A Kebaya is a traditional blouse dress combination that originates from Indonesia and worn by the women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Burma, Singapore and southern Thailand. In Malacca, Malaysia, the nyonya kebaya is worn by the Baba and Nyonya culture. The nyonya kabaya is a beautiful, translucent, figure-hugging embroidered blouse. It is a work of art, a labour of love, a heritage and a traditional costume that is timeless. For an attire to any occasions, it is elegant, feminine, alluring, sensual, glamorous, and fasionable for all ages. The word Nyonya is defined from Portuguese language, Dona means woman.
However the word Kebaya is defined from Arab language, Abaya, means clothing. The origins, history of the Nyonya Kebaya and comparison between the types of Nyonya Kebaya are stated in Chapter 2 in details. However in Chapter 3, there is a few analysis of acknowledgement of younger generations towards Nyonya Kebaya.
2. Background Information
2. 1 Origins of Nyonya Kebaya
The true origins of the Kebaya is not clearly known with some speculating that is brought over by the Portuguese and others claiming that it is from Chinese origins which spread and evolved. The earliest form of Kebaya, at least in this region, emerged from the Indonesian islands and was exclusive, at the time to the Javanese monarchy. Through time, in each country the kebaya has evolved and developed differently, and has absorbed different influences and has rightfully acquired a unique identity of its own. In Malacca, Malaysia, the kebaya nyonya is mainly worn by the Baba and Nyonya culture. The Baba and Nyonya is the marriage between Chinese and Malay religion during the past time.
2. 2 History of Nyonya Kebaya
Southeast Asia is made up of colossal number of ethnic cultures, including the Nyonya. Nyonya is a name used for the culture of the early Chinese immigrants in Malacca on the Malaysian Peninsula, they later increased with the British straights settlements in Singapore and Penang after intermarriages with the Malay population. The Nyonya kebaya first appeared in Baba Nyonya culture only at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Nyonya kebaya was first formed by the Peranakan people of Malacca. Subsequently, the kebaya was worn at a time when the world around was changing, as the world changed so did the way the kebaya was made and worn, the progression of its manner is remarkable. The kebaya has generally been around for over a century, however, its traditional, cultural value and historical claim is never changing.
2. 3 About the Nyonya Kebaya
The Nyonya Kebaya is made from very fine “see through” material and is worn together with batik, sarung and songket, all of which are also traditional garments. The Nyonya Kebaya is embroidered with skillfully knitted floral motifs although these days, they may come in a variety of other motifs. Nyonya kebayas from different places vary slightly in influence and mild nuances.
In Penang, due to the largely Chinese population, the kebayas there sometimes come with a phoenix embroidered into the sleeves and hems. The Nyonya usually wear the Nyonya Kebaya with the kerongsang, sarung and completed with beaded shoes. Some say, the best of the kebayas are made from Swiss Voile, a very fine but strong material and can last a long time. Cleaning the kebayas calls for a hand wash and the use of starch and some antique pieces that have been maintained with starch have survived through the ages. The kebaya is truly elegant and beautiful piece and reserved these days, only for special occasions.
There is a story behind every Nyonya kebaya: when it was made, where it was made, who it was made by, what it was made for and the occasion for which it was made. In terms of creativity, some kebayas stand out more than others. It is a promise that the more lavish the kebaya the more prolific the story for tales are embroidered upon the material. Working on the creation a kebaya is monotonous and demanding, it takes up to six uninterrupted hours a day to slave away at a sewing machine to perfect a segment of a kebaya. Kebaya tailors are usually women who inherit the art from their mothers or other women in their family.
The main distinction of the Nyonya kebaya from other kebayas is that the fabric used for the top is sheer, sometimes it is voile, georgette, or gauze cotton. Because the top is so translucent, these days, underneath women will wear a lacy shirt or a contrasting bra. Therefore, there are two well known basic styles of the Nyonya kebaya, the first one is a long jacket also referred to as kebaya labuh the second is with a short jacket also known as kebaya pandek; both very distinctive in Nyonya culture.
2. 4 Contrast- Types of Nyonya Kebaya
There are two basic styles of nyonya kebaya. The one with long jacket (known as kebaya labuh) and the other, a short jacket (kebaya pendek). Kebaya labuh is usually worn by elderly ladies. The cut is straight, and the length comes down to the knees, sometimes almost to the calves. The material is still sheer, and anak baju is also needed. A set of brooches (kerongsang) is used to secure the front of the jacket. A chiffon embroidered handkerchief is cleverly tucked at the collar completes the look. Kebaya pendek is favoured by the younger nyonyas. The cut hugs the figure and the length of the jacket only reaches the hips. This costume shows off the shape of the women beautifully. The hip youngsters wear them with jeans. The price of hand-made nyonya kebaya can easily reach hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Other accessories worn together with these kebayas are slippers embroidered with beads known as kasut manik. These slippers are handmade and delicate and obviously not suitable for rough walking. A beaded purse can also be part of the attire. It is also customary for the nyonyas to wear their hair in a certain style while wearing the kebaya. Usually a simple neat bun adorned with flowers.
