[suh-rawng, -rong]

A sarong or sarung (in Malay, and in English) is a large sheet of fabric, often wrapped around the waist and worn as a skirt by men and women throughout much of south Asia and southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, and on many Pacific islands. The fabric is often brightly coloured or printed with intricate patterns, often depicting animals or plants, checkered or geometric patterns, or resembling the results of tie dying. Sarongs are also used as wall hangings and other forms of clothing, such as shawls, baby carriers, complete dresses or upper body clothing.


The dyeing technique of batik is associated with sarong production.

In strict usage, sarong [Malay, "sheath"] denotes the lower garment worn by the Malay people, both men and women. This consists of length of fabric about a yard wide and two-and-a-half yards long. In the center of this sheet, across the narrower width, a panel of contrasting color or pattern about one foot wide is woven or dyed into the fabric, which is known as the kepala or "head" of the sarong. This sheet is stitched at the narrower edges to form a tube. One steps into this tube, brings the upper edge above the level of the navel (the hem should be level with the ankles), positions the kepala at the center of the back, and folds in the excess fabric from both sides to the front center, where they overlap and secures the sarong by rolling the upper hem down over itself. Malay men wear sarongs woven in a check pattern; women wear sarongs dyed in the batik method, with, for example, flower motifs, and in brighter colors. The sarong is common wear for women, in formal settings with a kebaya blouse. Malay men wear sarongs in public only when attending Friday prayers at the mosque, but sarongs remain very common casual wear at home for men and women of all races and religions in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Regional variations


Sarongs are widespread in the South Indian state of Kerala, where they are called mundu, as well as in Tamil Nadu, where they are called Sarem or Veshti, or Lungi (worn by Muslims) and are usually worn at home. Unlike the brightly coloured Southeast Asian sarongs, the Kerala variety (Mundu ) is more often plain white and is worn for ceremonial or religious purposes. In Kerala the brightly coloured sarongs are called Kaily and the white ones are called mundu. The more formal, all-white Dhoti, is worn for formal and religious occasions. There are also dresses based on mundu which can be worn by women, however they more commonly wear sari.

Sri Lanka

Sarongs are very common in Sri Lanka, and worn only by men. It is the standard garment for most men in rural and even some urban communities. However, most men of upper social classes (whose public attire is trousers) wear the sarong only as a convenient night garment, or only within the confines of the house. Statistically, the number of people wearing sarong as their primary public attire, are on the decline in Sri Lanka; the reason being that Sarong carries the stigma of being the attire for less educated lower social classes. However, there is a trend towards adopting sarong either as a fashionable garment , or as a formal garment worn with national pride, only in special occasions. Political and social leaders of Sri Lanka whom want to portray their humility and closeness to 'common man' and also their nationalism, choose a variation of the sarong nicknamed the ‘National’ as their public attire.


Sarongs are ubiquitous in Somalia. Referred to as macawiis, they are worn by both nomadic and urban Somali men. Sarongs first arrived in Somalia a couple of centuries ago via trade with the Southeast Asian islands and the Indian subcontinent. Prior to the 1940's, most macawiis were made of cotton. However, since the industrialization of the market for sarongs, they now come in many different fabrics and combinations thereof, including polyester, nylon and silk. Designs vary greatly and range from checkered square motifs with watermarked diamonds to simple geometric lines. The one constant is that they tend to be quite colorful; black macawiis are rare. Sarongs in Somalia are worn around the waist, and folded several times over to secure their position. They are typically sold pre-sewn as one long circular stretch of cloth, though some vendors offer to sew them as a value-added service.

Western World

In North America and Europe, the fabric of the sarong is generally quite light, often rayon, and may feature decorative fringing on two sides. They may also have ties, which are long thin strips of fabric used to assist the wearer in holding the sarong to his body so it does not fall off while moving around. In North America and Europe, sarongs are often used by women as a cover-up over swimwear.

Securing as a garment

Numerous tying methods exist to hold a sarong to the wearer's body. In some cases, these techniques customarily differ according to the gender of wearer. If a sarong has ties, they may be used to hold it in place. If no ties exist, a pin may be used, the fabric may be tightly tucked under itself in layers, the corners of the main sheet may be around the body and knotted, or a belt may be used to hold the sarong in place.

Similar garments

The basic garment known in English most often as a "sarong", sewn or unsewn, has analogs in many regions, where it shows variations in style and is known by different names.

In Africa:

  • In Eastern Africa, it is called either a kanga (worn only by African women), or a kikoi (traditionally worn by African men). Kangas are brightly coloured lengths of cotton that incorporate elaborate and artistic designs and usually include the printing of a Swahili proverb along the hem. Kikois are also made from cotton, but the fabric is heavier than that of the kanga and their designs are much simpler, usually consisting of a single colour with striped borders along the edges.
  • In Madagascar it is called a lamba.
  • In Malawi it is called a chitenje.
  • In Mauritius they are called pareos.
  • In Mozambique it is called a capulana.
  • In South Africa it is called a kikoi and commonly used as a furniture throw or for going to the beach.
  • In Zimbabwe they are known as Zambias.

On the Indian subcontinent:

  • In South Asia it is called a lungi. It is most often sewn into a large cylindrical shape, so there is no slit when the lungi is tied.
  • In India similar articles of clothing are the dhoti (or dhuti in West Bengali, veshti in Tamil, pancha in Telugu,panche in Kannada and Mundu in Malayalam).
  • In the Maldives, and Indian state of Kerala, it is known as a mundu or neriyathu.
  • In Punjab it is a called maylee when worn by a man, and a gamcha when worn by a woman.
  • In Sinhalese, it is known as the Sarama

In Southeast Asia:

In the Pacific Islands:

The sarong in motion pictures

The American public is most familiar with the sarong for the dozens of motion pictures set in the South Seas, most of them romantic dramas made in the 1930s and 1940's. Dorothy Lamour is by far the actress most linked with the garment, starring in multiple films of this genre, starting with The Hurricane in 1937. In fact, Lamour was nicknamed "The Sarong Girl" by the press and even wore a sarong on occasion in more traditional films. Among the other actresses to don the sarong for film roles are Maria Montez, Gilda Gray, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Frances Farmer and Movita. Male stars who wore the manly sarongs on film include Jon Hall, Ray Milland, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston, Sabu Dastagir and Ralph Fiennes (in The Constant Gardener (film)). The sarong was also worn by Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair.


See also

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