Going to Arab Street to shop for fabric to tailor into traditional Malay costumes is like a pilgrimage my sisters and I make together every year. Usually we’d do it at the last minute, just weeks before Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the Muslim celebration of Eid which in South-east Asia is customarily punctuated with wearing new traditional clothes to visit our relatives and friends. This year, however, we have a few cousins and children-of-cousins (what do you call your cousin’s children?) getting married (it is also customary to wear traditional costumes to weddings) and the ladies of my extended family have decided that we all dress up in similar fabrics. So that meant an earlier-than-usual pilgrimage to Arab Street this year.
Arab Street is both a road and a neighbourhood, and was named as such because the early Arab settlers in Singapore mainly resided in that area, as per Sir Raffles’s (the founder of Singapore) town plan in the early 1800s. Today, Arab Street retains its rows of shophouses which is a common sight in the historical downtown core of Singapore, while the tenants vary from restaurants and cafes offering quite a variety non-Asian fare, to fabric merchants and an exquisite collection of private little start-ups by our local fashion designers. To us Malays, Arab Street is just about the best place for fabric shopping, owing to the huge range of shops and the very current variety of stocks they have in their inventory.
I’ve been fabric shopping approximately 8 years now, with last year being the only exception because I wanted to do away with the tiring sibling “tradition” for once and just got ready-to-wear costumes from a boutique at Joo Chiat, the Malay community’s favourite haunt during our festive seasons. It’s tiring because my sisters and I would take hours to decide on a shop and subsequently the type of material and colours. Hours, literally. We would then proceed to our favourite tailor at Joo Chiat. Whilst it does put a hole in our pockets sometimes to do this, it certainly pays off by giving us exactly what we want to wear, instead of having to make do with what we can find in shops which might not only be of poor quality workmanship but also such limited design. Tailoring gives us the freedom to what size, cutting and design we want. The possibilities are only limited by the amount of material we have bought.
The tailor said she could have our clothes ready by June. We had tailored two costumes each, one for the upcoming wedding and another for this year’s Hari Raya. I had asked for a Kebaya Pahang using my purple-gold songket for my Hari Raya costume because I haven’t got any more kebayas in my wardrobe; for the wedding, I had planned for something like a mandarin-boatneck, long peplum top that utilises the gold lace I got, paired with a rich gold songket for the skirt. I’m really excited for both designs! Quite likely I’ll post photos of them here once they’re ready and worn to the functions they were intended for!
All photos were taken using my 50mm third-party Olympus lens on my NEX, and using the NEX’s “Pop” art filter (with the exception of the very first photo, that was using the “Retro” art filter). Any comments or questions, whether about Malay costumes and culture or about Arab Street, please leave them below! Anything about the technicality of my photographs, please comment at their respective image pages. Thank you!