A country’s traditional dress is a reflection of its history, culture, and influence. The kebaya of Indonesia is no exception. Believed to have originated from the Arabic word ‘abaya’ meaning clothing, kebaya today enjoys the status of being the national costume of Indonesia. It is a blouse made from silk or cotton or nylon or polyester that’s either transparent or semi-transparent. It is generally worn over a long piece of cloth wrapped around the torso, and a sarong. The typical features of a kebaya include long sleeves, a collarless neck, and an open front that is generally fastened with a brooch named kerongsang made of brass, iron, silver or gold, and decorated with semi-precious stones.
The many changes, including social and political, that Indonesia has been witness to in the last century notwithstanding, the basic design of kebaya has remained the same. It was so popular during the 19th century that everyone including the Indonesian, Eurasian and European women wore it with great interest.
However, by the 1920s, when the nationalist struggle in Indonesia was at its zenith, European women stopped wearing it as they started associating it with Indonesian nationalism.
It is also interesting to note how Indonesians started identifying kebaya as their own national attire. For instance, during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, many Indonesian prisoners-of-war wore kebaya instead of the prison dress, modelled on Western style, given to them, to stand apart from the inmates of other racial backgrounds. The dress was elevated to the status of national dress when S K Trimurti, a prominent Indonesian writer who actively took part in the Indonesian independence movement, wore kebaya during the Proclamation of Independence by President Sukarno on August 17, 1945.
Again, as with the traditional dress of any country, kebaya had several style variations depending on the class and status of the people wearing it.
For instance, while the kebaya of Javanese royalty was made of expensive materials like silk, velvet and brocade, the ones worn by commoners was made of cotton. Eurasian women, on the other hand, wore kebaya made of cotton and embellished with European lace during the day, while kebaya made of expensive black silk formed their evening and formal wear. Embroidery was also a prominent feature of kebaya to lend it colour and charm.
Though kebaya gained popularity only in the 19th century, it can be traced back to the 15th century, when only the Javanese creamy layer including the royalty, artistocrats and nobles, adorned it, while the commoners were bare-chested. However, things changed after a while, and commoners too started sporting kebaya, but the ones made of cotton and secured with an ordinary safety pin.
The design of kebaya became so popular that it naturally spread to the countries and regions Indonesia engaged itself with for matters of trade and diplomacy. No wonder, kebaya is worn in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei also, but with slight variations. Even within the country, there are different kinds of kebaya — kebaya kartini, kebaya jawa, kebaya kutubaru, kebaya bali, kebaya sunda, and so on.
Today, fashion designers use the traditional kebaya as base and design outfits that are both functional and fashionable, taking its popularity to new heights.