Sumptuous dress, usually created from luxurious silk and gold thread, was a principal means of signifying the wealth and power of the Malay courts. Court weavers from the sultanates of south Sumatra and nearby Bangka created brocade textiles, known as cloth of gold. Symbols of high status, these textiles are so richly embellished with gold supplementary weft threads, known as songket, that little can be seen of the imported silk below. It is this technique that has created the decorative patterning on the borders of this ceremonial man’s head cloth. The striking green centre is very rare, but possibly alludes to the colour of Islam, the religion of the Malay courts.
In many Southeast Asian cultures the head is considered the most sacred part of the human body. In Islamic parts of the region, where modesty decrees that a man wear a head cloth on formal occasions, these decorative squares became a popular feature of male dress. Particular colours and designs, as well as the richness of the gold decoration and the style in which the cloth was tied, symbolised courtly position and rank, although there was also recognition of the individual courtier’s original and creative arrangements of the cloth.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008