Revolutionary Dress Code and Lifestyle during the Dutch East Indies Period
Tirto, 17 November 2017, By Husein Abdulsalam
The Dutch made clothing a colonial practice, and activists resisted it
Activists of anti-colonial movements, who were seen as disobedient, tried several ways of resisting whilst they were imprisoned by the Dutch East Indies government. One of their methods was through writing.
When Marco Kartodikromo, journalist and member of the Sarekat Islam in afdeeling (the section of) Surakarta, was imprisoned in Weltervreden, Batavia from 1917-1918, he decided to write a novel called Student Hidjo. The novel, written in Malay, tells the journey of a Bumiputera (literally ‘son of the land’, meaning indigenous or native) named Hidjo who migrated to the Netherlands to study at the Technische Hogeschool Delft.
Rudolf Mrazek, in Engineers of Happy Land, describes Student Hidjo as a story about the lifestyle of a modern Bumiputera. The protagonist is depicted as someone who wears trousers, suit, tie, and two pens tucked into his suit pocket. The modern lifestyle of Hidjo is not limited to appearance alone. When he was in the Netherlands, Hidjo becomes a restaurant connoisseur, enjoying theatre, going to a picnic and taking the tram.
At a hotel, Hidjo is served by a Dutch waiter. “Mas Marco would call them ‘pelayan’ (waiter in Malay), and it is safe to assume that he was wearing a waiter’s uniform,” Mrazek writes.
At first glance, Hidjo’s life seems normal, if he would have lived today, his lifestyle would be similar to that of Indonesian students receiving LPDP scholarships who also have the opportunity to visit exotic places in Europe, next to their studying privilege. Nevertheless, there is a revolutionary aspect in Hidjo’s lifestyle in Europe, especially if we look at the context of discrimination received by Bumiputera at that time, because of the clothes they were wearing.
In “Sarong, jubbah, and trousers. Appearances as a means of distinction and discrimination”, Kees van Dijk quotes a fragment of an article by Kaoem Moeda that was published in the 25 September 1917 edition which tells the experience of a journalist named Keok who ordered food and beverages at a cinema.
Initially, Keok came to the cinema wearing typical Bumiputera attire. He ordered a glass of lemon juice to the waiter who was a local. But the waiter refused Keok’s request and left him for the European customers instead. Intrigued, Keok went to the cinema again. This time he was wearing European attire and as a result, Keok was served immediately.
In the same article, Van Dijk tells the story of Margono Djojohadikusumo, the grandfather of Prabowo Subianto. Whenstudying at the Europeesche Lagere School (ELS) in 1901, Margono recalls that Javanese students wore batik clothes, a typical Javanese jas tutup(closed jackets), and went barefoot. They were often humiliated by the head of the school because of the way they dressed, whilst Indo-European students called them “dirty natives”.
“Oftentimes, their skin tone was even browner than mine. The only difference was that they wore shoes and had Dutch names,” says Margono.
Sense of Modernity in the Dutch East Indies
Mrazek noted that Batavia, Cirebon, Tegal, and Pekalongan were already connected by telephone networks in 1900. In that era, hundreds of Dutch East Indies citizens were already used to travel by train of which the track has circled throughout the island of Java.
From the 1910s, many modern schools were established in the Indies – the STOVIA medical college was founded in 1899; Technische Hoogeschool (now ITB) was founded in 1920. A number of (native) children from noble families, priyayi or local rich people were now allowed to attend school. Some of them, as depicted in the story about Hidjo, even went further away and pursued an academic degree in Europe.
“It all started because of Hidjo’s father feeling socially insecure. Every time he met with upper-class native figures, particularly Javanese aristocrat officials, he became convinced that once his son obtained an academic degree in engineering, things would change,” Mrazek says.
Inevitably, the sense of modernity had influenced how the indigenous elite dressed in the Dutch East Indies. In the biography of Tirto Adhisoerjo, written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Van Dijk found that at the end of the 19th century, STOVIA students were still required to wear traditional clothes. However, in the biography, it is mentioned that ten years later, the students were wearing trousers under their white jackets.
