What we wear can tell the world a great deal about us. Take, for example, graphic t-shirts. They might promote organizations, display musical preferences, reveal the schools we attended, trips we have taken, or a multitude of other details. Fashion choices can help to identify us.
This ceremonial cloth is from Demak on the north coast of Java, which was the center of the first sultanate in Indonesia. It may have been used as clothing, possibly something similar to an Indonesian selendang (shoulder cloth), or kain panjang (skirt cloth). The fabric contains several traditional Islamic features and communicates a Muslim identity with its Islamic iconography. A highly recognizable trait is its stylized Arabic calligraphy. Stylized calligraphy typically states the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith that is: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Also depicted on this textile are birds, important symbols in many Islamic stories; the rooster is a traditional motif signifying strength and vigor, representing the dawn of Islam.
Foreign Muslims traded in Indonesia for centuries due to its location, eventually creating several harbor kingdoms ruled by local Muslim princes. The Demak sultanate finally fell in the mid-16th century, when it began inland expansion which was halted by the Kingdom of Pajang. The Islamic iconography on this cloth suggests that it was probably made for local use or for export as a popular product in the Muslim world of North Africa, the Middle East, and Island Southeast Asia.
Consciously or unconsciously, our choices in attire—either the ones we make or those made for us—communicate information to others. Sometimes the message is subtle, like with the use of a motif, and other times it is bold, such as with a printed message. But one thing remains constant—whether we know it or not, the clothes we wear make a statement.
Indonesia, late 19th century
Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001 (9590.1)