Raya fashion: then and now

Women’s fashion for Hari Raya has evolved and the choices are more varied than ever.

A COLLECTION of black and white photos made the rounds on social media in the run-up to Hari Raya . Uploaded by the aptly-named @GambarKlasik account on Twitter, they showed scenes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s of people preparing and celebrating the festival.

These include pictures of a man trying on a songkok, women shopping for shoes and customers at a goldsmiths. There were photos of families making kuih raya and ketupat. Others showed women sewing their Raya clothes and hanging up new curtains.


Style choices for Raya celebrations are more varied than ever. This comes after decades of women wearing only baju kurung or kebaya, or even the vaguely-named “modern baju kurung”.

There are slight variations to the design, but the real difference is the fabric’s print or pattern. In fact, it’s normal for a person to have dozens of baju kurung in exactly the same cut, but in different prints or colours.

It is, however, unusual to have this mindset for so-called Western blouses, jeans or dresses.

Then it became more common to send your Raya orders to the tailor. It felt quite special to go to the tailor and getting measured for your Raya outfit. You then waited in anticipation for the first day of Hari Raya when you finally got to show it off.

Then online retailers such as FashionValet and Zalora took up the Raya shopping season in a big way, which is where we are now. They made exclusive deals with designers, organised fashion shows and put out stylish promotional campaigns. Hundreds of variations of baju kurung and kebaya are available at the click of a button.


There’s a reason why design-driven baju kurung or kebaya are more expensive. Unlike the classic iteration, there is no standard pattern to follow. Peplums, ruffles, flaps and overlaps are all design details that must be worked on.

Once patterns are made, samples are produced. And when garments go into production, economies-of-scale comes into play. Like everything else, the bigger the order, the lower the cost.

Brands such as NH by Nurita Harith produce their Raya collections at factories in China, which is a far cry from your neighbourhood tailor working on one garment at a time.


After decades of personal tailoring, ready-to-wear Raya outfits took a while to be accepted in the Malaysian market because they were so badly made in the beginning.

Even today, you can still hear customers complaining about fit, fabric and finishings. In fact, some people have come to expect problems with fit that they make their purchases in advance so they’d have time to send it for alteration.

Another issue is that people rarely fall into standard sizes. You might wear the kurung top in “Small” but need the sarong in “Medium”.

Some women who fall outside the brand’s standard size offerings — be it shorter, taller, bigger or smaller — just stay away from ready-to-wear. And some design details like a peplum waist or balloon sleeves simply don’t look good on certain body types.

The beauty of a classic made-to-measure baju kurung or kebaya is that they can be sewn to suit each body type without too much trouble.

Additionally, the way a baju kurung is designed with its loose silhouette and generous seam allowance makes it possible for it to be mended or altered in later years. It’s why these designs have lasted for so long.

These are handsewn, high quality and time-consuming stitches, and have become quite rare to find. Even my family’s tailor shop in Nilai, Negri Sembilan doesn’t do them.

Like everyone else, they use sewing machines and finish the neckline with piping. But it’s also become common elsewhere to see this section without any special finishings.


Seamstresses still hand sew the hem with a herringbone stitch. The beauty of this technique is that the thread becomes almost invisible on the garment. A straight, machine stitch can be very obvious especially on a multi-coloured print fabric.

Other brands resolve this aesthetic conundrum by giving the hem a machine finish, or use lace or embroidery, like Whimsigirl. The only issue is that embroidery can get a bit scratchy on bare skin.

While baju kurung or kebaya typically come in pairs, selling a Raya collection as separates can make them more appealing, price-wise. And it’s easier to match a Kedah top with other pieces you already own than a long baju kurung or kebaya.

But if you disapprove of these changes to our festive outfits, perhaps remember that when something ceases to evolve, it dies.

New clothes is a Raya tradition, but it’s not the main purpose. Let’s not have fashion distract us from the true meaning of this celebration.

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