by Diana Darling

Ubud excels in dressing its visitors in ceremonial clothing for religious events. This is surely a good thing. It shows generosity of spirit; and with tourists being slightly less conspicuous, they are less likely to spoil the picture of Ubud’s continual round of mass pageantry. It may be a while, though, before women’s rights activists get around to advocating for a more humane style of female temple dress, especially for those of us who are old and fat.

Balinese ceremonial dress for women—with its tightly wound sarong, tight-fitting kebaya jacket, and conspicuous waist sash—looks great on slim teenagers and even on curvy matrons. But no one whose waist has begun to spread (a sign of wisdom) should be obliged to encircle it with bright cloth and go out in public.

_D3B1422The waist sash is supposed to remind people of the separation of their heads (sacred) from their feet (dirty). This is the one ceremonial garment which is obligatory for both men and women, including foreigners—making it a nice cultural product to sell outside temples.

There is probably some Hindu reason for making women in temples dress up like heavenly nymphs. Indeed, women’s temple dress has a variety of cultural roots, like the layers of Bali’s syncretic religion. The waist-to-ankle kamben cloth is of Neolithic origin: it has no buttons or zippers to keep it on you; and it wraps the legs to keep you from stepping into an SUV and running away.

The kebaya covers the arms, reflecting the modesty introduced by Islam in much of Southeast Asia, where the kebaya has been prevalent for centuries; but it barely covers the breasts, which were invented by Indian goddesses.

A famous photograph from the 1930s by Robert Koke which shows European tourists visiting the Besakih temple complex. The women are in dresses, little hats, and gloves; they are dressed for church. Even with stockings and garter belts, this would be more comfortable than the extensive corsetry required by temple dress, with its mash-up bras and belly binders. But stockings wouldn’t really do for kneeling on the ground, as women are required to do for prayers.

So what would humane Balinese temple dress for older women look like? A muumuu with fluffy slippers? Overalls? I invite readers to send in their suggestions.