2.5 Motifs of Kebaya Nyonya
The colours of vibrance, the design, the method of application made it a beauty work of it’s own. A master piece. Why colours? In the olden days, young Nyonyas are not encourage to wear black, total white or dark blue colours as their attire. As it will indicate they are either mourning a lost of their love ones within their families. They are always encourage to wear bright vibrant colours like pink, red, gold, orange, lilac, light violet, apple green, yellow, light blue with many other bright colours.
Even if they like white, usually a touch of other colours are added to the Nyonyas’ Kebaya design or motif. However living in the modern era, the young Nyonyas prefer corporate colours like black, white, grey and so forth. A style of each own preferences. What more if you can own a piece of black and white Nyonya’s Kebaya. The preferred design are usually flowers such as Peach blossom flowers, Rose flower, Chrysanthemum flowers, Daisy flowers, Peony flowers, Anthurium flowers, Daffodil flowers, Iris flower, Gardenia flower and so forth. Nowadays flowers like Sunflower, Bird of paradise.
We can also see designs such birds, phoenix, dragon, gold fish, Li fish, bat, a hundred children, fig, peaches. Which each of it represents a symbol for each of it’s sewing design. Hardly will you be able to find these in the market. If you ever find a piece of these Nyonyas’ Kebaya in the market for auction, it’s maybe at least fifty years old. Our Nyonyas’ went through a few era in the olden days. So at times, you may also find influence of British colonies design on their Nyonya’s Kebaya. Theme up with the colour and motif. We can find British ladies like to use laces.
So our Nyonyas apply the beauty following the fashion of the days too. Only a few are able to carry out such exquisite taste. By now maybe we can still find a piece of two of such design. Maybe about a hundred years of age now if well preserved as a heritage by their family members and not buried or burn away during their wake ceremony. As the preference are still the symbol which brings prosperity and longevity in their daily culture. If you want to know whether the piece of Nyonyas Kebaya is an antique, you will need to learn more of how it is sewn.
We can also find ‘Ketuk lubang’ technique on the olden days Nyonyas Kebaya. The old Nyonyas prefer to have the ‘Ketuk lubang’ too as a measurement of how well the cutting of their Kebaya are made into. Like the princess cut technique on a well made dress or coat. Interesting culture as Nyonyas Kebaya design do carry it as a history of life through the techniques of sewing.
3. 1 Effects of Nyonya Kebaya
3. 1. 1 New Generation Nowadays, the new generation rarely knew about Nyonya Kebaya. They prefer the modern style of clothing. Nyonya Kebaya can consider as a traditional costume and in this modern era, people usually only wear it during the special celebration, festival or wedding dinner of the Baba and Nyonya. The style and pattern of the Nyonya Kebaya is not so suitable for the younger generation because the younger generation now more to the fashion and very stylish design clothing. Besides that, during this modern era, the marriage between the Baba and Nyonya and the culture is slowly decreasing.
3. 1. 2 Society and Government The government should organize some event or festival to spread the culture f Baba and Nyonya. Throughout the events and the festivals, the society can get to know more about the culture of Baba and Nyonya and the Nyonya Kabaya. In order to preserve the culture, the school should make a compulsory to the students to attend those events. Besides that, the government should also add in extra activities to the school education syllabus about the culture.
3. 1. 3 Media Moreover, the internet, newspaper, magazine and other media should publish more information about the special of Nyonya Kebaya. They should interview the Baba and Nyonya and spread the news of the culture. Besides that, the media also should attend the events or festivals that organize by the government. Media is the most efficient way to let the whole country to know well about the news. Therefore, the society, government and the media should cooperate in order to improve the impression of the culture of the Baba and Nyonya and their Nyonya Kabaya traditional costume. From discovering the analysis of historical background, the kebaya already became something inseparable. The Nyonya Kebaya must be protected by the people.
The kebaya is a precious heritage that should be persevered and never removed. It is important to everyone to understand the real history of the kebaya so they can truly preserve their heritage. Nowadays, the nyonya kebaya is going through a period of revival, and is also becoming popular among non-Asian peoples. No matter who or which culture we are, we should appreciate others culture and get to know more about their culture. As a conclusion, the beauty of the Nyonya Kebaya can be summarized in three words grand, authentic and elegant.