Indonesian Headdresses:
The forgotten beauty

Lampung’s gold plated Siger Pepadun from Tulang Bawang. Courtesy of Himpunan Wastraprema

A head ornament. A symbol of beauty and dignity. A nod to tradition. A timeless elegance. A headdress can be all of these.

A tiara, for example, will immediately transform the look of a woman as she wears it on her head, giving her a look of royalty and beauty. Without that dazzling little crown, how can a woman be called a princess?

But while the tiara is lucky enough to have become the most famous headdress nowadays, others have remained forgotten.

Traditional headdresses like meukutop from Aceh, saluang from West Sumatra and uncang from Jambi, for example, have stayed outside the limelight, being worn only during special occasions like wedding ceremonies or other rituals.

This decreasing popularity of headdresses in Indonesia is in contrast to other countries like Nigeria, for example, where its women are proud to wear the traditional Gel* on their heads.

"The tradition of wearing headdresses *in Indonesia* is diminishing. In some areas, it has even been forgotten," says Mariah Woworuntu, spokeswoman of the Indonesian Traditional Textile Society (Himpunan Wastraprema).

Unlike other cultural heritage such as traditional textiles, headdresses have been missing from many discussions and fashion events. Even the fact that headdresses carry the stories of traditional practices, centuries-old patterns and philosophies does not seem to attract people's attention.

"A headdress might be a thing that many people never pay much attention to, but it's an important element as a part of the whole traditional couture," says Adiati Arifin Siregar, chairwoman of Wastraprema.

History has it that people have many reasons to wear headdresses. In the country's many ethnic groups, it is believed that the head is the most sacred part of the body, where the soul enters the body. Thus, it is important for them to cover their heads.

Michael C. Howard, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, reveals there are at least five main reasons why people decorate or cover their heads: For fashion, gender, status, respect and identity purposes.

Head coverings as a fashion accessory, for example, can be seen from those used by the Dani tribe in Papua.

"The Dani widely use bird feathers for head decoration on special occasions and sometimes simply to show off," Howard says in a seminar held recently by Wastraprema.

The use of bird feathers, along with other natural elements like flowers and leaves in decorating heads, he says, was started before the discovery of cloth.

Not only did people use head coverings for fashion purposes, Howard says, they also used them to show one's gender.

Dani men, for example, "Wear larger and more spectacular feathers, while the women hang string bags from the foreheads," he reveals.

Headdresses as a symbol of respect, on the other hand, are those worn by kings and queens, or leaders.

"A king and queen use crowns to make their heads look bigger than everybody else's," he says.

In line with Howard, textile expert Sativa Sutan Aswar highlights the role of headdresses in demonstrating one's traditions.

In West Sumatera, for example, many of the women are still covering their heads with Islamic prayer wear (mukena) and sarongs. The mukena and sarongs are folded and twisted around their heads.

"Because Islamic tradition is still strong in West Sumatra, the practice of five times a day prayers is also strong, along with *the practice of* covering the heads," Sativa reveals. "Therefore to have the mukena and sarong twisted on *the women's* heads, would be more practical *for the women*."

As well as showing one's traditions, headdresses also reflect the identity of their wearers, says textile expert Suwati Kartiwa.

Local history, she says, recorded several local heroes wearing typical headdresses of Indonesian currency. Sisingamangaraja, a hero from North Sumatra, for example, is shown wearing a tali-tali Batak ulos head cloth in the old Rp 1,000 bills.

Meanwhile, the old Rp 5,000 bill shows a picture of Aceh hero Teuku Umar wearing the meukutop turban, and the current one shows West Sumatra's hero Tuanku Imam Bonjol wearing an Islamic turban that reflects his identity as an Islamic figure.

Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin from Palembang is also shown on the current bill of Rp 10,000, wearing a woven headdress.

"This indicates that the headdress is part of the acknowledgement of a person, a regional and a na-tional identity with a holistic meaning," Suwati says in the same discussion.

Made from a range of materials including fibers, gold, beads, leather, feathers and wood, she says, headdresses reflect the richness of Indonesian natural resources and the philosophies behind them.

The Dayak people in Kalimantan, for example, believe the hornbill, the feathers of which are used by the women, represents the God from the upper world.

The Dani women, in the other hand, use the feathers of the bird of paradise, which are rare and hard to get.

"Women's headdresses in West Sumatera have their own uniqueness showing the female rules in the custom of the matrilineal society."

"The horn shape of the female headdresses, according to Minangkabau legend, is a symbol of victory in the battle between a young buffalo and a big buffalo as mentioned in their folklore," Suwati says, adding the word Minangkabau is derived from menang (win) and kerbau (buffalo) - making the whole meaning "the winning buffalo".

Suwati explains the use of colorful woven cloth with rich patterns in West Sumatra headdresses reveal the luxury of Indonesian traditional textiles.

This is the same with male headdresses from regions in Java that use different kinds of batik cloth, like the blangkon and bendo of Sunda, West Java.

"The long history has shown us that Indonesian cultural products are rich in ritual and religious, as well as aesthetic, values," Suwati says.

Due to all the things conveyed by headdresses - from beauty and cultural richness to symbols of richness, gender, class and personal identities - headdresses must be preserved as part of our cultural heritage, she says.

"We have to document and revitalize them, as well as adjust them to new demands."

"In fact, nowadays, in the era of globalization, cultural products are the sources of creativity," Suwati says, adding that designers, craft makers and experts could play important roles in incorporating headdresses and creating new demand.

In brief, Suwati means that with headdresses being strutted in the fashion spotlight, forgotten heritage and timeless beauty could shine once again.

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