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Classical Ladies' Fashion Design and The Society Changing (8): Malay Kebaya

Updated on March 10, 2014

Kebaya is the national costume of Indonesia, but widely worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Burma, Singapore, and southern Thailand, i.e. popular across the Malay Archipelago, except Philippine islands. The native people in the Archipelago is mainly Malays. A large number of Chinese immigrated to there in the late 15th and 16th century. Since early 16th century, European, mainly Portuguese and Dutchese, had started colonial governments, and during the World War II, Japanese replaced European. Therefore, a mixed multi-culture and religions had been formed in the Archipelago countries, which can be seen in many aspects. And the women's clothing, Kebaya, is one of the representatives.


The name of Kebaya comes from Arabic term for clothing introduced by Portuguese. The kebaya dress originates from Javanese female kemban, which is a torso wrap of a whole piece of cloth without stitches or buttons, and was used by aristocratic women. To be more modest and more acceptable to religions, a type of blouse-dress was adopted by Indonesian women in Java island in 15th and 16th century, i.e. a type of thin overcoat outside the kemban. The blouse is usually semi-transparent, and made from cotton, silk, lace, brocade, or velvet. A traditional kebaya has no buttons down the front, but a central brooch is used to fasten the two flaps in the central opening. The brooch could be gold or other precious jewelry, or modest safety pin to be a sign of social status. The kebaya is usually added elegant Chinese embroidery, and matched with rich decorations, such as necklace and earrings. The bottom part is a sarong skirt or kain, which is an unstitched fabric wrap around three meters long. Prior to 17th century, Kebaya was considered as a sacred clothing to be worn only by royal family, and minor nobilities, while ordinary women walked publicly bare-chested. Slowly, it became popular through neighbouring areas by trade, diplomacy and social interactions with other regions in the Archipelago, and then spread to the public.

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Baju KebayaNyonya KebayaMuslim Kebaya
Baju Kebaya
Baju Kebaya
Nyonya Kebaya
Nyonya Kebaya
Muslim Kebaya
Muslim Kebaya

There are two main varieties of kebaya: baju kebaya and nyonya kebaya. Baju kebaya includes the semi-transparent straighter cut blouse in Java, Bali, more tightly tailored blouse in Sunda, and the loose-fitting, knee-length and long-sleeves kebaya more compatible to Islamic and Muslim areas. The sarong skirt is commonly batik, which can be from plain cotton to elaborately hand-painted batik, embroidered silk with gold thread. During Dutch colonial era, European women adopted the less restrictive and cooler kebaya with shorter sleeves and total length cotton in prints. The other kebaya is called "nyonya kebaya" worn by Peranakan people, i.e. strait Chinese in the Malacca region. In the late 15th and 16th century, Chinese immigrants were usually traders, or middlemen, and became the elites of local communities in Malay Archipelago. They intermarried with Malays and Indonesians, and descents are called Peranakan, but known as "Strait Chinese". "Baba" is the term for gentlemen, and "nyonya" for ladies. The nyonya kebaya makes differences in its rich Chinese embroidery, matched intricate hand-beaded shoes, and the kain skirt with Chinese motive batik or hand-painted Chinese silks.

Kebaya Fashion Today

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Wedding Kebaya
Wedding Kebaya
Wedding Kebaya
Nyonya kebaya with jeans
Nyonya kebaya with jeans

Nowadays, kebaya is incorporated into Western tailoring innovations, such as clasps, zippers and buttons. Besides, kebaya may be worn without the restrictive kemban, and with jeans or regular skirts. In Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia Airlines, female attendants are featured by their kebaya uniforms. Especially, the "Singapore Girl" uniform was designed by French designer, Pierre Balmain in 1972, and considered as an international icon, while Garuda Indonesia female uniform is the kebaya in simple but classic kartini style derived from Javanese noblewomen's kebaya in 19th century.

Kebaya is a fruit of multi-culture. With the change of the society, it embodies religional meaning and political significance. During the World War II, the Indonesia female prisoners in Japanese internment camps refused to wear Western dress, but stick to their traditional kebaya, reflecting a national coherence and a racial solidarity. More importantly, the design of kebaya appears the charm of women by halfly showing the underneath, and the beauty of women by wholly displaying the body-curve.

Singapore Girls in Sarong-Kebaya Uniform
Singapore Girls in Sarong-Kebaya Uniform | Source


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