A sarong, also known as a pareo, is a free-fitting garment that, when popularized in the West, was worn by women primarily as a skirt or a dress. It does not, however, have clearly designated sleeves, buttonholes, or waistline. A sarong is instead a large, rectangular piece of cloth that is wrapped around the body and tied in place. Sarongs are multicolored and feature an endless array of patterns. When they became popular in the mid-1930s they suggested an exotic, friendly allure.
Sarongs have been prevalent in Asian cultures for centuries, where they were worn by both men and women, particularly on Pacific Ocean islands and in the Malay Archipelago, off the southeast coast of Asia. The striking patterns and colors on traditional sarongs were produced by a method known as batik, a slow and complex process of dying that involves covering the areas of the cloth that are not to be colored with melted wax. The cloth is exposed to the dye or dyes, and then the wax is removed by placing it in boiling water. A sarong made by this two-thousand-year-old process may take well over a year to produce.
In the United States sarongs were popularized in the movies, especially by the popular actress Dorothy Lamour (1914–1996), who won stardom in the mid-1930s and remained a top screen personality throughout the 1940s, often cast as an exotic, sarong-clad island woman. Lamour's star-making role was in The Jungle Princess (1936), in which she played Ulah, an exotically beautiful female who grew up alone in the wilds of Malaysia. Lamour actually wore a sarong only in a fraction of her future films, yet her career was forever linked to the garment.
Sarongs were made of cotton or silk and, later, rayon. In addition to skirts and dresses, they have been worn as jackets, sashes, shawls, and head coverings. Sarongs can be folded several different ways and tied with knots before being placed on, over, or around the body. Sarongs not only have been used to cover the body. They also have made colorful curtains, window shades, tablecloths, beach or pool towels, wall hangings, and even bandanas for dogs. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries they found increased popularity as a cover worn over swimsuits.
Lamour, Dorothy, as told to Dick McInnes. My Side of the Road. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.