There’s one garment in Southeast Asia that embodies fashion, heritage and national pride. And now the kebaya is being nominated to join Unesco’s Intangible Heritage List for 2023.
Under the studio spotlights, Indonesian-born designer Stacy Stube smoothed out the chocolate-brown lace on her cutting table. She carefully pinned the pattern to the fabric, determined not to tear it, then dutifully traced its outline in chalk. The task weighed heavy on her shoulders, knowing that she was not just creating a dress, but making a garment that was once a symbol of rebellion and remains endowed with history.
The kebaya is a garment that women like Stube’s seamstress great-grandmother made in the islands of Indonesia, and one that is also found in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand. Each region has made the kebaya their own, and each stitch tells a tale of their own history. It is so beloved by these five countries that they have joined together to nominate the kebaya for the Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in March 2023.
“The kebaya cuts across countries and ethnicities,” said Cedric Tan, former president of the Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, a society in Malaysia for Peranankan people, who was involved in the nomination.
Versions of the kebaya can be found across Southeast Asia (Credit: Artorn/Getty Images)
The kebaya is believed to have its roots in the Middle East. The qaba, a jacket that is said to be of Turkic origin, took its name from the Persian word for a “robe of honour”, and Javanese royals and society women were found to be wearing a similar open-fronted garment when the Portuguese arrived in Java in 1512, according to American fashion history professors Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun in the book Fashion History: A Global View. The garment eventually took its name from the Portuguese word “caba” or “cabaya“, meaning “tunic”.
Jackie Yoong, senior curator for fashion and textiles at the Asian Civilisations Museum and Peranakan Museum in Singapore, said that there is another reason why it’s clear the kebaya has its roots in the Middle East: “When you lift up the arm of the kebaya there is a triangular patch under the arm like the robes from the Middle East; other jackets such as the Ming style [from China] are flat cut.”
The kebaya became a word used for both men and women’s robes or blouses, but from the 19th Century onwards, 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 times of the Dutch East Indies (in what is now Indonesia), and was also adopted by women in Southeast Asia who followed Islam and wanted to dress more modestly.
The kebaya takes its name from a Portuguese word meaning “tunic” (Credit: Asian Civilisations Museum)
Pretty and practical, the kebaya was apt for tropical climes. Over the years it has taken many forms. Early garments included the kebaya panjang, an open-fronted, knee-length blouse that is fastened with brooches and has long sleeves. Today the best-known versions include the kebaya kartini, which was popular with the nobles of Java; the kebaya kutabaru, which has a piece of material underneath to look like a faux kemben (breastcloth); and the kebaya nyonya, which is created from colourful silk or voile and decorated with embroidery.
As the kebaya became adopted by other Southeast Asian countries, with commonfolk emulating Javanese royals and cosmopolitan port cities eager to embrace new fashion, the artisans of each island or community put their own stamp upon it.
Travellers to Indonesia will see Balinese women close their kebaya with the help of a colourful contrasting sash; while in Java, many women wear a white version of the kebaya that’s edged in European lace, a style that was popularised by the Dutch during colonial times. Meanwhile, in Indonesia’s Riau Islands, the women have lengthened the hem of the kebaya to fall to the knee. In the country of Brunei, women wear a kebaya made from songket fabric that’s woven with golden thread, while in the Malaysian islands of Malacca and Penang, some Peranakan women (descendants of 14th-Century Chinese traders that married local women in Southeast Asia) may embroider their blouse with phoenix and peonies in a nod to their Chinese heritage.
In Bali, many women pair their kebaya with a colourful contrasting sash (Credit: Ali Trisno Pranoto/Getty Images)
The kebaya also became a symbol of pride and defiance. During World War Two, Javanese women placed in Japanese internment camps refused to wear anything but the kebaya as a sign of rebellion and national solidarity. It also became Indonesia’s national dress in 1945 and was famously adopted by Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines as the uniform for its female crew. Singapore Airlines went so far as to invite French couturier Pierre Balmain to create its bespoke sarong kebaya in 1974.
Today, for some people in Southeast Asia, a kebaya is kept for special occasions, though others treat it as everyday wear. 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 along the winding streets of Bali as they go about their daily chores.
“The story of the sarong kebaya changes all the time to meet different kinds of social and cultural and political situations,” said Yoong.
Singaporean fashion designer Oniatta Effendi creates modern versions of the kebaya (Credit: Oniatta Effendi)
Indeed, Singaporean fashion designer Oniatta Effendi is reinventing the kebaya for the next generation, playing with silhouettes to create wearable, multipurpose pieces. “I think the kebaya is something that continually evolves,” Effendi said. Not only are her designs loose and long, but she has taken inspiration from traditional elements such as the breastcloth, but has reversed it so it partly sits outside the kebaya like a corset on show.
“When I wear the kebaya, it’s empowering,” said Effendi. “You become someone else.”
Effendi embraces her Indonesian heritage, even including the white Javanese-style kebaya in a collection called “Nostalgia”. “The kebaya is imbued with memories for me,” said Effendi. “It’s my grandmother standing in front of her kampong house giving me money for Hari Raya [the festival of Eid in Malaysia] or seeing photographs of her feeding my sister under a tree.”
The heritage garment has also recently been turned into an NFT by metaverse company 8sian from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And on Kartini Day (21 April) in Indonesia, which celebrates women’s empowerment, many women will be seen wearing a kebaya – even at a surfing competition held in honour of the day.
Effendi’s loose and long designs take inspiration from traditional elements (Credit: Oniatta Effendi)
The renewed appreciation for heritage dress has also seen the launch of the Kebaya Societe, an Instagram page that details the history of the kebaya in Southeast Asia. Tailor Sufiyanto Amat Sopingi and fashion business consultant Afiq Juana have garnered fans by posting vintage shots of kebaya looks from the 1900s onwards, and share insights into its heritage.
“Some people respond more to the glamorous 1960s in the age of Malay cinematics, while others are more interested in the textiles,” said Sopingi. “But our most popular posts are when we share images of women from different regions of Southeast Asia, from Malaysia to Indonesia, dressed the same. People like the communal aspect.”
Sopingi, who started collecting vintage fashion when he was living in Europe, soon expanded his collection to include kebayas when he returned to home to Singapore. “The kebayas from the 1900s up to the 1960s were so well tailored. Cloth wasn’t easily accessible so the garment had to last,” he said. Sopingi has now collected more than 200 kebayas, some of which are borrowed by museums across Southeast Asia.
Stacy Stube was inspired by the kebaya and worked with an Indonesian artisan to master the design (Credit: Pat Bourque)
Stacy Stube was similarly inspired by the artisans of Southeast Asia. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of her seamstress great-grandmother, she moved back to Indonesia for three years after studying at the London College of Fashion. While the colourful prints of batik, the metallic threads of songket and the woven ikat fabrics started 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 kebaya design, learning how to make the pattern, following the kebaya’s tailoring techniques and sewing the piece using a traditional treadle sewing machine. But she took away more from the lessons than how to perfect the cut of the heritage look.
“I’ve been in this environment of ‘how quickly can we make something?’,” said Stube. “We are losing our connection to making and ourselves being the maker. It’s really enjoyable to say I am choosing to slow down to make something that really matters to me and then I’m going to wear it. It was very much about this connection and community and sitting together.”
The kebaya may be a garment that is centuries old, but it has shown that it will always have a place in the hearts and wardrobes of Southeast Asia.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.