A kebaya is a traditional blouse-dress combination that originated from the court of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom, and is traditionally worn by women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Burma, southern Thailand, Cambodia and the southern part of the Philippines. It is sometimes made from sheer material such as silk, thin cotton or semi-transparent nylon or polyester, adorned with brocade or floral pattern embroidery. A kebaya is usually worn with a sarong, or a batik kain panjang, or other traditional woven garment such as ikat, songket with a colorful motif.
The earliest form of Kebaya originates in the court of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom as a means to blend the existing female Kemban, 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 or refined Javanese overlords.
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 reserved clothing to be worn only by royal family, aristocrats (bangsawan) and minor nobility, in an era when peasant men and many women walked publicly bare-chested.
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 Stamford 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 (an unstitched wrap fabric several metres long erroneously termed sarong in English (a sarung, Malaysian accent: sarong) is stitched to form a tube.)
After hundreds of years of regional acculturation, the garments have become highly localised expressions of ethnic culture, artistry and tailoring traditions.
The earliest photographics evidence of the kebaya as known today date from 1857 of Javanese, Peranakan and Orientalist styles.
The quintessential kebaya is the Javanese 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 (kerongsang) where the flaps of the blouse meet. Traditional kebaya had no buttons down the front. A typical three-piece kerongsang is composed of a kerongsang ibu (mother piece) that is larger and heavier than the other two kerongsang anak (child piece). Kerongsang brooch often made from gold jewelry and considered as the sign of social status of aristocracy, wealth and nobility, however for commoners and peasant women, simple and plain kebaya often only fastened with modest safety pin (peniti).
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, 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 forms: the semi-transparent straighter cut blouse of Java, Bali, and the more tightly tailored Sunda kebaya. The more Islamic compatible, plainer baju kurung is a loose-fitting, knee-length long-sleeved blouse worn in the more Muslim areas, including the 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. Sumatra, 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.
In Malacca, Malaysia, a different variety of kebaya is called "nyonya kebaya" and 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. Other than Malacca, the nyonya kebaya is also popular in other straits settlements; Penang and Singapore.
In Java, the kebaya worn by ladies of Chinese ancestry is called kebaya encim, derived from the name encim or enci to refer to a married Chinese woman. It was commonly worn by Chinese ladies in Javan coastal cities with significant Chinese settlements, such as Semarang, Lasem, Tuban, Surabaya, Pekalongan and Cirebon. It marked differently from Javanese kebaya with its smaller and finer embroidery, lighter fabrics and more vibrant colors, made from imported materials such as silk and other fine fabrics. The encim kebaya fit well with vibrant-colored kain batik pesisiran (Javan coastal batik).
During the Dutch East Indies era of Indonesia, European women of high status adopted the kebaya, which provided less restrictive and cooler clothing, as a formal or social dress. European women wore shorter sleeves and total length cotton in prints.
The day kebaya of the Indo people was of white cotton trimmed with oriental motif handmade lace, either locally made in Indonesia, from Bruges, Netherlands, or Brazil while black silk is used for evening wear.
The only woman present during Indonesia's Proclamation of Independence, Dutch-educated activist SK Trimurti, wore 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 kebaya as a display of Nationalist and racial solidarity to separate them from fellow Chinese, Europeans and Eurasian inmates.
The 21st of April is celebrated in Indonesia as National Kartini Day where Raden Ajeng 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 kebaya.
Kebayas as the national costume of Indonesian women were often featured by Indonesian first ladies. The wives of Sukarno, Indonesian first president; Fatmawati Sukarno and Dewi Sukarno were known to wear kebaya daily.
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 also a minor aristocrat Tien Suharto was a prominent advocate of the kebaya.
Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri is a public champion of kebaya and wears fine red kebaya whenever possible in public forums and 2009 Presidential election debates.
Cultural rivalry between Malaysia and Indonesia has given rise to media-based spats over the true ownership of the kebaya.
Modern usage and innovations
Kebaya has been one of the important parts of oriental style of clothing that heavily influenced the world of modern fashion. Lace dresses are one of the best examples of Kebaya influence.
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 kebaya now incorporate modern 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. The female flight attendants of Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines also feature batik kebaya as their uniforms.
The female uniform of Garuda Indonesia flight attendants is a more authentic modern interpretation. The kebaya is designed in simple yet classic Kartini style kebaya derived from 19th century kebaya of Javanese noblewomen. The kebaya made from fire-proof cotton-polyester fabrics, with batik sarongs in parang or lereng gondosuli motif, which also incorporate garuda's wing motif and small dots represent jasmine.
European child with sarong and kebaya, the Tropenmuseum collection
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