(Image credit: Asian Civilizations Museum)
There is a garment in Southeast Asia that embodies fashion, heritage and national pride. And now the kebaya is nominated to join the Unesco Intangible Heritage List for 2023.
In the studio spotlight, Indonesian-born designer Stacy Stube smoothed chocolate brown lace across her cutting table. She carefully pinned the pattern to the fabric, determined not to rip it, then dutifully traced its outline in chalk. The task weighed heavily on her shoulders, knowing that it was not just a matter of creating a dress, but of making a garment that was once a symbol of rebellion and which remains steeped in history.
THE kebaya is a garment that women like Stube’s seamstress great-grandmother made in the islands of Indonesia, and can also be found in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand. Each region has appropriated the kebaya and each point tells its own story. It is so loved by these five countries that they have teamed up to propose the kebaya on the list of intangible cultural heritage of Unesco in March 2023.
“The kebaya crosses countries and ethnicities,” said Cedric Tan, former president of Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, a Malaysian society for the Peranankan people, who participated in the nomination.
Versions of the kebaya can be found throughout Southeast Asia. (Artorn/Getty Images)
The kebaya is believed to have its roots in the Middle East. THE qabaa jacket said to be of Turkish origin, takes its name from the Persian word for “dress of honor”, and Javanese royals and society women wore a similar open garment when the Portuguese arrived in Java in 1512, according to American professors of fashion history Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun in the book History of fashion: a global vision. The garment eventually took its name from the Portuguese word “cabin” Or “hut“, meaning “tunic”.
Jackie Yoong, senior curator of fashion and textiles at the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, said there’s another reason why it’s clear the kebaya has its roots in the Middle East: When you raise your arm from the kebaya there is a triangular patch under the arm like Middle Eastern dresses; other jackets like Ming style [from China] are cut flat.”
Kebaya became a word used for both men’s and women’s dresses or blouses, but from the 19th century it became synonymous in Southeast Asia with a women’s blouse paired with a batik sarong. This style became popular with Dutch women during the time of the Dutch East Indies (in what is now Indonesia) and was also adopted by Southeast Asian women who followed Islam and wanted to dress more modestly.
The kebaya takes its name from a Portuguese word meaning ‘tunic’. (Asian Civilizations Museum)
Pretty and practical, the kebaya was adapted to tropical climates. Over the years it has taken many forms. Early clothing included the kebaya Panjang, a blouse open to the knees, closed by brooches and with long sleeves. Today, the best-known versions include the kebaya kartini, which was popular with the nobles of Java; the kebaya kutabaruwhich has a piece of fabric underneath to look like a fake kemben (loincloth); and the kebaya Nyonyawhich is created from colored silk or voile and decorated with embroidery.
As the kebaya was adopted by other Southeast Asian countries, with ordinary people imitating the Javanese royal family and cosmopolitan port cities eager to adopt the new fashion, artisans in every island or community have put their own stamp on it.
Travelers to Indonesia will see Balinese women closing their kebaya with a colorful contrasting belt; while in Java, many women wear a white version of the kebaya lined with European lace, a style that was popularized by the Dutch during colonial times. Meanwhile, in the Riau Islands of Indonesia, women have lengthened the hem of the kebaya to fall to the knee. In the country of Brunei, women wear a kebaya in ditty cloth woven with gold thread, while in the Malaysian islands of Malacca and Penang some Peranakan women (descendants of 14th-century Chinese traders who married local women in Southeast Asia) may embroider their blouses with phoenixes and peonies in a nod to their Chinese heritage.
In Bali, many women pair their kebaya with a colorful contrasting belt. (Ali Trisno Pranoto/Getty Images)
The kebaya has also become a symbol of pride and defiance. During World War II, Javanese women placed in Japanese internment camps refused to wear anything other than the kebaya as a sign of rebellion and national solidarity. It also became Indonesia’s national dress in 1945 and was adopted by Indonesian companies Garuda Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines as their female crew uniform. Singapore Airlines went so far as to invite French fashion designer Pierre Balmain to create his bespoke kebaya sarong in 1974.
