Going Traditional in Modern Times

When we gloat about Malaysia’s rich cultural diversity, we tend to mention our food variety, multilingualism, and festive celebrations… but how could we forget about our traditional costumes? In Malaysia, the most famous examples that come to mind are the baju kurung, baju kebaya, cheongsam ,and the sari. For some ethnic groups, it is rather common to wear traditional costumes in daily life. However, for others, not so much (some costumes are just not designed for our hot weather lah!). There is also the notion that traditional costumes can only be worn during formal events or festive celebrations. Nevertheless, it never hurts for us fashion lovers to explore how to incorporate our cultural heritage into everyday outfits!  


Mimpikita reimagines Malay garments as luxurious, breathable casualwear.
Source: Mimpikita

Malays generally find no problem sporting their traditional costumes in everyday life. However, they can still benefit from a little more fashion and comfort. Local brands like Tangsi Tujuh, Anaabu, and Mimpikita have been working to redesign traditional Malay ensembles. They aim to produce luxurious, breathable casualwear with muted tones that can be worn day and night. Functionality is emphasised by using materials like cotton and linen as well as adding pockets and stretchable waistbands.

Anaabu Eid 2020 collection.
Source: Anaabu


A loose-fitting two-piece set with cheongsam elements.
Source: Zalora Malaysia

For some, wearing a body-hugging, non-breathable cheongsam may be too much. Thus, one can always opt for clothing with cheongsam elements, such as floral designs, Mandarin collars, pankou knots (knotted buttons on cheongsams), and diagonal tops. As for tangzhuang, its elements are similar to those of a cheongsam’s. The difference is that it can generally be worn as casual wear. For the sake of functionality, one can choose to forgo the traditional satin and lace for a looser fit.

Chinese star Wang Yibo wearing modified tangzhuang.
Source: @/sumoeri on Twitter


Wearing a printed sari with a blacktop.
Source: @/mira.sethi on Instagram

Wearing a sari may sound high-maintenance, but it is quite liberating, given its breeziness. To rock a casual sari, pair it with jackets, crop tops, blouses, and play around with florals, stripes, monochrome… the options are endless! As for kurtas, it has long been an icon of fashion. In fact, you can find modified versions sold in various fashion stores! Long or short hems or sleeves, patterned or solid colours; you name it, they got it!

 Long-sleeved kurta.
Source: Utsav Fashion
Short-sleeved kurta.
Source: Utsave Fashion

Of course, the variety of Malaysian traditional costumes goes far beyond what is shown here. The idea is to transform what is typically viewed as old-fashioned into something modern, while maintaining its cultural essence. All we need is a little creativity, inspiration, and boldness. If you are comfortable, feel free to go beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and gender and explore the endless possibilities of fashion! However, we should always keep in mind to respect different cultures. There is a thin line between that and using elements of a culture inappropriately for the sake of aesthetic purposes. Stay mindful, stay fashionable!

Written by: Chong Xin Rou (Emily)

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