With so many races and indigenous tribes in Malaysia, there are many varying traditional Malaysian costumes.
These days, locals will wear their traditional dress mainly for formal and other ceremonious occasions. But there are some that are still worn on a casual basis.
Get to know what the traditional clothing in Malaysia are and their significance to the respective races!
Starting with the Baba-Nyonya, also known as Peranakans. These are descendants of the Chinese immigrants who took Malay wives during the 14th to late 19th century.
1. Kebaya Nyonya
This used to be worn by the Nyonya (Peranakan women) on a day-to-day basis. They often dressed up the elegant attire with plenty of elaborate (but redundant) gold accessories to show their status.
Nyonya today are proud of their heritage and may occasionally wear a kebaya Nyonya out depending on the occasion.
2. Kasot Manek Manek
When Nyonya get married, it was traditional to make a pair of kasot manek manek (beaded slippers) by themselves. Embroidery and beading were part of a Nyonya’s childhood.
Today, these lovely slippers are mostly accumulated by earnest collectors not only for their rarity and incredible handiwork but because of the unnatural small sizes they could be found in.
Note: Foot binding was a common practice in the early days of the Baba-Nyonya
Although it is possible to obtain a pair of these slippers in regular shoe sizes. If you just want to see them in person, you will be able to find them on display in Peranakan museums.
3. Baju Panjang
There’s another more casual clothing style worn by Nyonya. These were inspired by baju kurung worn by the local Malay women.
These long blouses are slightly sheer (a white inner shirt is also worn), have long sleeves, and go down to the knees. The Nyonya would use 3 gold brooches (kerongsang) to fasten the blouse together.
The last piece of the puzzle is the full-length wrap skirt – a batik sarong.
Malay Traditional Clothing
Malay traditional clothing are generally very covered up and modest to reflect Islamic beliefs.
Women often cover up everything (except their faces and hands) and this often includes their hair.
4. Baju Melayu
Malay men wear baju melayu for weddings and other formal occasions including the biggest Malay festival, Hari Raya Aidilfiltri.
These traditional clothes consists of a long-sleeved shirt, and matching pants – usually in the same fabric and color.
And they may also wear their best suit for visiting the mosque (more so on religious days of the year).
Worn around the waist and at knee length, sampin (samping or kain dagang) is an optional accessory to complete a baju melayu suit.
The sampin is held in place just by rolling the top of the cloth over on itself, tightly against the waist.
These normally have intricate patterns of floral motifs and Islamic geometric patterns and hence, they are a lot more elaborate than the rest of the outfit.
This full-dress attire originates from the state of Malacca and both men and women wear it in the south-east Asian countries of Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
6. Baju Kurung
Of all the Malay traditional clothes, the baju kurung is the most common place in Malaysia. It’s a loose fitting long sleeved and collar-less tunic with a full-length skirt of contrasting or identical colors and fabric.
The more conservative options have noticeable padding at the shoulders for a more structured silhouette.
Female teachers may wear the baju kurung to schools and it is also widely accepted in offices including government offices.
In fact, school uniforms for girls in local and private schools often include a baju kurung option as an alternative to a pinafore.
While many Malay women wear baju kurung, women of all races in Malaysia can also be seen donning the baju kurung (though not as often).
7. Baju Kebaya
While this traditional clothing in Malaysia consists of a long-sleeved top and full length skirt too:
The baju kebaya has many buttons down the center of it and it accentuates a slim waist unlike the baju kurung. Thus, it is frequently worn by young or unmarried Malay women for formal occasions – typically together with a tudung.
Malaysia Airlines’ female crew wear uniform heavily inspired by the baju kebaya.
8. Kain Songket
Kain songket or songket cloth is an elegant and heavy handwoven brocade fabric that can be found in Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.
To make this fabric, Malay weavers employ the use of metallic threads (silver or gold) to make patterns stand out. In Malaysia, the state of Terengganu is particularly famous for songket.
Songket can be worn as part of a traditional Malay costume for both men and women. Typically as the sampin for baju melayu. But an entire baju kebaya may be made of this fabric too.
This is the head covering many Malay women wear in Malaysia to conceal their hair. There are different ways of wearing a tudung:
The most conservative way is to have it frame the face while the rest of the shawl covers the neck and shoulders entirely.
Tudungs are usually in plain colors and Malay women pair them with modern clothes, baju kurung or baju kebaya.
Batik is another traditional fabric that Malaysia shares with other countries in this part of the world. It is heavily associated with the eastern states of West Malaysia (e.g., Terengganu, Pahang and Kelantan).
Malaysian batik does not feature any human figures or animal motifs as these are forbitten in the Islamic religion. Batik can be both hand-drawn (with a tool called canting) or stamped.
Common patterns include flower motifs and geometric designs. Batik shirts can be seen worn with suit pants as formal attire for Malaysian men. While women may wear baju kurung featuring batik print.
This unique fabric can be bought as a scarf and therefore makes a fine souvenir from Malaysia too!
Malaysian Chinese Traditional Clothing
Because of the restrictive fit of traditional Chinese clothing that are less than ideal for the hot climate, they are not worn often in Malaysia.
Many Chinese will only wear traditional Chinese costumes during Chinese New Year or at their pre-wedding photoshoot. Red is an auspicious color and hence, popular among the Chinese community in Malaysia.
11. Tang Suit
Pants are not the focal point of the Tang suit. Traditional pants are loose, but many Malaysian Chinese men choose to wear the more conservative shirts with modern pants of slimmer cuts.
The top of the Tang suit may be short sleeved or long sleeved but the important features are the high Mandarin collars and pankou knots that run down the front length of the shirt.
12. Cheongsam/ Qipao
Chinese women may choose to wear cheongsam or qipao for formal dinners and festive gatherings.
