Kopiah: From Religious Attire to National Fashion

August 30, 2018 | Ahmadie Thaha




Kopiah (prayer cap), songkok or peace has become part of Indonesian national identity. Indonesian men can be easily recognized from the kopiah they wear.

Different countries have their own distinct fashions. Kopiah, also known as songkok or peci, is one of the most widely worn headdress by men in Indonesia. Anywhere in the world, when you see a man wearing kopiah, you cannot help but think that he is an Indonesian man. Kopiah becomes the identity marker of an Indonesian.

In Indonesia, in addition to a national identity marker, kopiah is also a marker of cultural and religious identities of a person. The cultural heritage inherited from ancestors is maintained for cultural identity and aesthetic reasons. Apart from purposes like to complement religious wear and to protect the head from direct sunlight, kopiah is the identity marker of Indonesian Muslim men while simultaneously signifying devout men’s fashion sense.

Kopiah was first popularized by Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president. He wore peci to symbolize movement against the colonizers. In his biography, Cindy Adams wrote that Soekarno’s peci was symbolic of his message of resistance. K.H. Wahab Hasbullah argued that, by wearing a peci, Bung Karno looks both a nationalist and a devout.

Bung Karno’s attempts on promoting the kopiah made the pro nationalist movement scholars wore kopiah like him. His efforts to promote black peci as a symbol of Indonesian nationalism did not stop there. After independence, Soekarno often gave gifts of velvet fabric to his ministers to make kopiah. K.H. Saifuddin Zuhri, Minister of Religious Affairs at the time, received the velvet fabric from Soekarno as raw materials enough to make six kopiah.

Presidents, vice presidents, ministers, high-ranking state officials, and people’s representatives, always use kopiah at official state events. Civilians and the military also wear black peci as the ones worn by General Sudirman and General Urip Sumoharjo. Not only Muslims, kopiah is also worn by residents of Kampung Sawah, Jakarta, who are mostly Christians.

Kassian Chepas, a well-known Indonesian photographer who is a Christian, appears wearing a peci in his self-portrait dated 1905. During the campaign period, kopiah was used by most candidates for regional heads, council members, or village heads. They displayed their gallant photos wearing peci, no matter what their religion. They look more authoritative as well as nationalist when they display their campaign photo with kopiah. Thus, it becomes clear that kopiah or peci or songkok that initially signify a person’s religious identity has transformed into a person’s national identity.



There are many versions of the origin of kopiah. Marwati Djoened Poesponegoro and Nugroho Notosusanto in Sejarah Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National History) mentioned that kopiah was introduced by Sunan Giri, a key Islamic figure in spreading Islam in Java in the fourteenth century. Meanwhile Rozan Yuno in his article, “The Origin of the Songkok or Kopiah” in The Brunei Times (23/09/2007) mentioned that, this attire was introduced by Arab traders who were also spreading Islam in Java.

Another source mentioned that peci was brought to Indonesia by Ceng Ho, a Muslim admiral from China in the fifteenth century. The word Peci was arguably derived from two Mandarin words, Pe (eight) and Chi (energy), which means something that is able to emit energy to all eight corners of the wind. Peci can also refer to Fez, the Turkish nationalist headdress, or refer to petje from Dutch which means small hat. Whereas Indonesian Muslims refer to keffieh, kaffiyeh or kufiya, from Arabic words. They mean headdress too, but the shapes are not like peci or songkok. The word peci or kopiah is closer to the word kepi in French. The kepi commonly used by the French military is somewhat similar to kopiah we know in Indonesia. The difference is kepi looks more like a cap with a flat circular top and a visor.



Kopiah, which is between six and 14 cm in height, has become part of the everyday life of the Indonesian people. On Madura Island, East Java, for example, kopiah has become attire that is sometimes more important than clothes. They can perform prayers without clothes, but can’t without kopiah as it can prevent hair from falling to the forehead which invalidate the prayer.

Every day, Madurese men who are generally santri (students in traditional religious schools) are almost never separated from kopiah, even when hoeing in the field. Bathing cattle in the river is also done wearing kopiah. The youth, students, students, and children go to madrasa, musholla (prayer space) or mosque with a kopiah. Religious leaders, such as kiai and ustadz, definitely wear kopiah. Without kopiah, they feel something is lacking, like a woman without her jewelry.

Not surprisingly, the production of kopiah is growing. We can find a national songkok making center in Blandongan village, Gresik, East Java. No one knows who first started it, for sure people there have long been making kopiah in their homes. Every year, tens of thousands of kopiah are made there. Blandongan has now changed from a formerly known center of ship repair to become one of the national songkok making centers.

Many of Blandongan villagers, who worked as loggers (blandong) in colonial times, formerly were kopiah makers making kopiah from black velvet fabric filled with paper to make it rigid. However, kopiah made from paper is easily damaged if exposed to water. Only in 1986, two kopiah craftsmen, H. Anwar Ilyas and Abed Hakim aka Awing, overcame the issue by making innovation of no paper kopiah. They replace the paper material with a rigid and hard fabric.

Innovative songkok product, however simple, becomes an important part of the effort to improve the quality of kopiah. With these innovations, kopiah has now become more durable and water resistant. Although, the price can be five times more expensive than the price of ordinary kopiah because the rigid fabric material must be imported. And, it is proven that consumers actually prefer to buy a high-quality kopiah even though the price is relatively expensive.



Over time, kopiah doesn’t just look plain. There are various modifications of embroidery motifs and others made by the maker. The kopiah made in Blandongan, for example, now has 46 variants. However, in general, there are only five types of songkok, namely ordinary songkok, soga (contemporary songkok or songkok with drawing), embroidered songkok, president songkok, and songkok mahar (dowry). The five can be distinguished based on the quality of the raw materials, such as velvet as the main material.

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