Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

The Malong - exquisitely versatile

Rosa Mangubat - The Freeman

CEBU, Philippines — Last week at the night market in the city’s downtown, a small group of young men and women looked really Christmassy with their garbs. The multi-colored outfits were unique in that while these appeared to be of perfect fit on the wearers, these – it turned out – were actually just wrapped around the body. The vibrant colors exuded a sense of celebration.

When asked, those teens eagerly explained that it was “malong” they were wearing. They were actually selling those, and they wore it in order to give potential customers an idea of the resulting look when the piece was worn. Yes, they were modeling their own merchandise.

The malong is a traditional “tube skirt” made of hand-woven or machine-made multi-colored cotton cloth, bearing a variety of geometric or “okir” designs. The malong is directly akin to the sarong worn by peoples in other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Brunei, East Timor and Indonesia), and is the etymological cognate of the Polynesian “malo” (loincloth).

Various tribes in the Southern Philippines and the Sulu Archipelago use the malong as traditional garment. Incidentally, those malong vendors at the night market were from that area of Mindanao. History has it that the malong used to be worn throughout the archipelago by lowland maritime groups.

Handwoven malongs are made by Maranao, Maguindanao, and T’boli weavers on a backstrap loom. The pattern or style of the malong may indicate the weaver’s tribal origin, such as the Maranao malong “landap.” Very rare malong designs and styles can indicate the village in which the malong was made; for example, the extremely intricate malong “rawatan” made only by a handful of Maranao weavers in Lanao del Sur.

Hand-woven malongs, which are costly, are likely to be used only at social functions, to display the social and economic status of the wearer. While modern malongs are made of cotton and Lurex threads, some contemporary hand-woven malongs are made of inexpensive rayon thread, to reduce the manufacturing cost to the weaver and the ultimate cost to the consumer. There are many grades of cotton thread, and the cost of a malong can also be reduced by using the lesser grades of cotton thread, or by creating a loose or coarse weave.

Machine-made printed cotton malongs are made in Indonesia specifically for export to the Philippines, and are commonly referred to as “batik” because the item is imported; those inexpensive machine-made malongs are used for everyday purposes. The designs of traditional hand-woven designs are used in imported cotton from Thailand, allowing the purchaser to have a cotton machine-printed malong which, from a distance, convincingly mimics the look of a much more expensive hand-woven malong.

The malong can function as a skirt for both men and women, a turban, a dress, a blanket, a sunshade, a bedsheet, a “dressing room,” a hammock, a prayer mat, and other purposes. A newborn is wrapped in a malong, and as he grows this piece of cloth becomes a part of his daily life. Among traditional tribal peoples, the malong is used in everyday life. When the person dies, he is once again wrapped in a malong.

Even in areas of the country where people wear Western-style clothing during the day, the malong is commonly used as sleepwear. This piece of clothing is also used in very big festivals; people wear it as a gesture of pride in their collective ‘self’.

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