Those parenting books that tell you what to expect at different stages of a child’s development never mention the stage when you sit up late at night making a costume for the school play out of an old sheet. So here’s a useful tip. The same oblong of cloth, with a slit cut in the middle for the head and a stitch at either side, can multi-task as a Roman citizen (add another oblong tied over one shoulder), any biblical character (add belt made from a torn-off strip of fabric) and a medieval peasant (add coloured tights). If it’s past midnight, safety pins will stand in for sewing, but personally I draw the line at staples.
Which all goes to show that simple oblongs of material have played an enduring part in the history of clothing. They are often an element of traditional dress, whether a sari or a poncho, a red-checked Maasai shuka or a Sikh turban. And we still wear them today, especially when it’s either very hot or very cold.
When man, or woman, discovered how to weave, probably in the Neolithic era, it changed the way we covered ourselves. But it was a long, slow journey from early looms—the back-strap loom, where a strap around the body forms one end of the frame, or the ground loom, where the warp threads are tied to poles stuck into the ground—to the vast machines of today that can churn out acres of cloth in moments. For centuries a fabric’s width was determined by the arm-span of the weaver, who had to pass the weft thread to and fro from one hand to the other. Wider cloth became possible with the broad loom, which needed two people to pass the shuttle to each other. The invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 was a watershed: it meant that a single person could weave a cloth wider than she could reach.
In the modern world, where clothing has become infinitely complex, we still turn to simple oblongs of fabric. As soon as the mercury starts to fall, shawls, scarves and pashminas emerge from our wardrobes. But it’s in summer—and particularly on the beach—that a rectangle of cloth is virtually all you need. It is a testament to globalisation that we’re familiar with so many names for the holiday cover-up: the pareo (from Tahiti), the kikoy and the kanga (Africa), and for men the dhoti (Indian sub-continent). The lunghi, found all over Asia, has its ends sewn together to make a tube. But it’s the sarong, from the Malay for “sheath”, that is the most widely used in the West.
Here sarongs are marketed at women, but all over the world they are worn by men. The males in my family always pack them for hot-weather holidays—they wear them, skirt-style, around the waist. It’s the women who have the fun of exploring the sarong’s full versatility, in a process that is part sculpture, part origami. You can make a shorter skirt by folding it in half lengthways before wrapping it around your waist. You can wrap it around yourself, like a towel after a bath, to make a boob-tube mini-dress. You can hold the corners with the cloth behind you, like a skipping rope at the ready, and cross them over and tie them behind the neck for a halter-neck dress. For a strappier halter, you make a single knot at the chest first and twist the ends before you tie them.
On a beach once, a man selling sarongs showed me all the different ways he knew of tying them. These included a look I hadn’t seen before, a sort of long gilet, a style he called “breakfast”. He’d realised that these crazy visitors, who were happy to be near-naked on the beach, liked to put something over their swimwear before appearing at breakfast: hence the name. I bought from him—it seemed rude not to—one of my all-time-favourite sarongs, the intense turquoise of a tropical sea with sea shells printed on it.
The best sarongs, at least for versatility, are very fine, so they don’t create bulk where you tie them; thinner fabrics are also cooler. Cotton is better than silk, which feels hot and gets spoiled by sun cream. Synthetics are always unpleasant in warm weather, unless you are one of those holiday exercise freaks who insist on going for a jog instead of sitting down with a good book. Adaptable as it has proved to be, across the centuries and the climates, an oblong of cloth really doesn’t cut it as a jogging outfit.