These are body-hugging dresses with capped sleeves (or no sleeves), mandarin collars and pankou knots that run diagonally across the upper chest. There are varying lengths – full length, knee length, etc and they may or may not have a leg slit.
While these dresses come in many colors, red, pink, and gold are especially common. Traditional cheongsam may feature embroidered floral motifs (e.g., peony, blossoms and chrysanthemum), phoenixes, dragons, etc.
Malaysian Indian Traditional Clothes
Malaysian Indians wear their traditional dress during religious festivals as well as formal occasions like weddings.
Although, there are also less dressy variations that they (both men and women) may wear on a casual basis too.
This is a ¾ or long-sleeved tunic with a mandarin collar and buttons down the chest. They can be plain or have detailing at the sleeves or collar.
The fabric can be of a satin finish or of linen while the overall length of the garment may vary from below or above the knees.
Both women and men wear kurta in Malaysia.
Originating from the Indian subcontinent, the lungi is a type of sarong that is worn by both men and women.
The lungi’s often come sewn like a tube making it easy for the wearer to just fold and tuck it around their waist.
Often worn to combat the heat and humidity, the lungi also provides flexibility. Some men will often lift the bottom and tuck it into their waistbands before they perform tasks that require more freedom for leg movements.
In Malaysia, buying the lungi or sarong is easy as many older men wear it as nightwear. Plus, it comes in many designs although batik and plaid styles are more commonly found.
Originating from South Asia as far back as the 18th century, the sherwani was often worn by Muslim aristocrats.
It is said that the design was inspired by the Persian cape albeit with a more traditionally Indian appearance (Angarkha) before it became the sherwani we know today.
While the top looks like a buttoned-up coat, the pants, called the churidar is more fitted around the calves to show the shape of the legs. However, it is loose and baggy at the thighs and hips.
In modern times, both men and women can wear the sherwani and it is often worn during weddings or religious festivities. And though both outfits can come with shawl, women’s shawls are usually more elaborate.
The dhoti is similar to the lungi and is a type of sarong as well. However, there is a cultural and religious difference.
Originating from India as well, Indian men in Malaysia wear this usually during religious functions such as prayers, weddings, and funerals.
It is usually in cream or white and may be 4.5 metres long. But unlike the lungi, the dhoti is never sewn into a tube shape and men will usually wrap it around their waist or fold it to into their pants.
However, you can find both dhoti-pants which come ready made as well as regular dhoti where there is an elastic band at the waist for quicker and more secure dressing.
The history of the Sari traces back to the Indus Civilisation at around 2800-1800 BCE. The sari is a long cloth, often in a myriad of colours and designs.
In India, women wear saree on a daily basis, but in comparison, this is an uncommon practice in Malaysia.
As Indian women in Malaysia usually save their saree for special events and occasions such a prayers, weddings or parties.
And since there are many variations of sari, they can have different levels of significance and value. For example, a bride’s sari is usually made from pure cotton, heavy and pricey. Whereas a regular sari can be made from silk, chiffon or even cotton but is usually lightweight.
18. Salwar Kameez
The salwar kameez originates from South Asia and Muslim women wore it as early as the 13th century.
Kameez is the top of the outfit and it is similar to a sherwani top but less intricate. The bottom, salwar, is also similar to sherwani pants where it’s loose at the hips and thigh but tapers down into a tighter fit at the calves and ankles.
A shawl called the dupatta usually accompanies a salwar kameez outfit. Either worn on the head or around the neck. Punjabi and Sikh communities often use the shawl to cover their head before entering the temples.
The design varies greatly as the material can be bought and sewn into a salwar kameez.
Traditional Costumes Worn By Ethnic Groups In East Malaysia
You will have the opportunity to see these during the Harvest Festival in East Malaysia as well as some live performances for cultural dances in Malaysia.
Often worn during cultural events, members of the iban tribe have different clothing for men and women – ngepan indu Iban for women and ngepan laki Iban for men.
The full outfit comes with pieces such as the baju burung or kelambi which is an ornate vest. There is the marik empang and kain kebat for the women as well – these are a shoulder piece and a bodice accessory respectively.
The marik empang is often colourful with hanging pompoms on the borders. For men, they don the sirat which is essentially a loin cloth.
20. Kadazan Dusun
In the kadazan dusun tribe, men and women have the own set of traditional clothing. Women wear sinuangga and tapi whereas men wear gaung and souva.
The sinuangga is a short shirt and the tapi is a wrapped skirt. The abdomen is wrapped with a wide belt made of silver coins.
It may be worn on a daily basis as it’s made of breathable materials such as cotton. However, this traditional costume in Malaysia can can also be made from silk or velvet for events or ceremonies.
Ladies also don a hat called the papar which is cone-shaped and has a feather and flowers – these represent the status of the women; single, married, widowed, grandmother, etc.
The men’s set consists of the gaung which is long-sleeved top that had gold trimming at the border. Souva are long black pants that have the matching trimmings with the top (but this can vary depending on the design).
Traditional Bidayuh clothing defers for men and women.
For the women, it consists of 3 parts; the blouse, jomuh which is a skirt, selapai which is a sash, pangiah (a beaded necklace), porik, (belt made form copper or other metals) and sipiah which is their headgear.
The men’s traditional Bidayuh dress consists of 3 parts too:
Starting with the tawuop which is a long loin cloth that is wrapped around the body and hangs down on the back and front of the body. The headgear is called burang sumba and finally, kima (armlets) complete the costume.
Weddings and festivals are a great opportunity to see traditional Malaysian clothing. Other than this, you can find traditional wear shops easily in major cities.
Even if you don’t specifically go out and look for them, you’ll notice some Malaysians wearing their traditional clothes as they go about their day.