Today, for some people in Southeast Asia, a kebaya is kept for special occasions, although others treat it as everyday clothing. A kebaya made from rich fabrics can be worn at a Peranakan wedding in Penang, while cooler cotton versions can be spotted on women riding their scooters through the winding streets of Bali as they go about their business. daily tasks.
“The story of the sarong kebaya changes all the time to respond to different kinds of social, cultural and political situations,” Yoong said.
Singaporean fashion designer Oniatta Effendi creates modern versions of the kebaya. (Oniatta Effendi)
Indeed, Singaporean fashion designer Oniatta Effendi is reinventing the kebaya for the next generation, playing with silhouettes to create wearable and versatile pieces. “I think kebaya is something that is continually evolving,” Effendi said. Not only are her designs loose and long, she has taken inspiration from traditional elements such as the breastplate, but reversed it so that part of it sits outside the kebaya like an exposed corset.
“When I wear the kebaya, it’s empowering,” Effendi said. “You become someone else.”
Effendi embraces its Indonesian heritage, even including the Javanese-style white kebaya in a collection called “Nostalgia”. “The kebaya is steeped in memories for me,” Effendi said. “It’s my grandmother standing in front of her kampong house giving me money for Hari Raya [the festival of Eid in Malaysia] or see pictures of her feeding my sister under a tree.”
The heritage garment was also recently transformed into NFT by metaverse company 8sian of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And on Kartini Day (April 21) in Indonesia, which celebrates female empowerment, many women will be seen wearing a kebaya – even at a surfing competition held in honor of the day.
Effendi’s loose, long designs are inspired by traditional elements. (Oniatta Effendi)
Renewed appreciation for the heritage dress has also seen the launch of the Kebaya Societe, an Instagram page that details the history of kebaya in Southeast Asia. Tailor Sufiyanto Amat Sopingi and fashion business consultant Afiq Juana have won fans by posting vintage snaps of kebaya looks from the 1900s and sharing information about his heritage.
“Some people respond more to 1960s glamor in the era of Malay cutscenes, while others are more interested in textiles,” Sopingi said. “But our most popular posts are when we share images of women from different parts of Southeast Asia, from Malaysia to Indonesia, dressed similarly. People love the community aspect.”
Sopingi, who began collecting vintage fashion while living in Europe, quickly expanded his collection to include kebayas when he returned home to Singapore. “The kebayas from the 1900s to the 1960s were so well cut. The fabric was not easily accessible, so the garment had to last,” he said. Sopingi has now collected more than 200 kebayas, some of which are on loan from museums across Southeast Asia.
Stacy Stube was inspired by the kebaya and worked with an Indonesian artisan to master the design. (Pat Bourque)
Stacy Stube was also inspired by Southeast Asian artisans. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of her dressmaker great-grandmother, she returned to Indonesia for three years after studying at the London College of Fashion. While the colorful prints of batik, the metallic threads of ditty and the woven ikat The fabrics began her fashion journey in Indonesia, it was the silhouette of the kebaya that caught her imagination and became the inspiration for her collection.
Stube worked with an Indonesian artisan to master the design of the kebaya, learning how to create the pattern, following kebaya stitching techniques and stitching the piece using a traditional treadle sewing machine. But she learned more from the lessons than how to perfect the cut for the heritage look.
“I’ve been in this environment of ‘how fast can we do something?'” Stube said. “We lose our connection to manufacturing and ourselves as a creator. It’s really nice to say that I’m choosing to slow down to do something that really matters to me and then I’m going to wear it. It was really to About that connection and the community and sitting together.”
The kebaya may be a centuries-old garment, but it has shown that it will always have a place in the hearts and wardrobes of Southeast Asia.
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