Dorothy Lamour and the History of the Sarong Around the World

29 Oct

lounging-dorothy-lamour-with-flowerApart from being remembered for accompanying Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the road so often, Dorothy Lamour has been immortalized as “The Sarong Girl.” She made her debut in The Jungle Princess in 1936, playing a Malaysian native wearing an Edith Head designed sarong. The sarong was to become an inescapable part of her persona; which she humorously poked fun at repeatedly in the Road movies.

(for more information on Dorothy Lamour and her sarong, check out “Dorothy Lamour: Fashion Icon of Old Hollywood,” by Old Hollywood Films.)

Ultimately, she only wore a sarong in “about six” movies (perhaps most famously in John Ford’s The Hurricane), but she never really did get away from her image as an exotic native, draped in clothe, at home on the beach, perhaps swimming in the ocean or singing a song.

In America, the sarong has ever since been associated with swimwear, often as a wrap or even (like in the case of Lamour) a short dress. However, the sarong actually has a long and varied history around the world


Though I used to associated the sarong with South Sea islands, the term “sarong” comes from Malaysia, and the sarong itself (known by a variety of names around the world) is believed to have originated in Yemen (called a futah). Its use has expanded around the world, originally through Arab traders during the 1300s. The sarong is still commonly worn in Indonesia and in the Arab peninsula. It’s use can vary by location, from religious observation (the sarong is especially identified with Islamic culture), ceremonial use, daily life, comfort, and national and cultural identity. In some places, only men wear the sarong, in others, women and children wear sarongs, too.


examples of batik

The colors and patterns of the sarong can also vary greatly. Some are plain, some checked, some with geometric shapes, and others with floral patterns. In Indonesia (especially Java), they color the fabric using the batik method. Patterns are created by applying wax to the fabric in the desired shapes, then the fabric is dipped in dye, after which the wax is removed.

The shape of the sarong is described as being like a tube (sarong means “scabbard” in Indonesian) and you step into the sarong before pulling it tightly and securing it at your waist. For women, the sarong can also be worn not just at the waist, but also up to the armpits. There are also, evidently, many other uses for the sarong – such as a blanket, headgear and even as a knapsack.

I confess, I had no idea the sarong was so ubiquitous, multi-purposed and traditional. It shows, as Phyllis Loves Classic Movies also showed in her post on “Costume Dramas of Golden Hollywood,” that Hollywood is all about flavor. They derive inspiration from around the world (or from novels) and distill it down into a specific flavor. Sometimes it’s artificial flavoring and sometimes it’s natural flavoring.

I will admit, however, that I’ve always had an affection for Dorothy Lamour’s films. Perhaps it’s the good humor in which she approached all her work – whether comedy or South Sea romance. Or perhaps it’s her voice and songs. She seems, somehow, unaffected, even though she’s not what one would consider a natural actress. Always gracious, somehow.

In closing, here is Dorothy Lamour singing the song that would become most associated with her: “The Moon of Manakoora.”

And a video on the many ways to wear a sarong in Indonesia.


This post was written as part of “The Characters in Costume Blogfest,” which I am honored to be co-hosting with Andrea of Into the Writer Lea! Click here for more marvelous posts from Days 1, 2, and 3.



Posted by on October 29, 2016 in Movies


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15 responses to “Dorothy Lamour and the History of the Sarong Around the World

  1. FictionFan

    October 29, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    How interesting! I had no idea a sarong was really a thing before the movies – I’d always assumed Hollywood invented it purely as a kind of Western idea of how the South Sea Islanders might dress. I loved the clip for all its uses – wish I had one now so I could try them all out! I only really know Dorothy Lamour from the Road to… movies, and when I was a child I thought it must be so much fun having Bob Hope and Bing Crosby fight for her, though I always hoped she’d pick Bob – he was my hero… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      I always rooted for him to win Lamour, too. I think it was underdog syndrome. 🙂 He did win occasionally…well, two out of six.

      It is amazing how many different ways one can use a sarong! It’s more multi-purpose than jeans or a scarf or anything. I know what you mean – I kind of thought it was a South Seas, localized thing that Hollywood exploited and popularized globally.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Silver Screenings

    October 30, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Interesting history! I had no idea the sarong has such a long and exotic history. As for its versatility, I think it beats nearly every other article of clothing on the planet.

    Dorothy Lamour certainly brought glamour to the sarong. I don’t know anyone who wears it as well as she does. (Of course, having Edith Head’s input helps quite a bit!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 30, 2016 at 11:12 am

      True…Edith Head could make any article of clothing look glamorous….though it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it as much justice as Dorothy Lamour!

      I think you’re right – I can’t think of any other article that has even half the uses of the sarong. I once got a book on the many ways to wear and use a scarf, but it still has nothing on the sarong.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Virginie Pronovost

    October 30, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Very informative post! 🙂 I still have to see some Dorothy Lamour’s movies :((( Which one would you recommend to see first?

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      October 30, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      For the Road movies (with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby), either The Road to Utopia or Road to Morocco are their best.

      But Johnny Apollo (with Tyrone Power) is also a fun drama. She sings two songs, but also is great as the hard luck girlfriend of a gangster.

      For her sarong roles, John Ford’s The Hurricane is also really good, though she does not sing. She plays the wife of a wrongly convicted islander.

      I hope that helps! She’s an actress whose movies I’ve really come to enjoy over the past few years. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Virginie Pronovost

        October 30, 2016 at 6:31 pm

        Thanks so much! 🙂 I’ve been curious to see the Road Movies. Might be a great way to start (also because I haven’t seen any Bob Hope movies…)

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          October 30, 2016 at 6:36 pm

          Oh yes, that’s a great place to start for Bob Hope, too! That’s how I started, too. First one I ever saw was Road to Morocco.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Virginie Pronovost

            October 30, 2016 at 6:47 pm

            I already know the theme song 😉 Because it is on my High Society soundtrack (first part of the CD are the songs from High Society and the second ones are just random songs from other musicals, including the Road to Morocco one).

            Liked by 1 person

  4. thoughtsallsorts

    October 30, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    What an interesting post! Thanks so much for the good reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth

    November 1, 2016 at 4:07 am

    What a fascinating piece! I learned a lot about the sarong here that I had never thought of before. Since it is so associated with swimwear here in the states, one has to wonder how much Dorothy influenced that? I really enjoyed this piece and I’ve been inspired to brush up on her films!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 1, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Thanks! Yes, I know what you mean – she does seem to have had a remarkable long-term affect on how we view the sarong….even on people who have never heard of her!

      I’m glad to have inspired you to see some Dorothy Lamour! Sometime, I think her work gets overlooked…especially in the Road movies. I hope you get a chance to see a few. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


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