I love baju butterfly. That’s one of the most Malay things about me.
For those who don’t know, it’s a dress that older women usually wear when they’re lounging at home or when they’re going to bed. It usually comes in batik prints, but sometimes, it comes in floral and other designs.
Of course, it’s not just Malays who wear them. I’ve seen Chinese and Indian aunties in my neighbourhood out and about in them. I’ve also seen Caucasian tourists wearing them out, which also led to my sisters and I jesting that it should be a thing. “Just wear it with a belt to turn it into a dress,” we would joke. Who would have thought I would make that a reality?
In the past, it came with wide sleeves (when you lift your arms, you look like you have butterfly wings, hence its name) but nowadays, it comes in different cuts: long-sleeved, short-sleeved and even sleeveless. I personally love the short-sleeved ones.
I have a lot of bajus at home but there are three that I religiously wear. They’re super thin and comfortable—perfect for Singapore’s weather.
Last week, when I was in the office toilet, I decided, wouldn’t it be funny if I wore it to the office? And so the idea was born. (The best ideas are formulated in the toilet and/or bathroom, if you ask me.)
Picking the Right Baju Butterfly
I headed to Geylang Serai at 5.30pm and reached there just in time before the shops close (they close at 6pm). My mum took me to a store that has a wide variety of baju butterfly (gotta trust a makcik on this) and true to her words, there were all kinds of baju.
I must say I’m quite a good judge of which fabric will leave you sweating and which will keep you cool, so I picked those that I would definitely wear and not complain to no end about.
My mum also pitched in her two cents’ worth, based on the years she has spent wearing and buying baju butterfly: “This one too thin; this will tear after you wash; this one is see-through.”
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I chose designs that would be wearable as a dress to the office, but also picked one baju that I would wear at home because, objectivity. I also made sure the pieces I picked had different cuts because, variety.
I left with a bag of baju worth $44 and some doubt on whether I could make this makcik staple look fashionable.
Scroll through the gallery to see my attempts at making them look fashion, not fashun.
Day 1: Mid-length yellow baju butterfly, $9
I started the challenge the day after I got my haul.
I cinched it at the waist so I wouldn’t look like a walking carpet (the dress is legit rectangular) and paired it a denim jacket. OK, let’s be honest, everything looks good with a denim jacket, so the outfit actually looked decent. Also, the bright colour of the baju helped because it made it look like a summer beach dress.
When I was leaving for work, a woman who got into the lift with me stared at my outfit as she walked in—and continued stealing glances until we reached the first floor. I could almost sense judgment oozing from her pores. Gasp—did she realise I was wearing a baju butterfly? Never mind, keep calm and carry on.
The basis of this “project” comprised me keeping it a secret from my colleagues to see their reactions. When my team saw me, no one commented on my outfit. However, The Singapore Women’s Weekly‘s Features Editor Natalya said I looked cute (though she could have been referring to my space buns).
At lunch, Fashion Editor Cheryl asked, “Did you get your dress from one of those shops in Boon Keng and made it fashion?” Trust a Fashion Editor to notice these things.
I said yes and we left it at that.
In the lift, she suggested I do an article on makcik fashion. Busted!
I sheepishly revealed that’s what I was doing—only, I would be wearing baju butterfly and not the outfits that makciks actually wear out (though that’s not a bad idea).
Day 2: Sleeveless dress, $7
I had two events to attend on this day. When I told this to my mum, she asked, “Are you sure you want to wear that baju today?” But that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? To make it fashion enough to even wear to events.
I chose to wear the sleeveless batik dress because it was the easiest to style—just put on a faux leather jacket and I would look like a rock star. But boy did I suffer. The faux leather jacket that I got years ago from H&M is obviously not made for Singapore’s hot weather. I was already sweating while walking to the bus stop. Not a great way to start my day.
At the void deck, a woman who was walking with her elderly father saw me, did a double take, and continued staring at me as she’s supporting her father while walking towards presumably the coffee shop. After being judged two days in a row at my HDB block, I concluded that you can’t hide the fact that you’re wearing a baju butterfly—no matter how fashion you try to make it look—to people who wear the baju or see others wearing it often.
Another gripe I had was that my Fenty Puma high-top sneakers made my feet look disproportionately larger than the rest of my body, which was why I only wore them once prior. But I didn’t have any ankle boots that were not fleece-lined, so bo pian, I had to look like Ronald McDonald for a day.
I paired the outfit with dark lips and smokey eye makeup so I would look grunge instead of makcik buang tebiat (makcik who has lost her marbles).
