via BBC Travel, 03 March 2023: The article explores the history, variations and significance of the kebaya, which is being jointly nominated for the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List by Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand.
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.
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.