Javanese traditional batik, especially from Yogyakarta and Surakarta, has notable meanings rooted to the Javanese conceptualization of the universe. Traditional colours include indigo, dark brown, and white, which represent the three major Hindu Gods (Brahmā, Visnu, and Śiva). This is related to the fact that natural dyes are most commonly available in indigo and brown. Certain patterns can only be worn by nobility; traditionally, wider stripes or wavy lines of greater width indicated higher rank. Consequently, during Javanese ceremonies, one could determine the royal lineage of a person by the cloth he or she was wearing.
Other regions of Indonesia have their own unique patterns that normally take themes from everyday lives, incorporating patterns such as flowers, nature, animals, folklore or people. The colours of pesisir batik, from the coastal cities of northern Java, is especially vibrant, and it absorbs influence from the Javanese, Arab, Chinese and Dutch cultures. In the colonial times pesisir batik was a favourite of the Peranakan Chinese, Dutch and Eurasians.
UNESCO designated Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on October 2, 2009. As part of the acknowledgment, UNESCO insisted that Indonesia preserve their heritage.
Batik or fabrics with the traditional batik patterns are also found in several countries such as Malaysia, Japan, China, Azerbaijan, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, and Singapore. Malaysian batik often displays plants and flowers to avoid the interpretation of human and animal images as idolatry, in accordance with local Islamic doctrine.
Depending on the quality of the art work, dyes, and fabric, the finest batik tulis halus cloth can fetch several thousand dollars and it probably took several months to make. Batik tulis has both sides of the cloth ornamented.
In Indonesia, traditionally, batik was sold in 2.25-meter lengths used for kain panjang or sarong for kebaya dress. It can also be worn by wrapping it around the body, or made into a hat known as blangkon. Infants are carried in batik slings decorated with symbols designed to bring the child luck. Certain batik designs are reserved for brides and bridegrooms, as well as their families. The dead are shrouded in funerary batik. Other designs are reserved for the Sultan and his family or their attendants. A person’s rank could be determined by the pattern of the batik he or she wore.
For special occasions, batik was formerly decorated with gold leaf or dust. This cloth is known as prada (a Javanese word for gold) cloth. Gold decorated cloth is still made today; however, gold paint has replaced gold dust and leaf.
Batik garments play a central role in certain rituals, such as the ceremonial casting of royal batik into a volcano. In the Javanese naloni mitoni “first pregnancy” ceremony, the mother-to-be is wrapped in seven layers of batik, wishing her good things. Batik is also prominent in the tedak siten ceremony when a child touches the earth for the first time. Batik is also part of the labuhan ceremony when people gather at a beach to throw their problems away into the sea.
The wide diversity of patterns reflects a variety of influences, ranging from indigenous designs, Arabic calligraphy, European bouquets and Chinese phoenixes to Japanese cherry blossoms and Indian or Persian peacocks.
Contemporary men batik shirt in typical Solo style, sogan color and lereng motif.
Contemporary batik, while owing much to the past, is markedly different from the more traditional and formal styles. For example, the artist may use etching, discharge dyeing, stencils, different tools for waxing and dyeing, or wax recipes with different resist values. They may work with silk, cotton, wool, leather, paper, or even wood and ceramics.
In Indonesia, batik popularity has had its up and downs. Historically, it was essential for ceremonial costumes and it was worn as part of a kebaya dress, which was commonly worn every day. According to Professor Michael Hitchcock of the University of Chichester (UK), batik “has a strong political dimension. The batik shirt was invented as a formal non-Western shirt for men in Indonesia in the 1960s, not long after the country’s birth. It waned from the 1960s onwards, because more and more people chose western clothes as fashionable, decimating the batik industry.
However, batik clothing has revived somewhat in the turn of 21st century, due to the effort of Indonesian fashion designers to innovate the kebaya by incorporating new colors, fabrics, and patterns. Batik is a fashion item for many young people in Indonesia, such as a shirt, dress, or scarf for casual wear. Kebaya is regarded as a formal attire for women. It is also acceptable for men to wear batik in the office or as a replacement for jacket-and-tie at certain receptions. After the UNESCO recognition for Indonesian batik as intangible world heritage on October 2, 2009, Indonesian administration has asked Indonesians to wear batik on friday, and wearing batik every friday is encouraged in all government offices and private companies ever since.
The existence and use of batik was already recorded in the 12th century and the textile has since become a strong source of identity for Indonesians, and to lesser extent Malaysia and Singapore. Batik is featured in their national airlines uniform, the flight attendants of Singaporean, Garuda Indonesia and Malaysian national airlines wear batik prints in their uniform. Although the uniforms are actually not real batik because the production is not using the traditional way but using mass produced techniques. The female uniform of Garuda Indonesia flight attendants is more authentic modern interpretations of kartini style kebaya and batik parang gondosuli motif, which also incorporate garuda‘s wing motif and small dots represent jasmine. The batik motif symbolizes the ‘Fragrant Ray of Life’ and endows the wearer with elegance.