Becoming a Javanese Princess

by Tabitha Kidwell

A little known fact about me (ok not that little known, since I try to drop it into conversation whenever given the chance) is that I was elected homecoming queen in high school! Please don’t take that to mean I was ‘popular’ or ‘cool.’ I relied heavily on the band vote, the theater vote, the fact that my sister was a sophomore, and the fact that I had an interesting name. (In the cafeteria line that day, I stood behind a girl who explained to her friend that that was how she had chosen who to vote for. She clearly had no idea how close she was to royalty at that very moment.) But I won nonetheless, and I have the rhinestone tiara to prove it. I’ve put that crown to use since, too – friends have worn it for birthdays and bachelorette parties, I wore it to clean the house, write papers, or do other distasteful tasks, and I even pulled it out for my going-away party in August. I thought really hard about bringing it with me here, and sometimes wish I had. But, as I learned last week, suburban Ohio royalty just doesn’t compare to Javanese royalty.

All 15 English Language Fellows attended the TEFLIN (Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia) conference in Semarang from November 3-5. My friend Jonthon, who is an adventurous sort, cooked up a little surprise for us our last day there. A common thing for Indonesian people to do is to go to studios, get all done up, and have a photo shoot of themselves dressed up like Javanese princes and princesses. It’s maybe a little like getting your picture taken like an olde time sheriff. My counterpart, for example, got a picture like this taken in celebration of his and his wife’s 10th wedding anniversary. Jonthon happened to have a friend who lives in the area who had just taken a class on doing hair and makeup for these sessions, and he asked if she and her friends would come and turn us into sultans and sultanas(I looked that up).

It turns out, there is more to being Javanese royalty than meets the eye.

First, they put these goofy things on my eyelids that keep your eyes shut a little bit so that people can see the eye-shadow better. I guess they are important for Asian women, but it felt a little bit like getting your eyes taped shut to me.

Next, they put on A LOT of makeup, even including eyebrow tint. Javanese princesses do not have undefined eyebrows.

Then, there was a lot of hair teasing as they wrapped my own hair around a giant donut of fake hair.

Then, some silk flower netting was draped and pinned around the real hair/fake hair donut combo.

And then two of the ladies helped wrap me up in a few yards of cloth.

Lastly, they added some bling…

… and I took a moment to eat a Halloween peep. (We had forgotten lunch and it was clear by now this would be an all-day affair!)

And I was a Javanese princess!

Humility is, traditionally, one of the most valued characteristics in Javanese culture, hence the downward gaze. Unlike me, a Javanese princess would not try casually mention her election as homecoming queen. If Indonesian high schools had homecoming… and football… and school dances… okay, I think you get the point.

All told, my transformation took almost two hours, and there were four other people being worked on at the same time. When the first round was done, our stylists started on the second round, while we sat around uncomfortably, took pictures, and ate more Halloween peeps. When everyone was finished, we got together for a spectacular photo shot on the hotel balcony, down in the lobby, and even took a foray into the attached mall. Here we are in all our glory:

I really loved my costume and really felt quite regal. I would probably have kept the outfit on all night and headed out on the town if our stylists hadn’t had to, you know, go home, and take their costumes and props with them. We didn’t get to keep our bling.

But I still have my own.

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