper places is performed by a Pedanda Siwa. At the same time, another priest, a Pedanda Buda, works to take the body apart through mantras and mudras while the family and community of the deceased do this work physically, taking the corpse through a series of rituals that return the elements of the body to their origins – earth to earth through interment, fire to fire and air to air through cremation. Ether I’m not sure about. And water to water through taking the body to the ocean in the form of ash and submerging it there. If the family can’t take the ash to the ocean, they take it to the river. Around each of these tasks are elaborate and beautiful preparation that are more or less elaborate depending on status and wealth: special offerings of meat and botanical elements; gorgeous textiles; proxy bodies made in various materials – sandalwood plaques, Chinese coins, botanical elements; inscribed shrouds; gold ornaments; gamelan music; cremation towers, sarcophagi in different animal shapes depending on caste and clan; and more I’m forgetting or don’t know about.

[4] I have done this – sifted through the ash to find the bones of the deceased – for the wife of the priest who was a relative to one of my teachers. I had been at the bathing of her corpse, observed her adorned with botanicals and bound in white cloth, her body stored under an inscribed shroud (tumpeng salu) while the complex offerings for her cremation (pengawak and tetukon) were assembled. I walked to the river with her grandchildren and her sister in law (who was a female priest) who carried a clay pot in which the liquid of the decaying body was collected, turned ritually into holy water and used to mark the third eye of each of us before it was emptied into the river. There was hardly anything there; corpses are now semi-preserved with formalin to spare the family the stench of death while they wait to purify the body with fire and the house with the smoke of incense and holy water. I have done this intimate work alongside the deceased’s adult children. This is work we must do for our parents; they brought our bodies here, our tangible materiality borrowed from the world around and our intangible essence lent by the divine. In turn, we shepherd their bodies and souls back to their origins. We return the immortal soul to the undifferentiated god stuff from which it comes, release the individual soul from the specific body (making it available to return), and restore the five elements of which the body is made: fire returns to fire; water returns to water; earth returns to earth; air returns to air; space returns to space. 

I have done this for someone else’s parents and I will not be able to do it for mine.

[5] Turtles all the way down is a reference to an indigenous concept of the world resting atop a turtle. Sometimes this turtle foundation is not just one turtle, but layers upon layers of turtles. Turtles all the way down, then, is a way of talking about a fundamental reality; there is no end to it.