The Sirat or Loincloths was once of the most basic markers of cultural identity, is now distinctively ignored among modern Ibans. Even the so called expert such as the anthropologists give a word or two regarding it, then pass on to other matters. The writers on customs seems to forgot the topics altogether.
For as the Dutchman Karl Martin said of the Sulawesi loincloth a hundred years ago, “once it’s on it’s hard to figure out how it got that way.” Some may thinks, a paper on the loincloth ought to be brief and cover only the essentials. Yet just as we wear clothes for more reasons than mere utility, and dress decorates as much as it hides, the subject of the loincloth furnishes an occasion for remarks on history, culture, and psychology.
The reasons why it did not attracts any attention of the scholar, though the purpose of the loincloth is to cover the male genitals, it leaves the buttocks bare. Most peoples feel shame about all or part of the genitals; but it seems to be a peculiarly western trait to feel equal shame about the buttocks, probably from a fear of homosexuality, an anxiety which also seems to grow with civilization. Hence, westerners have always considered the loincloth an immodest garment.
The loincloth is a garment of great antiquity, the original men’s clothing of most of the world, and particularly of the Malayo-Polynesian area, which includes the islands of the Pacific Ocean as far east as Hawaii and as far south as New Zealand, the Malay Archipelago and the Philippines, the Malay peninsula, the island of Madagascar to the west, and mainland places inhabited by such Dayak-like peoples as the Mnongs of Vietnam, the Mru of Bangladesh and the Nagas of Assam. On the continent west of India the loincloth is unknown.
In Malaya, Java, Bali, and elsewhere, the loincloth was replaced by the skirtlike kain because of Hindu influence,while the sarong (a sewn tube of cloth) is an Islamic import. It is worth noting that in the Balinese wayang kulit, the most venerable character, Twalen, wears a loincloth and not a skirt. Twalen is both a funny rustic servant and one of the highest of gods, and it has been suggested that his character represents the pre-Hindu and animist “native” nature of the Balinese.
Take a strip of material about 10 inches wide and 10 to 12 feet long. Hold up one end in front with your left hand or chin. The distance it falls determines the length of the apron. Pass the rest of the material between your legs to the back and bring it up from back to front, from right to left around your waist (the other way if lefthanded). Wind it around your waist, and then, when you reach again to the back, double the material over and pass it under the cloth that comes between your legs, and pull on the loop thus formed until belt and pouch are sufficiently tight. There should be a little “tail” [iko sirat in Iban] in the back. The loincloth wound this way is quite secure and will not fall off even on a hard trek through the jungle.
Simple enough. But as dress is an important medium for individuals as well as whole peoples to express their individual styles, the loincloth too has many variants which we must consider. The standard Borneo loincloth goes at least twice around the waist, and usually more, and the apron and tail will hang at least two thirds of the way down the thighs. The Borneo fashion is to cover a broad band of waist, including the navel, although in the past, men often liked to squeeze the cloth of the pouch and apron very narrow. While in the midst of some chore in which the apron and tail might be dirtied or caught, a man can tuck them into the waistband.
Although Dayaks have been trading with other countries for thousands of years, barkcloth was certainly the original material for loincloths, as it was in Hawaii. Barkcloth was worn quite often in later times, even in the middle of this century, when trade stopped during World War 2 and nobody whether in Kuching or in the ulu could buy cloth. The poor Sebuyau of Lundu, who had by that time abandoned the sirat, were forced to make barkcloth shorts.
This ancient barkcloth loincloth must have been elegant. Dayaks preferred bark from the ipoh tree for its whiteness and softness, and often gave it a damasked texture by beating it with a carved mallet. One example is on display at the Sarawak Museum.There is a limit to how long a strip of barkcloth can be made. The longest will go only about twice around the waist. Usually the Borneo loincloth is made of a piece of commercial cloth and longer than the minimum twelve feet, often eight to ten yards of cloth and more. Early Brooke officials frowned on this “extravagant waste.” The common daily style was to wind the loincloth of a single long length off the bolt, folded in half lengthwise and not cut. Thus it would be about 18 inches wide.
Dayaks preferred to use cloth dyed in some color, especially dark blue, or bright red (kesumba , an assertive color), or black. A cheap cotton such as is still sold in Kuching was acceptable, but one hears even of silk loincloths. Photographs taken by Charles Hose around a hundred years ago show orang ulu men wearing loincloths of white cotton, which seems to have been the fashion in those days. Many photographs from the beginning of this century as well as the 40s and 50s show Dayak men wearing loincloths of cotton printed in a calico or large flowered pattern. Its an old authentic fashion.
It is very hard to see old examples of sirat woven in the ikat technique peculiar to the Ibans, though recent ikat loincloths exist from eastern Indonesian islands. It would be natural to suppose that Iban women did weave them for their men, and there is evidence in the following passage of an ensera. Keling comes on a night visit to court Kumang [ngayap] and, as he gets up to leave, not yet having assurance of her love, she takes the tail of his loincloth in her hand. This must have been a very splendid sirat, since it was the custom for young men to dress carefully and stylishly for a courting visit.
Ninga jako orang ka indu munyi nya dia Keling lalu angkat beguai pulai. Sepi iya tak tekait iko sirat. Digama iya tak besabong sama jari.
“Nama main nuan megai iko sirat aku deh unggal? Enti nuan deka neladan iya tau ga unggal,” pia ko Keling.
“Enda ga unggal. Ukai aku deka neladan tanda sirat nuan. Aku enda kala neladan japai jamah orang,” pia ko Kumang.
Keling asks: Do you want to copy the designs on the front and tail of my loincloth? As the great art of Iban women is the design and execution of ikat weavings, and since Kumang is in mythology the very greatest weaver, Keling here ironically supposes that Kumang wants to examine the ikat design of the ends [tanda ] of his sirat.
These tanda are the most important part of the sirat, as they are that which shows, the body of the sirat being hidden under its coils. Women often weave only these decorated ends and stitch them later to a strip of commercial cloth.
There is also seen sirats made out of a body of white commercial drill cloth, with separate pieces stitched to the ends. These tanda are thickly embroidered with colored thread, in a style of design I have seen neither on mats nor on pua or other weavings, but most resembling mat designs. The hems of these tanda sirat are decorated with tassels of yarn and little pompoms. They also are about 10 inches wide and long enough to pass only twice or three times around the body.
The fashion of the recent present among all Dayak peoples is to wear a loincloth of red, black or dark blue commercial cotton with one broad bar of white, then a bar of color contrasting with the color of the sirat’s body, then another bar of white sewn to the apron and tail portions. Dayaks seem to have invented this design in imitation of hornbill feathers. Other loincloths have tanda decorated with appliques of commercial fringe, or, among the orang ulu , with tanda painted in their special own tendril-like designs or with beaded portions.
These modern sirats are very long indeed, and are often wound to cover the middle body completely from the top of the thighs to above the navel. Pictures show that men need help getting into these loincloths. Sometimes excess cloth that passes from under the bunch between the legs is arranged in two huge billowing loops. These can be seen in photographs of Gawai festivals.
That the fashion of wearing a long sirat that covers much of the body is an old one we have the evidence of a phrase in an historical tale of the time just before the Brooke era: Sirat seduai nyampai di kerigai rusok marang —”The sirats of the two of them reached to their ribs, turning around both sides.”
While working or travelling, especially if one is an older man and does not feel obliged to be fashionable, one can wear a sirat sabelit , a “once-wound loincloth,” as the Ibans call it: “a work sirat, i.e. once round waist and apron just enough for decency.”