Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Kebaya or more correctly 'kain-kebaya is a traditional blouse-dress combination worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Burma, Singapore, and some parts of Cambodia. It sometimes made from sheer material and usually worn with a sarong or batik kain panjang, or other traditional woven garment such as ikat, songket with a colorful motif.

The kain-kebaya is the national costume of Indonesia, although it is more accurately endemic to Java, Sunda and Bali.


Kebaya is originated from Arab region; the Arabic word Kaba means clothing.
The name of Kebaya as a particular clothing type was noted by the Portuguese when they landed in Indonesia. Kebaya is associated with a type of blouse worn by Indonesian women in 15th or 16th century.

Prior to 1600, kebaya on Java island were considered as a sacred clothing to be worn only by aristocrats (bangsawan) and minor nobility members of the Javanese monarchy, in an era when peasant men and many women walked publicly bare-chested.

The earliest form of Kebaya originates in the court of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom as a means to blend the existing female torso wrap of the aristocratic women to be more modest and acceptable to the newly adopted Islam religion. Aceh, Riau and Johor Kingdoms and Northern Sumatra adopted the Javanese style kebaya as a means of social expression of status with the more alus pr refined Javanese overlords.
Slowly it naturally spread to neighbouring areas through trade, diplomacy and social interactions to Malacca, Bali, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and the Sultanate of Sulu and Mindanao.
Javanese kebaya as known today were noted by Raffles in 1817, as being of silk, brocade and velvet, with the central opening of the blouse fastened by brooches, rather than button and button-holes over the torso wrap kemben, the kain (and unstitched wrap fabric several metres long erroneously termed 'sarong in English (a sarung (Malaysian accent: sarong) is stitched to form a tube, like a Western dress) After hundreds of years of regional acculturation, the garments have become highly localised expressions of ethnic culture, artistry and tailoring traditions.

The earliest photographic evidence of the kain-kebaya as known today date from 1857 of Javanese, Peranakan and Eurasian styles.
Costume Components

The quintessential kain kebaya is the Javanese kain-kebaya as known today is essentially unchanged as noted by Raffles in 1817. It consists of the blouse (kebaya) of cotton , silk, lace, brocade or velvet, with the central opening of the blouse fastened by a central brooch where the flaps of the blouse meet.
The blouse is commonly semi-transparent and worn over the torso wrap or kemben. The skirt or kain is an unstitched fabric wrap around three metres long. The term sarong in English is erroneous, the sarung (Malaysian accent: sarong) is actually stitched together to form a tube, like a Western dress- the kain is unstitched, requires a helper to dress (literally wrap) the wearer and is held in place with a string (tali), then folded this string at the waist, then held with a belt (sabuk or ikat pinggang), which may hold a decorative pocket.


There are two main varieties. The blouse, known as baju kebaya may be of two main form: the semi-transparent straighter cut blouse of the Java, Bali and the more tightly tailored Sunda kain-kebaya and the more Islamic compatible, plainer baju kurung is a loose-fitting, knee-length long-sleeved blouse worn in the more adherent Muslim areas- including former Kingdom of Johor-Riau (now Malaysia), Sumatra and parts of coastal Java.
In Java, Bali and Sunda, the kain is commonly batik which may be from plain stamped cotton to elaborately hand-painted batik tulis embroidered silk with gold thread. In Lampung, the kain is the traditional tapis- an elaborate gold-thread embroidered ikat with small mica discs. Sumatera, Flores, Lemata Timor, and other islands commonly use kain of ikat or songket. Sumba is famous for kain decorated with lau hada: shells and beads.

During Dutch colonization of the island, European women began wearing the less restrictive and cooler kebaya as a formal or social dress. European women wore shorter sleeve and total length cotton in prints.
The day kebaya of the Eurasians was of white cotton trimmed with European handmade lace- commonly from Bruges or Holland nd black silk for evening wear.

In the Malacca region, a different variety of kebaya is called "nyonya kebaya" worn by those of Chinese ancestry: the Peranakan people. The Nyonya kebaya is different in its' famously intricately hand-beaded shoes (kasut manek) and use of kain with Chinese motive batik or imported printed or hand-painted Chinese silks.

Political Significance

The only woman present during Indonesia's Proclamation of Independence, Dutch-educated activist SK Trimurti- wore kain-kebaya cementing it as the female dress of Nationalism.
In Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, Indonesian female prisoners refused to wear the Western dress allocated them and instead wore kain-kebaya as a display of Nationalist and racial solidarity separate from fellow Chinese, Europeans and Eurasian inmates.

The 21st of April is celebrated in Indonesia as National Kartini Day where Raden Ayu Kartini, the female suffragist and education advocate is remembered by schoolgirls wearing traditional dress according to their region. In Java, Bali and Sunda it is the kain-kebaya.

Cultural rivalry between Malaysian and Indonesia has given rise to media-based spats over the true ownership of the 'kain kebaya.

Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is a public champion of kain-kebaya and wears fine red kain-kebaya whenever possible in public forums and 2009 Presidential election debates.

The Suharto-era bureaucrat wives' social organisation Dharma Wanita wears a uniform of gold kebaya, with a red sash (selendang) and stamped batik pattern on the kain unique to Dharma Wanita. The late Indonesian first lady and minor aristocrat Tien Suharto was also a prominent advocate of the kain-kebaya.

Modern Innovations

Apart from traditional kebaya, fashion designers are looking into ways of modifying the design and making kebaya a more fashionable outfit. Casual designed kebaya can even be worn with jeans or skirts. For weddings or formal events, many designers are exploring other types of fine fabrics like laces to create a bridal kebaya.
Modern-day kain-kebaya now incorporate modern Western tailoring innovations such as clasps, zippers and buttons- zippers being a much appreciated addition for ladies' requiring the bathroom, without requiring being literally unwrapped by a helper- to the extent the true kain is near unanimously rejected. Other modern innovations have included the blouse baju kebaya worn without the restrictive kemben, and eve the kebaya blouse worn with slacks or made of the fabric usually for the kain panjang.

Modern kebaya blouses are also zippered at the back- for practicality and for larger frame women's busts not to literally burst out the front of their blouse.

Modern Usage

The female uniform for Singapore Airlines is a rather more tight-fitting interpretation of the traditional costume by French haute couture designer Pierre Balmain in 1972, considered provocative and exploitative by some at the time. The female uniform of Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia flight attendants are more authentic modern interpretations.

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