At the same time, young men in the Indies had also started to groom their hair. Meanwhile, in several articles written by Ki Hajar Dewantara for De Indier, published in 1914, it was stated that Javanese people during that period stopped wearing sarongs and head caps, and those pioneering regarding this new habit were students from HBS, STOVIA, and the Kweekschool (Teacher Education School).
In his commentary on Keok’s social experiment, Van Dijk writes: “by wearing Western clothes, Keok had entered the world of Europeans it became indistinguishable whether he was a native-European or an Indo-European, who according to the law – but not always socially – had the same status.”
Behind the besuited and modern lifestyle, according to Van Dijk, the European dress code subtly indicated that the person was into progressive thinking.
“The European dress code showed that the person was part of a new modern movement, which not only demanded greater political freedom from the Netherlands but the movement also concerned resistance against the manners and etiquette of the elite in their own society,”writesVan Dijk.
For some, wearing traditional clothes was even considered a symbol of submission. Whilst, dressing up in European clothes were considered to raise someone’s social status. Sukarno was part of the latter group.
“I suggest that in moving forward; we have to reject the use of sarong, even for personal use. This ancient inlander(native) dress code has degrading consequences. The minute an Indonesian wears a pantaloon [a type of trousers], he walks up straight as the white people do,” Sukarno said in his biography, Sukarno: An Autobiography which was written in collaboration with Cindy Adams.
Was it only in the early 20th century that indigenous people started to dress in European-style attire? The answer is no. In the 17th century, Amangkurat II was wearing it too.
“His Majesty King Mangku-Rat wears a Dutch attire complete with socks and shoes, knee-length trousers with buttons at the knees, a three-piece velvet coat, with an opening at the front, decorated with gold lace, embellished with jewellery and a hat,” Van Dijk says, quoting a Babad Tanah Jawi texts.
However, by wearing Dutch attire, the babad-text depicts Amangkurat II as sacrificing his Javanese identity. His decision to wear European clothes convinced some that Amangkurat II was an imitator; pretending to be the son of a Dutch admiral, not a prince from Java.
Such polemic discussions about “identity loss” also emerged in the early 20th century. In De Indier, which was published in 1914, Ki Hajar Dewantara wrote that conservative parents and their children were anxious and started resisting [against dressing up as Europeans.] He also described how there were many cases of deteriorating relationships between mothers and their sons who cut their hair.
“I know the story of a teacher, and also a native doctor, who questioned: Why are we no longer considered full-fledged Javanese when we cut our hair,” Ki Hajar Dewantara asked, as cited by Van Dijk.
Van Dijk also reveals that De Indier in 1914 published an article with the title “Does a nice suit make a man look good?” That article, which was written by R.M. Sutatmo Mangunkusumo, intended to invite the nationalists to return to traditional dress code.
According to him, the reason why many Javanese started to adopt European dress code was that they wanted to be treated better by the Dutch. As such, they avoided social humiliation because the Dutch were a little bit nicer towards aEuropean dressed Javanese.
Likewise, in 1917, the newspaper Oetoesan Melajoe stated that a Malay who chose western dress code over his national attire, not only humiliated himself by denying his origins, but also made it difficult to be placed within a national group – neither European nor Malay.
At the Jong Java meeting in Surabaya 1921, there was also a talk about the use of the head cap. Sukarno described this dramatic incident in Sukarno: An Autobiography.
He wrote that the intellectuals who were present at the meeting questioned the use of the Javanese head cap, sarong, and peci. They considered these items as “lower class” attire. Amidst his anger, Sukarno, 20 years old at that time, explosively called them out which later became a sort of speech that affirmed the peci as a symbol of Indonesian nationalism.
“We need a symbol for Indonesia’s personality. This type of hat is the same as the hats worn by ordinary Malay workers. Let us hold our heads high and carry this hat as a symbol of an independent Indonesia,” said Sukarno.
Reporter/ author: Husein Abdulsalam
Editor: Zen RS