How Beautiful Batik Conquered the World

Written by Lena Sharpe

The history of batik is a history of industrialization and globalization. The word batik is believed to be of Javanese origin, meaning ‘to write’ or ‘dot’. It dates back to the 6th century and alludes to the symbolic patterns of its early designs. This ancient art relied on the method of ‘wax resist’ – which, in its simplest form, involved patterning fabrics with hot wax prior to dyeing. The wax was then removed to reveal contrasting patterns between the dyed and undyed material, in a repeating and intricate process.

Historically, batik patterns served as status markers in Javanese communities, symbolizing one’s rank in society. It was used in everyday clothes, from traditional sarong kebayas worn by women, to ceremonial costumes restricted to adorn only royalty. The use of batik as a source of Indonesian identity has been recorded as far back as the 12th century. In the late 16th century, the arrival of the Dutch colonizers to the East Indies (modern Indonesia) marked the beginnings of what was to become a thriving global industry. The word batik was introduced in Europe in 1817, in Sir Stamford Raffles’ History of Java.

As colonists of the East Indies, Dutch women began arriving in greater numbers with their husbands as the 19th century wore on – thanks to improvement of travel conditions with the advent of steamships in 1844 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

In order to cope with the tropical climate, these Dutch women abandoned their heavy hoop skirts for the sarong kebaya dresses worn by Indonesian women. They also took up the craft of batik printing – adapting the patterns to include bright colors and motifs reminiscent of Holland, such as birds, flowers and butterflies. Their distinctive design and production, known as Batik Belanda (Dutch batik) quickly thrived. Enterprising Arabic and Chinese traders bought and sold their fabrics to neighboring Malaysia, Singapore and beyond – whilst Chinese and Japanese printing methods were adopted, lending these designs an oriental twist.

The Batik Belanda trade flourished in the late 19th century, fueling demand in the Netherlands. Shortly after their arrival, these exotic textiles became a source of inspiration for other European artists and designers. Batik Belanda was a major influence in the development of the decorative Art Nouveau movement that swept across Europe at the time. Art Nouveau, linked as it was to batik design, was also deeply intertwined with the concept of the New Woman – reflected in its flowing organic nature. It was an art form produced mainly by women for women – at a time when women were first emerging as important consumers, with a newfound independence and purchasing power.

The powerful influence of batik went beyond textiles to appear on wallpaper, ceramics, books and graphic designs aimed at this lucrative female market. Significantly, batik was showcased in the Dutch Pavilion of the famous Paris Exposition of 1900. So great was the demand for innovation and exoticism that the Exposition attracted around fifty million people from around the world, firmly launching batik onto the global stage.

The rise of batik in the West coincided with the advent of industrialization – the era of steamships, and later, high-speed trains and airplanes. New technologies in art and printing enabled batik to be reproduced and featured in lifestyle magazines – rapidly spreading its influence around the world at the dawn of the age of modernity.

Batik designs evolved from an ancient tradition to a modern movement, enabled by the industrial age and driven by the aspirations of the New Woman. Through all the movement and adaptations in its history, batik has constantly reinvented itself: growing, spreading and diversifying. From its early development as a Javanese art form to a global phenomenon of the 21st century, the distunguished batik has earned its recognition by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

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