Monday, January 24, 2022

Uli / Beauty

 Uli, whose name means ‘beautiful’, is a lovely Indonesian woman of the Batak ethnic group who is thoughtfully sorting through her relationship to clothes. She is a skilled weaver who tries to earn a living by making the traditional clothing of her ethnic group. As she whiles away hours every day throwing weft between warp yarns, she ponders her challenges and then posts her thoughts on Facebook in the evening when her mother and daughter are asleep. 

It is fascinating to read her take on fashion. Here in the Northern nations we are pummeled by a barrage of fashion advertising that incessantly invites us to enhance our beauty and achieve our individual dreams through the purchase of new designs and styles. Uli is not exempt from this bombardment, even in North Sumatara, but on top of that she is situated in a cultural and temporal crossroads that influences her thoughts and choices. 

 She begins her clothing memories in her post on 17 January 2022 with what she learned at junior highschool – no doubt an element of the Dutch curriculum brought to the region during the colonial era: tall, slender people can wear bright colours and large patterns while heavyset people are better off wearing dark colours and small patterns.  She perceived of herself as being on the heavy side, not overly so, but enough that her mother bought clothing for her with small patterns and dark colours. When she reflects on her teen years, it is as though she had been “made to wear hotel curtains or bedspreads from the 19th century”. She grew up in a small Batak village far from a big city. 


When she eventually left the village to find work and earn her own living, she developed a new relationship to clothes. She got caught up in the world of fashion. Not only did she have access to a variety of styles but she had the means to purchase them! That was when “all clothes fit my body”. “…hot pants, ¾ length trousers, long straight pipes, bellbottoms, standard, everything looked good.” Uli used the word ‘tangkup’ to describe her appearance, a Batak word used to denote the “fitting” appearance of clothing being worn. “Whether a midi, mini or long dress, it was ‘tangkup’.” She regarded herself as blessed because she had the quality of 'tangkup'.


Now that Uli is older and has returned to her village, she has become critical of fashion, which she sees as “making us all dependent.” Consequently “we no longer see our bodies as beautiful in accordance with the intent of the Almighty,” but “we see our bodies as full of problems... Because of fashion and also imported beliefs, we see ourselves as having bodies full of problems and so we leave everything to the opinions of clothing designers.” She knows this from personal experience. She used to see her calves and thighs as “too big” even though she knows they are beautiful. She felt the need to hide them and they became “white from sunlight deprivation.” She also has “full breasts and in accordance with the dictates of fashion and fanatical Christianity, I covered myself up like a nun.” 


Uli’s frustrations with the world of clothing run deep. She is wedged in among a variety of forces. One is mechanization. She learned how to weave as a child, in the tradition of her ethnic group, and today she makes the traditional clothing of her ethnic group. These are oblong pieces of cloth that are hung over the shoulder or wrapped around the waist. However, in the neighbouring town there are mechanical looms, brought in during the colonial era, which produce variants of her laborious and time-consuming hand loomed work much faster and at one fifth the price. Competing with a mechanical loom is no recipe for well being for a hand weaver. It drags the price of textiles down. Uli’s work is vastly underpaid and she barely scrapes by.


But that isn’t all. The fashion system, she observes, has been “colonizing them” for a long time. “We live accordance with fashion trends. Fashion becomes ‘expired clothing’ because of the style [which becomes outdated].  [The fashion purveyors] are the ones who determine which [styles] are viable and which should be thrown out”  even though “Every 30 years, old clothing styles become trendy again…”. One senses how difficult it is for Uli to eke a living in the midst of the external  fashion forces over which she has no control. For her as a weaver of clothing, this is devastating. Fashion “makes many people, especially Batak people like me, reluctant to wear [our traditional clothing].” It whittles away her market.


Even in the world of traditional textiles, there are competing trends. Hip wrappers can be worn in the styles of the neighbouring ethnic groups, Minangkabau, Javanese, Malay, all of them considered more fashionable than the Batak style. Uli recounts how she once spent an entire day learning from her mother how to wrap her hipcloth in the Batak way. “We say that wearing our [traditional clothing] is complicated. Yes, in the beginning it is very complicated. But in the end wearing a sarung isn’t as complicated as wearing a dress with buttons, which is often very tight. If you buy a dress in the style and size worn by the masses, it often feels like you are wearing someone else’s clothes.” At some point Uli was struck by the absurdity of it all. “Why would we sell our own weavings, which are more beautiful and better made, for a low price to buy factory clothing which is expensive?”  She compared this kind of irrational behaviour to selling her Indonesian chickens to purchase Australian eggs, and only because the Australian eggs were imports and therefore had the allure of being somehow better. 


