The heritage embroidery of Inez Mardiana

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Inez Mardiana with her MURI plaque at the Jakarta Textile Museum. (photo: IO/Alfino Suhanta)

Inez Mardiana is one of Jakarta’s best kept fashion secrets. In the so called good old days referred to in Indonesia as Tempo Dulu, society ladies used to go to their favourite batik producers and their preferred kebaya makers and order the specific designs or motifs of their choice. In the Chinese year of the dragon a lady might order dragon motifs for a new batik and kebaya. An avid bridge player might order playing cards as the theme of her sarong and kebaya. The bridge cards would be incorporated into its lace trim or edging. This resulted in the creation of many charming and unusual kebayas with matching batiks that reflected not only the tastes and fashions of the time but also some social history

IO – During the Second World War there was no cotton available for batiks and kebayas and after the war women began to wear the more practical European style of dress. Slowly, the practice of ordering batiks and kebayas with specific designs or motifs became less common. Ibu Inez has done much to revive this charming tradition. As the first to design kebayas with wayang motifs in their borders she has been recorded in Indonesia’s Guinness Book of Records known as MURI. The most attractive of these wayang motifs are the ones of Indonesia’s fat clown Semar who is neither king nor god but a wise figure with a wide world view.

Kebayas with lace work on their borders or edging have been produced in Indonesia since the 18th century with influences from China, India and Europe. Several areas in Indonesia are known for their fine lace work and embroidery in West Sumatra, Java, Madura and Bali. The Minister for Women’s Empowerment and the Protection of Children has expressed concern that the younger generation continue to learn the craft of lace making and embroidery.

At 70 years of age Ibu Inez Mardiana is still an incurable romantic. Her earliest memories are of living in Pekalongan where her father was wedana or district officer of Kajen in Pekalongan on the north coast of Java. Today Pekalongan is the largest batik producing town in Indonesia with seventy percent of Indonesian batiks produced here. Inez memories are not only of batik, however. She remembers how early in the morning right after prayers the workers would go down to the jasmine fields and pick the flowers until 5 am. With baskets hanging on their backs in the stillness before the dawn they hurriedly tossed jasmine buds over their shoulders first with the right hand, then the left, back and forth. Once the dawn appeared they stopped picking because then the jasmine buds would open in full and their scent would diminish. The jasmine was destined to scent the green tea drunk in Java. “My childhood memories are of steaming cups of Javanese green tea laced with the fragrance of jasmine buds,” said Ibu Inez. This memory created her brand name: “Green Jasmine Teas by Inex Mardiana”.

Kajen on the outskirts of Pekalongan was in the 1960s not a safe area, rampant with bands of robbers connected with the Darul Islam rebels who wanted to create an Islamic state. They were later defeated and Ibu Inez remembers her father, Raden Hadi Sumarto once being called to meet the head of the robber bands unarmed, “Before leaving, he told us that if he was not back by 5 am it would mean that something bad had happened.” The whole family waited anxiously all night but he returned after working out an agreement to make the area safer. Today Kajen is a very progressive place. “In part I like to think because of my father’s efforts,” explained Ibu Inez.

The family moved to Semarang where Inez learnt tailoring and couture and where she married her cousin who worked for the large government owned plantation companies that grew sugarcane, tea and other agricultural products. Later he was moved to Jakarta where she ran a small tailoring business employing several seamstresses. Her first customers were from the state owned agricultural companies. She started by making uniforms for their employees.

Ibu Inez began collecting antique kebayas to study the embroidery designs as well as the lace edgings of the kebayas. In 1986 she began creating kebayas inspired by the designs from the old kebayas which she then began to sell. In Java, the town of Tasikmalaya is known for the best embroiderers and lace craftsmen and in the 1980s they still frequently came to houses in Jakarta offering their wares but Ibu Inez was not satisfied with their designs and began searching for a good craftsman who might be willing to work at her atelier and stay in Jakarta. In 1986 she found a talented old man called Pak Uli who came to work permanently for her. Now she has 4 women who work at her atelier and another 8 who take their work home.

In 2009 Ibu Inez also began designing batiks to match her kebayas and vice versa. She now orders her batiks from Pekalongan, Cirebon and Jogjakarta.

In 2012 the theme for Jakarta Fashion Week was “Betawi Legends” and Ibu Inez had the idea of producing kebayas with matching batiks of some well-known Betawi legends. These included: the ondel-ondel which are the two giant puppets that are a symbol of the city of Jakarta and which are believed to ward off evil. She also used the Chinese barongsai or lion dog motif, the gardenia which was a flower often grown in Betawi (original inhabitants of Jakarta) gardens for its sweet scent. Ibu Inez also created an eye catching kebaya and batik combination of Si Ptitung, a figure known as the Robin Hood of Batavia (old name of Jakarta). Si Pitung’s jaunty figure in Malay costume with black pici on his head, brandishing a knife appears in the lace edging of Ibu Ineze’s kebaya and batik. Inez also produced an image of the mosque where Si Pitung learnt to pray and read the Qur’an and also traditional martial arts. In this series also appear kebayas with the traditional Betawi mask and cokek dances. Her dramatic and colourful kebayas and batiks proved a success and by Ibu Inez business began to cater to by many of Jakarta’s high society ladies.

Last year the regional branch of the National Handicrafts Council asked Ibu Inez to help produce kebayas and batiks with the theme “Jakarta Icons”. Veronica Tan, the wife of previous governor of Jakarta, had produced some kebayas with a national monument motif but considered them not very attractive. So, they turned to Ibu Inez Mardiana who created kebayas with Jakarta plants such as the blue sweet pea flower, the flaming red flamboyant blossoms, yellow sirih leaves and the famous Betawi snake fruit from Pondok. The most striking Jakarta icon is her brahmini kite with its white head and chest feathers which is not only the bird symbol of Jakarta but also the prototype for the national garuda bird. Ibu Inez had matching batiks created.

Ibu Inez themes also include Chinese motifs such as the goddess of mercy and compassion, Kwan Im, dragons and phoenixes; Cirebon themes like the mouse deer’s pleasure garden which has the typical rock formation motif of the Sultan’s pleasure gardens at Sunyargai are reminiscent of Cirebon’s signature Megamendung cloud motif. Although Ibu Inez is herself a devout Muslim nevertheless as a supporter of Indonesia’s Unity in Diversity motto she has produced kebayas and sarong with Christmas trees and Santa Claus. Her kebayas for Jawa Hokokai batiks are intricate designs filled with the delicate butterflies and cherry blossoms close to the Japanese heart.

Inez Mardiana’s beautiful collection of kebayas and batiks are now on display at the Textile Museum. The costumes were modelled at a fashion show by Jakarta’s high society ladies including the lovely Kartini Basuki and Nina Akbar Tanjung. The show was said to resemble a swirling movement of delicate, multi-hued clothing fit for the most discerning of butterflies.

Then exhibition of Inez Mardiana’s kebayas and batiks at the Textile Museum is open to the public until the 4th of February 2018. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)