Have It Made: Batik and the Dress Makers
You can always tell when it is Friday in Jakarta because traffic is worse than normal and because almost everyone is wearing batik. Batik is a beautiful Indonesian fabric that is made by drawing by hand on cloth with wax and then dying the cloth. Every region of Indonesia seems to have its own pattern or type of batik. And since there are so many different kinds of batik, it can be overwhelming to go shopping for it. Here is a photo of a woman in Jogja making batik. Jogja is well-known for batik and you can find plenty of it there:
I love batik and have purchased a skirt (see second photo below for pattern), a top, and I had a business-casual dress made with batik trim. Before I left for Asia, many people told me to have some clothes made. It is very affordable to go to a fabric store, choose your fabric, find a design you like online and then go to a tailor or dressmaker and have that super-expensive designer dress copied and made to fit you perfectly, all for around $25 to $50, depending on difficulty.
An Indonesian friend took me to her tailor and dressmaker. The tailor shop (photo below) is a hole-in-the-wall where ancient Singer sewing machines sit on wooden tables while the tailors smoke cigarettes and do a very Indonesian male thing: roll up their t-shirts over their stomachs when it is hot. On the other hand, the dress-maker shop was located in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Jakarta in the garage of a mansion owned by a wealthy woman who likes to sew. After we got past the security guards and the Jaguar and Hummer, we met the nice dress maker. And to me, this is the perfect example of Jakarta and class — you can go from a humble shop to a mega-mansion within the span of an hour and see totally different worlds.
I’ve noticed class much more here in Indonesia than I ever did in the United States. I think in the United States we like to project the idea of equality, whether it is true or not. In Indonesia, it is pretty obvious where people fall on the scale.
I recently watched both seasons of Downton Abbey, a PBS show set in the 1910’s following a wealthy British family as well as all of the servants who are needed to keep their mansion and lives functioning. I’ve been drawing a lot of connections between how class and servants are portrayed on the show and how things work in Indonesia.
It is common to have servants in Indonesia. Pembantu is the Indonesian word for maid or housekeeper. These women often leave their villages and come to big cities like Jakarta to work. They can be treated very badly: no vacation time, some are not allowed to leave the homes of their employers. Many Indonesian women also go abroad to work as maids and there have been a lot of troubling cases, especially in Saudi Arabia, where the Indonesian government has had to step in and pay massive amounts to have women returned to Indonesia after the women were accused of crimes, like trying to defend themselves from rape.
It is easy to tell the servants apart from the lords and ladies on Downton Abbey, and it is also easy to spot the hired help here too. In the high-end malls you will see a couple with their children and then you see the pack of women in uniforms usually labeled “au pair” following the child they’ve been assigned too. The au pairs will feed the children while their parents have their dinner and if they want to eat, they bring their own food from home to the restaurant. These uniforms really bother me because of how obvious they are and how they label these women and make them stick out. But that is a reality of life here.
So where do I fit into all of this? Well, as a foreigner I get away with walking into places I probably shouldn’t and then smiling and looking confused. At least I now do this in well-tailored clothes.