Uli has chosen to wear the fruits
of her own loom to Church
Now Uli has chosen to wear the fruits of her own hand loom to Church on Sundays instead of a purchased dress. She noted the progression in her thinking: “… after I started to weave, and read many perspectives about weaving, about heritage textiles of Nusantara, I discovered that the right way to dress was the way our ancestors dressed. They spin, weave textiles for all occasions, and suitable for all circumstances; it is the strength of the patterns, fibres, that they are able to handle nature’s elements and are so durable that they can be passed on to the next generation. Therefore, these are the clothes that are appropriate for these tough economic times. Moreover, clothing that is not cut and sewn highlights the ‘tangkup’ side of every person.” 


Uli took a photograph of her lap showing a close-up of her 
fine weaving. She explained that she is using kain and
kebaya, her traditional dress, to express her opposition to the
industrialisation of her weaving tradition and the
garment industry.

Uli gave her writing the title, ‘tangkup’ and explained that it denotes ‘fitting clothing’. She had been blessed with the quality of ‘tangkup clothing’, she noted – although there was nothing exceptional about her birth that had augured this good fortune. ‘Tangkup’ means that “I and the clothing I wear are mutually enhancing”. ‘Tangkup’ is not about the quality of the clothing per se, because “if anybody else wears my clothes they may suddenly no longer be nice to look at.”


I find this word 'tangkup' interesting and sense that it offers a glimpse into the traditional world of Batak dress. It seems to denote the combination of wearer and clothing. The emphasis is not on the material item. Uli’s perspective reminded me of the words of a Javanese photographer (MJA Nashir) who explained to me years ago that when some people wear clothes, regardless of the quality of the clothes, they look nice, while others don’t look nice regardless of the beauty of their clothing. This was a new perspective on clothing for me at the time and I wondered if there was a spiritual dimension to this talent. When I asked Uli she said she was not aware of a spiritual quality but she thought that charisma and grace figured in the nature of ‘tangkup’. 


It strikes me that as we, in the North, search for ways to make our clothing systems relevant once more, and less harmful to people and the physical and animal environment, we might gain from Uli’s insights, quandaries and challenges. The word ‘tangkup’ in the Batak language also denotes the ‘capture of objects and concepts’. May we ‘tangkup’ the Batak perspective on grace and charisma in dress. As an aspiration it holds a promise of beauty. And may the Batak clothing system survive to demonstrate the concept of ‘tangkup’ – even wile this may entail an overhaul of the fashion industry. 





I show Uli my blog, what I have made of her Facebook post, to request her permission to publish it on line. She is concerned that her criticism of the West (the Netherlands in the colonial era) is harsh and she asks me to receive her words in the spirit of friendship. She knows how hard it is for her when people criticize her country.


I reassure Uli that her words are not too radical and that we at Fashion Act Now are all about reforming the Fashion industry. Moreover, the fashion industry is multinational and not perceived as being owned by a single country. Currently it operates as a cancer throughout the world. 


I point out how important it is that we, in the West, become more aware of the ills of the fashion industry in other regions of the world and that this explains why we are so happy with her posts. The industry is already much, much, much too large and is not concerned with other dress systems, except perhaps to exploit them.


Uli immediately understands my perspective.  “The problem is that up until now, in the Batak area, the West has been the model of what clothing should be. Even if the clothing is produced in China or Korea. And then there are also the problems of waste, consumerism, and addiction to shopping,” she points out.  


“Yes, we are all victims,” I say in response. “What is distinctive regionally in Western countries is also erased by this huge industry. These are some of the sacrifice zones of fashion. We write about this on our FAN website (”


The penny drops. “This means that we are all ruined by the industry,” Uli responds.


 “Yes, in this age, we are all victims of all kinds of large industries, oil and gas, palm oil, fishing, fashion, electronics, everything. And we must oppose this. Already 75% of wild animals have disappeared. The number of bees is declining drastically, and so on.”


“In Indonesia there is the view that if we don’t embrace development, we will be ‘without clothes’ forever,” in other words "that Indonesians will continue to wear their traditional clothing." This perspective saddens her. 


I concur. “This is colonial thinking,” I say. 

“It is the kind of thinking that justifies all exploitation, including of nature,“ says Uli. 


I confide that it is my crusade to try to raise awareness that every culture has its own clothing tradition and that all are valid. The Western variant is destructive to all others Why? For monetary gain. The industry prioritizes its own dominance and that entails continued growth. 


“We sacrifice land, rice paddies, forests, farmland and water for the sake of development,” Uli confirms. “Development for Batak people shows up in clothing and cars. This is obvious on ritual occasions such as weddings when people wear every kind of blouse (kebaya) and so on. They feel ashamed if they don’t wear flashy new clothes. My clothes have a minimum of glitter and I only wear the old style of kebaya (blouse). I do this intentionally. I am a model for the campaign. I also wear my grandmother’s sarung. I purchase second hand clothing for myself, and new clothing only for my daughter.”


Once again, she is on the same page with Fashion Act Now. We, too, purchase a minimum of clothing and try to salvage and utilize what is still wearable.