Dusun Women’s Traditional Costumes: Then And Now

Words by Yeong Hui Min
Photos by Yeong Hui Min

**Please note that terms used are in the Dusun language. Some items are named differently in other native languages.

Girls costumes groupA group of Dusun girls in traditional costumes of different tribes posing in a group photo

I have always appreciated and adored traditional costumes of different ethnic groups or tribes in Malaysia ever since I discovered the beauty of the Peranakan culture and the Nyonya kebaya. When we had the chance to attend a Kaamatan or Harvest Festival in Kampung Kiau, I could not wait to get to know more about the traditional costumes that the locals would wear on special occasions.

I was glad to meet Jenesia, who is from Kampung Kiau but was wearing a traditional costume worn by the Bundu-Liwan tribe in Tambunan. The costume she was wearing is called a lapoi in Dusun. This Bundu-Liwan costume was outstanding among the other costumes as it featured a head-covering. The fabric of the lapoi seemed like a cotton-nylon mix.

Jenesia 1Jenesia wearing a lapoi, a traditional costume worn by the Bundu-Liwan in Tambunan

Although Jenesia’s costume was less vibrant compared to the costumes the other ladies were wearing, it was interesting to learn about the details of her costume.  Jenesia told that the decorations on her costume were hand sewn by herself. She used seeds from a Dalai or Job’s Tears plant (scientifically known as Coix lacryma-jobi) and sewn them into a zig-zag motif that was representative of the village. She also made some chains out of the Job Tear’s seeds and wore them on her hips. The little bells that she added to the edge of her headpiece would make tinkling sounds as she moves about, catching the attention of passers-by. She also wore a simple necklace with three big coins that gave her costume a nice touch.

Jenesia 2Zig-zag motif made of Dalai seeds representing Kampung Kiau

Jenesia 3Dalai seed chains worn on the hips

Dalai plantThe seeds of the Dalai plant is commonly used to make accessories. We came across this Dalai plant in the Kivatu Nature Farm run by PACOS Trust

After speaking to Jenesia, I met another lady (whose name I did not ask for) that had a slightly different Dusun costume compared to Jenesia as she had a different headpiece and brighter coloured accessories. Her costume was made of black velvet, which is more commonly seen among the modernised Dusun traditional costumes nowadays. She wore botungkat chains made with big silver coins that accentuated her slim waist and tangkong chains made with small brass rings on her hips. Different tribes would have different ways of wearing the botungkat, with different number of chains on the waist and hips.  Original botungkat and tangkong belts are heavy, costly and passed down to daughters as heirloom. The lady also wore a sinondugan hat which is worn by locals from Kota Belud.

Dusun girlThe lady on the far left told me the names of the accessories she wore with her traditional Dusun costume

Among the sea of different traditional costumes, I couldn’t help but noticed that the elderly women tend to have more simple costumes with minimal accessories and decorations. I stopped one of the elder women to know more about her costume as it looked rather simple and different compared to the costumes of the younger women. She told me that her costume was the “original Dusun traditional costume” but the fabric was not as it was factory made. She said that people back in the days made their costumes out of the leaves of a plant called lambak, which is rarely found now. I then had the opportunity to see a skirt made out of lambak, which was worn by a girl getting ready for the festival’s fashion show.

Original costume 1A girl wearing a supposedly original Dusun traditional costume, which is simpler and less colourful

Original costume 2The skirt is made of the leaves of the lambak plant, which is the material used to make the traditional costumes a long time ago

Although the villagers of Kampung Kiau have been retaining the Dusun culture through its yearly Kaamatan celebration, I could see that the women were creative in adding their own touch to traditional costumes and breaking the traditional idea of traditional costumes as they added more colours and patterns or motifs to their costumes according to how they want them to be. They have shown how creativity can still be expressed through traditions.


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