— By Camille Ungco —
Two years ago, I was a junior at Rutgers University and I had just finished teaching my first semester-long course. Each week, I’d document the completion of teaching my class by taking a mirror pic or having a friend take a photo of what I wore that day because (1) trying to dress like a 20-year-old-who-doesn’t-have-a-degree-yet-but-some-students-still-trying-to-call-me-“professor” was fun and (2) for Instagram, of course.
During the last week of November, I finished teaching my first semester in Indonesia and those “outfit of the day” photos from 2013 are still up on my ‘gram. Instead of posting a photo everyday of what I wore throughout my first semester here, I thought I’d start to review the past few months through an entry of repeated outfits.
While Americans may reach for business or business casual (button downs, dress pants, pencil skirts, blazers, blouses and such) when teaching, Indonesia’s formal and sometimes informal wear consists of “batik”. Indonesian batik is the name for clothes, fabric, and the techniques for their creation. Designs are hand drawn or stamped with wax onto cotton fabric. When the fabric is dipped in dye, the wax resists pigmentation while the unwaxed areas receive coloring. Designers manipulate the wax’s placement and dye to create endless combinations of patterns and images. Batik designs vary through island, province, city, even era.
During the summer, I asked Fulbright Indonesia alumni and returners what were their typical outfits for teaching. The culture and religion played the biggest part in their outfit decisions, with most ladies opting for ankle length skirts and dresses while carrying light weight scarves and shawls for emergency modesty cover ups. And they almost always recommended buying or getting batik clothes made. Good quality clothes are cheap here and buying fabric plus tailoring costs are reasonable.
I definitely wanted to buy a few batik pieces and of course get clothes that are tailor-made for me! So I packed 3 black midi skirts, 4 imitation chiffon (really just 100% polyester) blouses, 2 floral print maxi dresses, 2 scarves, and 1 blazer – all of which were very much utilized during my first 3 weeks here but are no longer reoccurring pieces in my daily teaching outfits. The materials and cuts of the clothes I brought over were appropriate for the US and my home state, New Jersey’s 4 seasons but not for teaching senior high school in the tropics.
This is my very first batik piece! During our in country orientation, a returning ETA said a few of her friends from last year wanted to pass on their batik to future ETAs. The returning ETA dropped the bag in the middle of the table, members of my cohort scrabbled to get free hand-me-down pieces and this little guy flew to the wayside rejected because of its size. This batik blazer/cropped jacket didn’t have a brand label or tag inside so I think it might’ve been tailor-made? The fit is perfect and I love color. From one petite girl to another, shout outs to the unknown alumna who donated this piece.
My school has a full length mirror on campus. Not sure if other students and teachers have utilized this for mirror pics, given that selfies are the new trends in self portraits and photo taking.
I ditched my 3 black midi skirts because they were form-fitting and had thigh high slits in the back. Love those skirts for back in the States but definitely not appropriate here. I bought 2 black maxi skirts for about $4-$5 USD each, I got one at the traditional market and the other at the mall near my boarding house. FOR ALL MY SKIRTS, I’ve been told by both male and female teachers that they are see-through – maybe the sun shines differently here. We’ve remedied this scandal with hand-me-down slips to wear under my skirts.
On Monday and Tuesday, the teachers at my school are required to wear this khaki uniform. The patches on the sleeves are the region/city’s name, the city’s seal, and the province: East Java.
On Wednesday, teachers wear a blue and white batik or this black and white one. The blue and white batik is a design only for civil servants and government employees I think. I currently don’t have that batik. This black and white batik is called PGRI, pronounced “pay gay air ee”. This design is only for teachers.
On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, teachers are permitted to wear their own batik. The school gave me the khaki uniform and the PGRI batik towards the end of October so my daily outfits usually consisted of a black maxi skirt and a batik top. When I finally got the uniform, I’d sometimes wear those and the teachers would get such a kick out of how I dressed like an Indonesian teacher but I look like a student.
One of my teacher friends told me not to buy too much batik just yet because she said there’s always an occasion to receive batik. Lo and behold, the following outfits feature batik gifts and hand-me-downs which I have worn multiple times throughout the semester.
I met with a Fulbright Indonesia alumna in the city last spring. She connected me with her friends and Indonesian language tutors from Malang. One of her friends passed my contact info onto his college classmate, who then reached out to me and asked me to help her teach English for a day at her outreach project in a village outside of Malang City – and that is how I ended up with this multi colored, oversized batik as a thank you gesture. Since it was like 2-3? degrees of separation, the classmate didn’t know my size, guessed medium, and suggested I could wear this piece as a blazer. This has become one of my favorite outfits.
A few weeks into the semester, a teacher gave me 2 rolls of fabric aka the first possibilities of customizing my wardrobe. I chose to turn both into blazers because I loved the style of my first batik piece and Will Smith’s prep school blazer from “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”- yes. With the help of my English teacher friends, I met with a tailor. Two weeks later and I got these blazers, fully lined complete with buttons and shoulder padding.
My teacher friends also give me clothes they or their daughters have outgrown. One teacher asked me if that’s rude. Culturally, I can’t speak on that but I definitely welcomed the hand-me-downs after years of receiving my big brother’s clothes – boy clothes! Boy clothes.
One of the teachers I co-teach with passed this skirt on to me. I love this skirt because I’m a fan of brown tones in clothes AND it has a pocket. Also, all of these maxi skirts don’t fit me perfectly either at the waist or the length. I roll all of them at the waist once or twice and a teacher had to cut and hem one skirt.
The Japanese language teacher gave me these matching suits that no longer fit her. I’ve used the tops as blazers. My school specifically said I can’t wear trousers or pants for teaching so I haven’t worn these yet. The pants fit high-waisted and definitely need to be belted. Now accepting: ideas on how to wear these pants.
Another teacher gave me these short sleeve, Peter Pan collar, polo styled batik tops. They no longer fit her daughter. I’m not sure if these were tailor-made but the buttons on both tops are wooden. I usually wear these tops towards the end of the work week since they’re more informal and youthful looking. When I ride public transportation wearing these tops, I sometimes get charged the cheaper student price – 2000 rupiah instead of the regular 4000 rupiah.
Most batik patterns and designs don’t belong to a label or a brand, rather they’re associated with a city, region or province. I’ve been told brown batik is usually from Yogyakarta while colorful ones like my gifted oversized batik could be from Madura.
Above are 2 pieces I got from a brand name batik store aka the styles and patterns are usually designed for foreigner customers and the prices match typical western clothing prices. When my parents were here, they got me the cropped jacket with oversized lapels. I think it was about $20 or more USD, very expensive for Indonesian prices but typical for jackets back in the States right? I splurged on this batik wrap skirt as a “treat yo’self” moment. But still this skirt was about $30 USD. Wah mahal sekali!!! (Ah very expensive!!!) in both the US and Indonesia. So yes, I am now committed to playing the waiting game on receiving batik or attempting to bargain at the traditional market. My “treat yo’self” moments are now designated only for ice cream, grilled cheese sandwiches and $5 spa days.
During the first semester, I taught 4 days a week but still came to school Monday through Friday for meetings, extra English practice and review, attempted lesson planning, and Bahasa Indonesian language tutoring sessions. Each week, I’d cycle through my black–sometimes brown–skirt with batik top combo enough times for teachers to thoroughly know my wardrobe and advise me on when to wear which outfits. Here’s to a semester of trying to plan lessons as well as outfits.
Camille Ungco is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malang, East Java. She graduated from Rutgers University – New Brunswick, where she studied English, Education, and Ethnic Studies. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys making meals from her rice cooker and learning angkot routes.