The Lost Culture Of The Beautiful Kebaya

My fascination with the Kebaya started since I was a little child. I remember turning on the television in the evenings, just to watch a Singaporean drama series titled ‘The Little Nyonya‘. The story was about a Peranakan family in Malacca set during the 1930’s. The ladies portrayed in the series wore exceptionally beautiful kebaya, and I was completely enamoured by it.

However, due to my stubborn body size at that time, I had to forget about wearing the figure-hugging blouse-dress. It simply made my body looked bigger. When I successfully lost about ten kilogrammes a few years ago, I realised I would soon achieve my dream of wearing one, during Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Malay weddings or any formal occasions, for a more elegant look.

The beauty Kebaya worn by four beuaties
The beautiful Kebaya worn by four beauties.
Source: ByHisDaisy

The Origins Of Kebaya

The women’s upper long-sleeves is the key describing the feature of this traditional outfit. Generally, it is made of sheer material, including silk, semi-transparent nylon, or even polyester. It is often paired with a sarong, batik, or other traditional clothing, like Songket, usually with a colourful motif.

Prior to 1,600 CE on the island of Java, only the royal family had the privilege to wear the kebaya. It was during the Dutch colonial era on the island, that the first European women wore it as their official clothing. The Peranakan people from the Malacca Sultanate were the first to wear the clothes, that resembled the “mistress kebaya“. It underwent continuous renewal, evolving over the years through Islamic influences. This resulted in the outer blouse worn over the kemben (cloth wrapped at the torso to cover the body).

Most people believed that the traditional outfit actually originated from the Arab countries. For the simple fact that they deemed the Arabs brought Baju Kebaya (the Arabic “abaya”) to the archipelago hundeds of years ago. Before long, its popularity soon spread to Southeast Asia i.e. Malacca, Java, Bali, Sumatra, and Sulawesi.

Fast Forward To Present Day

Fashion trends adapt to women’s ever-changing needs and preferences in the modern world. As such, today’s Kebaya tends to favour heavily embroidered lace. Normally, the ladies will wear it with a batik sarong, a tight-fitting long skirt that has a slit in front; a plain long skirt; or a wrap-around.

Interestingly, the traditional outfit has evolved to suit the taste of modern women. The youths of today wear kebaya tops with flare skirts, jeans, palazzo pants or Pario. Sometimes even wearing the kebaya itself like a loose top with a camisole inside.

Wanderlust in Kebaya? Why not? You even can pair it with slacks or jeans and match with your favourite casual shoes!
Wanderlust in Kebaya? Why not? You even can pair it with a pair of slacks or jeans, and match it with your favourite pair of casual shoes!
Source: ByHisDaisy

“Unlike Baju Kurung, the kebaya looks more alluring and elegant. However, not many Malaysian women will opt for it, especially those who are conscious about their figure. You need a little bit more confidence to carry off Baju Kebaya.”

syafiq hashim, chief operating officer of byhisdaisy online kebaya boutique

“However, there is no cause to worry for the plus-size ladies. Nowadays, the merchants provide many choices for them. For instance, they can customise, or tailor them according to their clients’ specific needs and requirements,” he added.

Model styles in Kebaya with floral Pario
Model styles in Kebaya with floral Pario.
Source: ByHisDaisy

Types Of Kebaya

1.0 Labuh

Characterised by two folds that hold the front of the outfit together is the distinctive Labuh. A brooch in the middle of the neck area, and embroidery or beads along the bottom part of the blouse. This creates variation while maintaining a minimalistic style.

One of the influencers, Sarah is wearing Kebaya Labuh with the brooch
One of the influencers, Sarah Ameradi is wearing Kebaya Labuh with a brooch.
Source: ByHisDaisy

2.0 Javanese

The modern-day Javanese is much more revealing. Cotton, silk, lace brocade or velvet sheer is usually the material of choice here. Optionally, one can also add a brooch on the flaps where the flaps of the blouse meet. The V-neckline transparent blouse accentuates the wearer’s figure. Additionally, the length of the blouse is also unique in which it is long enough to cover the hips.

A lady wearing Javanese kebaya
An Indonesian lady in Javanese Kebaya.
Image source: User1521266 from Freepik

3.0 Kutubaru

Kutubaru is also another variation from Central Java. A characteristic trianglular shape that extends from the neck, and stops just below the chest area. This gives the look of traditional the kemben.

Two beautiful ladies wearing Kebaya Kutubaru
Two beautiful ladies wearing Kutubaru.
Source: ByHisDaisy

4.0 Encim Or Peranakan

With a distinctively V-shaped neck and bottom, they maintain characteristics of traditional Chinese clothing. Simple, short, with embroideries and made from cotton. These are the defining characteristics of the Encim or Peranakan.

Kebaya Encim worn by two beauties
Kebaya Encim worn by two beauties.
Source: ByHisDaisy

The beautiful traditional outfit is an integral part of Indonesian culture. It carries a piece of history and contains a cultural value. It is symbolic of women’s fight for the right to education. But regardless of its past reference, they are simply very beautiful when worn. You can choose between the more traditional type to modern, or even those with European influences.

Accessorising Your Kebaya

The traditional outfit has no buttons down on its front. Instead, you pin a decorative brooch to the chest to secure the openings of the blouse. A typical three-piece ‘Kerongsang‘ (Brooch) usually comprises a kerongsang ibu and two kerongsang anak. The kerongsang ibu (mother piece) is a larger and heavier piece than the kerongsang anak (child piece). 

Often made of precious metals and stones, kerongsang symbolises social status, aristocracy, wealth and nobility. However, for the commoners and peasant women, they merely use a safety pin to fasten the simple and plain blouse.

The brooch that is worn on kebaya called 'Dokoh'
‘Dokoh’ is usually worn as an accessory on Kebaya.
Source: ByHisDaisy

Embracing The Lost Art Of Kebaya In The Modern Age

Most formal dress codes (like black tie) dictate that ladies wear evening gowns, or even cocktail dresses. But showing up on the red carpet with a traditional kebaya will definitely turn heads. What better way to project a cultural identity than to wear one at a high-profile event? And you can even share your own cultural origins by wearing one that’s geographically distinct too. Proud of your Javanese descent? Then don a Javanese kebaya on your next charity ball, and proudly display your Javanese culture.

What about you? Do you consider formal traditional attire like the kebaya to be suitable for formal events? Would you wear one for your next important social function?

Look no further, Malaysia’s first Embroidery Kebaya Specialist, ByHisDaisy offers beautiful and affordable Baju Kebaya of various designs and colours. You can get yours at their showroom located at Alam Damai, Cheras. They open daily from 10am to 5pm except on Sundays. You can also shop online via their website, Facebook or Instagram.

Kebaya Sulam Qaleeda Dark Choc by Byhisdaisy.
ByHisDaisy’s best seller Kebaya Sulam Qaleeda Dark Choc.
Source: ByHisDaisy
Byhisdaisy showroom at Alam Damai, Cheras.
ByHisDaisy showroom at Alam Damai, Cheras.

Li O' Liliana

About Li O' Liliana

A wanderlust who isn't satisfied with a regular nine-to-five job in corporate communications, Liliana is always seeking intellectual and creative fulfilment. Loves meeting new people and exploring nooks and crannies unknown to others for inspirations to tell her stories.

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