This is the point where I should advise: if you’re also thinking of wearing baju butterfly and making it fashion, makeup is important as the finishing touch so you don’t look like you forgot to change out of your pyjamas. I usually decide on my eye and lip colours first, then match my outfit with those colours, but with this challenge, I had to think in reverse. 🙁
Day 3: Mid-length pink baju butterfly, $9
I was on leave and wasn’t planning to do the challenge but since my family and I decided to go to Johor Bahru, I thought, hey, maybe I could wear baju butterfly for travel.
This outfit proved to be a challenge to style so I had to seek inspiration from Korean fashion brand Style Nanda’s Instagram page. Style Nanda said to wear a dress with denim jeans, so I did.
Since the baju butterfly is one big rectangular dress, I had to bunch it up to make it look “fashion”. I Googled how to do that, and Google suggested using a rubber band. I did, but it kept slipping every so often so if you want to emulate this, it’s best to use a safety pin. Can’t guarantee your baju won’t tear though.
I also used fake glasses for the ultimate rilek one corner (relax in a corner) look. To top it off, I wore socks with sandals—a trend I saw people in Japan rocking when I was there last month.
No one in Johor—or Singapore—batted an eyelid when they saw my outfit. This might disprove my theory from Day 2. I assumed since there are a lot of Malays in Johor, most of them would be familiar with baju butterfly (at least the makciks I’ve seen in Malaysian dramas wear baju butterfly all the time), but no one gave me weird looks—or maybe they were just too polite to do so.
The outfit was so comfortable though. I didn’t sweat as much as I normally would despite all the walking so confirm plus chop would wear again.
Day 4: Short-sleeved dress, $9
My family and I decided to go to Gardens by the Bay (not for this story but because my mum loves orchirds and there’s an Orchid Extravaganza thing going on at Flower Dome now). I decided to wear the dress that looks most like a night dress because 1) I wasn’t meeting clients; 2) I wasn’t meeting my boss, and 3) most visitors at Gardens by the Bay are tourists and they’d probably never meet me ever again in their lives, so it was OK even if I f***ed this outfit up.
As expected, I had the biggest problem with this dress. The initial outfit I had in mind (wear it with jacket and belt) didn’t work and no matter what I did, it looked like a nightgown. My eldest sister suggested layering it with a shirt, and it took the concerted effort of my whole family to make it work. I didn’t have a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt, so I had to roll up the sleeves and pin them in place. I topped it off with a brooch (which my sister previously bought for Hari Raya LOL).
The great thing about this outfit was that the Uniqlo shirt is super cooling (#notsponsored), and the baju was short-sleeved.
The outfit also matched the theme of flowers, so I must say the photos turned out nice. It took us all but 15 minutes to get the perfect shot (I say this with sarcasm, of course). Maybe skip this kind of dress if you want to make it fashion.
For dinner, we went to Seoul Garden and since it was a buffet, there’s no way I could enjoy my meal with the belt restricting my stomach—so I took off the belt. Without a cinch in the waist, the dress reverted to looking like a nightgown, so I got weird stares from some Malays who were seated at the neighbouring tables. But I could eat all the meat I wanted, so it didn’t bother me because food > judgmental stares.
Day 5: Long baju butterfly, $10
I was running out of ideas by now, so I decided to reuse the initial idea I had for Day 4 which didn’t work out—surprisingly, it worked for this baju.
I also broke out my white concert shoes (fangirls would understand what these are) but I needed a white bag to complete the look. I didn’t have one, but I thought, since I’m already rabak, might as well be rabak all the way, so behold, my makeshift white bag which is actually a bottle holder that I got as a door gift at a Gentle Monster event.
Since the bag was tiny, I had to forgo my wallet to fit everything in, but it managed to hold all the essentials I needed.
I sent a photo of this outfit to my Malay friend and she commented how nice it looked. (She knew I was doing this challenge and had requested for first dibs on getting daily updates of my look since she is also a baju butterfly advocate.)
When I got home, I almost forgot that I hadn’t bathed or changed out because the dress felt like the usual baju butterfly I wear at home.
10/10 would do this again. I usually wear Uniqlo’s AIRism innerwear underneath my tops and dresses because Singapore’s weather is so hot, but with baju butterfly, I could forgo the inner layer.
My only gripe is that I had to spend a lot more effort in dressing up. My idea of dressing up is wearing a suit like Park Min Young in Her Private Life, a dress, or a nice jacket or blazer. But with this challenge, I had to show variety (wearing jackets every day would be cheating). I also had to plan my outfit the night before to make sure I wouldn’t end up looking fashun.
The day after the challenge, I came to work in a normal dress that I bought from Japan. Beauty Editor Smita asked, “Are you still on your makcik challenge?” SMH.
An hour later, Associate Editor Sophie asked, “Is this your makcik dress?”
“Eh, y’all need to have your eyes checked!” I said indignantly.
I guess I have “makcik fashion” permanently tattooed on my forehead now.