Wednesday, January 30, 2008


One heritage icon of Southeast Asia that spans half of our region is the elegant Kebaya. It is a traditional chemise *ok, blouse!* worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand. It is usually made with translucent fabric, lace or linen and worn together with a sarong or other traditional textiles.

Some says the Kebaya originated from the Middle East; more likely because they share religious background with them. Some claimed it came from a type of blouse worn by Javanese women in the 1400s; but others also claim it originated from China which spread through the region a hundred years earlier.

As the Kebaya extends 6 different countries over hundreds of years, it is also interesting to note that styles vary with cultural infusions…

One familiar style is the Sarong Kebaya; the uniform of flight attendants of Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. *If you see it on a male cabin attendant, that’s another story*

Kebaya Indonesia is worn with sarong batik, colorful songket and a long thin scarf called salendhang. There are notable variations by province.

The Nyonya Kebaya is worn by the classy women in Malacca, complete with sarong and beaded shoes. This is one of the most famous *and indecently expensive* styles of this elegant outfit. A book written by Mahmood Endon shows how beautiful the Nyonya Kebaya is. The Pua T’ng The is the version of Hokkien ladies in Penang.

And Bruneian ladies wear it with particular elan. Simply lovely.

In the early days, women used to wear it just for going out of the house. And it’s very nice to see those old Malayan movies where all women wears one and dang! Does it look good on them or what?! But sad to say nowadays, it is mostly reserved to be worn only in special occasions. *sigh*

Maybe because Kebayas are too expensive nowadays? Maybe – a modern piece costs at least 1,000 Ringgit (US$320/ 11,200 Baht/€218) in Malaysia alone. I say, they should make it more affordable so that the Kebaya won’t die with it.

The Kebaya is a heritage that we should not lose with time.
It is the collective identity of our graceful women.

Because women in Kebaya, and wears it with pride --
are the most beautiful women in the world.


Photo credit: Mahmood Endon & Javajive.


Mr Rainbow Man said...

In Malaysia, the nyonya kebayas are becoming a fashion statement... which is good, but it dilutes the peranakan heritage in this country

MischMensch said...

I don't think so. My family has quite a strong NonyaBaba mix and I love seeing my mum wearing the Nonya Kebaya. Random can sense that I am more Peranakan than any other races in me.

curbside_puppet said...

how come mindanao doesn't have this?

maybe a variation of this perhaps?

GitaChan said...

I love Kebaya.

most Indonesians ladies would use "Kebaya Moderen" (modern kebaya) to weddings or parties.

or during Miss Indonesia pageants

Erique Fat Owl said...

Indonesia also has a wealth of Kebaya designers. Most notable one would be Anne Avantie, which designs kebaya for celebrities and dignitaries alike. In my opinion, nothing beats her designs when it comes to Kebayas! Another designer popular in the Tai-tai and socialite community of Jakarta is Royal Sulam by Amy Atmanto.

elizabeth said...

Royal Sulam by Amy Atmanto is very rich in detail, and yet sophisticated. I just found out that she recently opened her new gallery in Ritz Carlton in Jakarta.I once made a gorgeous kebaya gown with her and very happy with it. She really knows how to make us a lady since her designs are so elegant not funky.

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