Sarongs are versatile garments that are fashionable and comfortable. They originate in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Arab peninsula, India and parts of Africa, where they’re still worn by both men and women. Sarong is the Malaysian word for “sheath,” or covering, but these garments go by different names according to region or country you’re in: they are izaars in Saudi Arabia, wizaars in Oman, mundus in India and kangas or kikois in some regions of Africa.
In parts of the globe where they are the traditional dress, different styles, colors and patterns have significance. For instance, in Sri Lanka, they’re mostly worn by men from lower economic classes. In Malay, they’re worn by men only on Fridays for attending mosque, but by women for every day. The Malay man’s sarong is woven into a checkered pattern, while the women wear the batik-dyed fabrics in bright florals. In Bali, women wear their sarong by starting it on their right hip and wrapping it around until they reach the end, then tying the ends and rolling them down to form an edge. Men pull them around their waist like an apron, wrap the fabric around and tie them in the front.
In Western culture, they’re worn almost exclusively by women. The different ways of wearing a sarong are even more numerous than the names. Though they’re most commonly donned as a wrap skirt that’s tied on the side, at the waist, they can also be used as head wraps, full-length dresses, shawls and even wedding gowns. They’re used in home decorating as everything from curtains and wall hangings to table and chair coverings.
Nowadays they’re a fashion staple that has gone from beach cover-up to multi-occasion use. They’re brightly colored and available in a variety of exotic prints and fabrics; the traditional method of dying them is called batik, which is similar to tie-dying in technique; the intricate patterns are achieved by marking off areas with a wax stamp in the desired design. After the dye has dried, the wax is removed and the fabric is sometimes re-stamped to form the repeat pattern in a different color. You can distinguish a true batik from a print by examining the underside of the fabric. A batik will be identical, with the color and pattern the same inside and out; a print will have the pattern only on the outside.