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Preserving Culture through Traditional Wear

Cultural diversity is a huge part of what makes the world an interesting place.

Yet many of the most unique cultures on our planet that have existed for thousands of years are being eroded, with some blaming it on globalization. Others pointed at technology, climate change and a rapidly changing economic landscape contributing to “loss cultures.”

So, is it possible for a culture to disappear? Maybe, if we don’t hold the core values of the culture it.

Globalization is not an evil word, as it helps us learn and explore different society culture by not forgetting our own.The mainstream of any culture of any society is not weak that it can be affected by ‘any globalization.’

At least, we can cheer on that there are an estimated 15,000 cultures remaining on earth. Many more disappeared or threatened by erosion of cultural integrity, loss of habitat and environmental quality, and perhaps due to the ravages of disease.

In Sabah Borneo, the Kadazandusun culture is very much alive. If the traditional costumes are to be taken into account, Sabah is safe from “globalization or the advancement of technologies.”

Much of the world may be westernizing and giving up their traditional dress, but not us. We have plenty to show as far as our traditional clothing are concerned.

“Even with consumers’ demand in how we change our materials, the gist of the traditional costume remains the same for generations,” says a seamstress, whose shop takes the name Huminodun – a character in a myth of the Dusun people.

(According to folklore, Huminodun was a maiden sacrificed to feed her famine-stricken people. Kinoingan and his wife, Sumundu, had an only daughter named Ponompuan. She was named “Huminodun”, which means “transferred sacrifice”. Huminodun was traditionally dressed based on the folklore)

Purity of traditional costumes preserved

“When the tradition disappears, including the costumes, there is a danger the traditional culture will be replaced, ” says Bruno George Sadiwa, a young traditional costume designer.

For him, it is not just about creativity in designing traditional costumes.

“Creativity has no limits, but we must respect the authenticity of the traditional costume. The sublimity and purity of traditional clothes must be preserved.

“As a designer, it is best to know about the particular costume – understand how it was made in the first place, the originality, its meaning, the rules, and taboos (if any) so that we can design it to its best potential,” shares the 33-year-old, who has been in the clothing wear industry for nine years.

His first foray into traditional costume design was in 2013 during the Sabah’s Unduk Ngadau (beauty pageant held during the Harvest Festival).

He prepared traditional and contemporary costumes for the Tambunan district representative at the Sabah state level. There are 27 districts joining in the annual affair.

“Keeping the tradition alive with an added flair of creativity is at the very heart of what I do,” he beams.

His passion for designing costumes is merely to fuel his love for creativity and he has received quite a following.

“I won seventh place for the best creative design (that year). That was the beginning of my career as a self-taught freelance designer,” says Bruno, whose creations also won the best evening gown of the Miss Cultural Ambassador 2022 and the best national costume of Mister Cultural Ambassador 2022.

His work on a ‘sigah’ (traditional Kadazandusun headgear) was recently judged the winner of Mr Kaamatan (Sabah’s cultural male pageant) this year.

The cost for his contemporary designs varies from RM280 to RM680 while for original traditional costumes, priced between RM500 and RM1,000.

Now, the founder of BGS Atelier is positive that his business will grow,and the traditional costumes of Sabah remain intact.

Sabah has the capacity to monetise its rich cultural heritage.

“I believe this industry has the potential to generate wealth and create jobs for the younger generation. And more importantly, our traditions preserved,” he declares.

With a rich cultural diversity, Sabah’s cultures will remain. And they have nothing to do with globalisation nor the rapidly changing economic landscape.

Sewing the Dusun Labuk tribal wear

Some 203km away in Beluran, southeast of Kota Kinabalu, Rinah Michael, is busy putting together her creation of the Dusun Labuk wear.

From her home-based business, the young mother stays focus with her high-quality sewing skills and her deft fingers maneuvering the intricate embroidery, that will be the centrepiece of the costume.

The colours and patterns of traditional costumes have always piqued her interest.

Rinah who is from Dusun Labuk tribe decided to delve into tailoring making traditional costumes.

“At first, I did my own ethnic group’s traditional costume, namely Baju Labuk and slowly venturing into other traditional costumes from other districts.

“I feel excited sewing, embroidering traditional costumes as I learn about their uniqueness,” she says.

The rewarding career, however, comes with a big responsibility – to protect and preserve cultural heritage.

To do that, Rinah said, deepening her knowledge of traditional clothing allows her to produce better costumes.

“For me, tailor has a big responsibility in maintaining the authenticity of traditional costumes because every piece we make will have a big impact.

“It can be an example or guideline to future generations as well as other people including tourists who wish to wear our traditional costumes.

“Could you imagine the negative impact if we don’t maintain its authenticity? Not only will it fade, but it will be as if we didn’t respect the community’s traditional costumes,” she says.

She will advise customers, who may ask for extra frills to their liking.

“I have been in this industry for a while. I do sometimes meet customers who requested to add extra decoration on the costumes.

“So, it is my responsibility to tell them the story behind the traditional costumes and advise them to wear it properly with full respect to the community represented through the wear.

“My customers will listen because they understand,” chuckles the 34-year-old.

Looking classically elegant in the all-black “sabung koubasanan tulun Labuk” (the older version of Dusun Labuk traditional attire), Rinah shared that she would take between one and 14 days to complete a traditional costume depending on the complexity.

“For a simple traditional costume like this ‘sabung koubasanan’ or sometimes called ‘Baju Impit’ due to its tight figure-hugging cutting, I can finish it within a day.

“However, the other variations of the Dusun Labuk traditional wear such as Baju Labuk which has ‘Gosing’ flower motif embroidery, takes two weeks to complete if I spend eight to nine hours a day on the job,” she said, adding that the price for a traditional costume can cost up to RM1,000.

Rinah’s journey as a tailor is full of challenges. But the mother of five was more than happy to contribute to preserving the culture.

“What we wear is more than just material sewn together. Our traditional clothes are a signifier of our identity and culture.

“I’m so humbled to contribute in the preserving our culture,” shares Rinah who plans to open a small traditional costume gallery in her hometown soon.

The 15,000-odd cultures may continue to disappear elsewhere.

With the rich cultural diversity in Borneo, and the likes of Bruno and Rinah continuing their passion in preserving traditional wears, it is safe to say that the rapidly changing economic landscape will not contribute to any “loss cultures,” at least in this part of the world.

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