Sunday, June 4, 2023

Kebaya, the emblematic garment of Southeast Asia in search of identity

At a Malaysian shop, seamstresses painstakingly embroider flowers and leaves on “kebayas,” the elegant traditional garment of blouses and dresses worn by women in Southeast Asia for centuries.

“The kebaya is special because it can be worn by all (women),” Lim Yu Lin, who runs the family business founded by her grandmother in 1955, told AFP.

Last month, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand jointly nominated the kebaya for UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Suited to tropical climates, the kebaya—adorned with embroidery—often has long sleeves, and is sometimes semi-transparent or opaque.

They can cost as little as $7 for machine-made models, up to $1,200 for high-quality, hand-stitched pieces.

In this region, kebaya are mainly used for big occasions or weddings, but some women use them in their daily lives.

Charmaine Neo, 36, from Singapore wears the dress to family events and says it’s the perfect outfit for all women. “It’s not just for older guys. You see a lot of young girls wearing kebayas too. It really accentuates the figure,” she insists.

– Shared Identity –

In Indonesia, Telly Nathalia fell in love with kebayas while vacationing in Central Java in 2014, and soon after she started wearing them every day.

For the 49-year-old woman, wearing the kebaya is a way of reconnecting with her country’s history. “Our ancestors liked to wear the kebaya,” he told AFP.

“People ask me if I’m going to a party or a wedding, because in Indonesia when you wear a kebaya, people think it’s for a special occasion,” she says.

This garment may have come from the Middle East and was initially worn by both men and women.

Over a dozen different styles of kebaya emerged throughout Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia.

“It is a traditional women’s garment that has evolved over time,” says Yeo Kirk Siang, director of Singapore’s National Heritage Office, which organized an exhibition dedicated to the organization in connection with the UNESCO bid.

“There has been a fusion of cultures and influences, and different communities created their own kabayas,” he stresses.

On the Indian island of Bali, it is made of lace and worn with a belt, while in Singapore it is often decorated with Chinese-influenced embroidery.

The kebaya of the island of Java used to be trimmed with Dutch lace, and can now be cut wider to suit the tastes of Muslim customers.

Oniata Efendi, a Singaporean designer, sees the garment as a symbol of cultural heritage. “Many of us have seen the kebaya that our mothers and grandmothers wore. It represents our culture, our identity,” she says, as quoted by the Singapore Heritage Office.

He stressed, “The kebaya can have a different form depending on the country. Its significance can also be different depending on the person. But one thing is certain: The kebaya thanks us for a shared identity.”

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
Nation World News is the fastest emerging news website covering all the latest news, world’s top stories, science news entertainment sports cricket’s latest discoveries, new technology gadgets, politics news, and more.
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