Unesco bid for the kebaya: A look at the fashion uniting 5 South-east Asian countries

11 Mar 2023

Straits Times, 11 Mar 2023, Unesco bid for the kebaya: A look at the fashion uniting 5 South-east Asian countries
It has been decided: The kebaya will be going to Unesco.
Five South-east Asian countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – will be jointly nominating the traditional women’s garment, which is popular in the region, to be inscribed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List of Humanity. The bid is expected to be ready by the end of March.
In 2022, Malaysia initiated meetings with Singapore and other South-east Asian countries to discuss the idea of the multinational nomination of the kebaya. Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB) announced the multinational bid in November 2022.
Indonesia, which is chairing Asean 2023, announced on Feb 7 that it had filled out the kebaya nomination draft at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), a specialised agency of the United Nations.
This recent development could see the kebaya become an emblem that helps promote mutual respect and contribute to cross-border interactions on the region’s shared heritage.
As part of the preparations, NHB attended meetings and workshops in Malaysia and Indonesia over the last few months. Besides government officials, community representatives were also present at these sessions to discuss the cultural significance of the kebaya and the details to be included in the nomination documents.
The kebaya is a tunic which is part of the “sarong kebaya” or “kain kebaya”, a two-piece ensemble that includes a batik skirt. In South-east Asia, it is worn in a variety of styles, fabrics and colours and takes on a range of silhouettes.
But the Unesco joint bid is not about the kebaya’s tangible form.
It is about safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage of the kebaya, which refers to the “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and know-how” as defined by Unesco in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
It is also about how the kebaya is transmitted from generation to generation within communities, created and transformed continuously by them, depending on the environment and their interaction with nature and history.
“It is about the making and wearing of the kebaya that requires safeguarding,” says architectural conservator Yeo Kang Shua, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. He is also the president of the International Council of Monuments and Sites Singapore, a professional body that Unesco consults on matters relating to World Heritage Sites.
For the nomination to be successful, it also has to include a list of intangibles such as festive events, oral traditions and social practices centred on the garment.
Mr Yeo Kirk Siang, senior director of heritage policy at NHB, says that the five participating countries will now need to collectively submit substantial information to Unesco for the bid.
Items accompanying the nomination documents include photos, a video of up to 10 minutes that covers the practice of kebaya across the participating countries, and letters or other materials that demonstrate the consent and support of the communities associated with the kebaya.
NHB has conducted research and engaged with the community to seek views and information relating to its social and cultural significance and how it is safeguarded in Singapore.
Mr Yeo says: “For example, we looked at how the kebaya continues to be actively produced and worn by different communities today.
“It represents a significant part of Singapore’s history and heritage as a port city, and how it remains a central aspect in the representation and display of cultural heritage and identities for Malay, Peranakan and other communities in Singapore.”
NHB has also organised various focus group discussions with stakeholders since August 2022.
The discussions were attended by 51 participants, comprising cultural practitioners, representatives from cultural associations and researchers involved in the wearing and making of kebaya, who all expressed their support for the multinational nomination.
The history of the kebaya tells a complex and transnational tale, says Peranakan scholar and author Peter Lee.
The term kebaya – derived from the Farsi word “qaba”, referring to a jacket – has been circulating throughout the Indian Ocean, as well as South-east Asia, since the early modern period (AD1400 to 1800).
“It entered the vocabularies of languages from Maldivian and Sinhalese to Malay and Javanese,” says Mr Lee, 59, an art historian who has collected hundreds of sarong kebaya – some dating back to the early 1900s – and authored Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion In An Interconnected World 1500–1950, released in 2015.
He adds: “Kebaya, which possibly has ancient Persian origins, was later adopted in the Arabic language, and from the 17th century, it was commonly used by Portuguese, Dutch and English writers to refer to any kind of long Asian robe.”
It was then used in the vernacular Melayu Pasar, which was the lingua franca of the Malay archipelago from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Mr Lee says that in Singapore, the kebaya evolved from the 1800s as a fashionable piece of clothing and gained popularity in the 1960s as a traditional costume.
“The 1960s mark the period when the popular silhouette of a short tunic with embroidery became something of a classic. In the Peranakan context, the tailoring of a modern kebaya is definitely European. The fabrics are also European or Japanese.”
The embroidery was developed by the Singer sewing company, which produced technical manuals for the Malay archipelago in the early 20th century. This technique was first applied to kebaya in Java in the 1910s and reached its technical apogee in the 1930s.
“Chinese Peranakan women in Singapore would order their machine-embroidered kebaya from Java at the time, and it was only from the 1950s that tailoring shops in Singapore began to offer custom-made ones,” adds Mr Lee.
One of the few remaining Peranakan tailors in Singapore is Mr Raymond Wong, 43, who has been running a kebaya atelier since 2004 at Rumah Kim Choo in East Coast Road.
A long-time resident of the heritage precinct of Katong and Joo Chiat, he grew up in a Peranakan household watching the women in his family wear the garment at home, as well as at special occasions such as marriages, dinners and funerals.
He was consulted by NHB for the Unesco joint bid on his knowledge, skills and practices, as his studio is an example of how the kebaya’s intangible aspects are being kept alive in Singapore.
“My journey in mastering the craft of kebaya-making was challenging as two decades ago, there were no online resources such as YouTube tutorials,” recalls Mr Wong, who improvised by recreating each step of kebaya-making through manual embroidery books and adapting them to the sewing machine.
In 2004, he chanced upon an old Singer sewing machine manual that described the removal of certain parts in the machine to enable free-motion embroidery, which was the mode of producing “sulam” or decorative designs onto the Nonya kebaya.
The accounting and finance graduate from Deakin University in Australia says he did not expect to enter his current line of work. It started out as an interest and wanting to know more about the material culture.
“Lasalle School of the Arts engaged me as its adjunct lecturer in 2011 in free-motion machine embroidery and I have been teaching students of fashion textiles till today,” says Mr Wong.
His atelier houses more than 500 vintage kebaya, some of which date back to the early 1910s. These prized garments inspired him to design and create his embroidered collection.
The prices of his kebaya depend on the cost of the fabric and the extent of the embroidery and lacework required. His ready-to-wear designer collection is priced between $280 and $580.
There are also clients who prefer to customise their Nonya kebaya for a more glamorous look, with designs that include hand-sewn Swarovski crystals. These cost between $800 and $1,500.
In 2017, one of his customers, Ms Tina Tan, asked him to craft a Peranakan kebaya which featured her two daughters and the family’s poodle, as well as the pet’s favourite toy, Patrick the Starfish.
“Raymond first sketched the artwork on tracing paper and, after we finalised the design, he proceeded to work on the embroidery on a two-tone piece of Swiss voile material,” recounts Ms Tan, 60, who works in the advertising industry.
“My kebaya was the talk of the town that year and still is whenever I wear it to functions.”
Over in Bussorah Street in Kampong Glam, Ms Ratianah Tahir and her daughter Putri Nadirah are busy lining up ready-to-wear kebaya in a range of colours and patterns for clients to try in the shophouse store’s fitting rooms.
Most of Kebaya By Ratianah’s kebaya are made in-house by a team of cutters and seamstresses. On average, it takes about four weeks to tailor each bespoke piece, the cost of which usually starts from $150.
Ms Ratianah – who was also consulted by NHB for her views about the multinational Unesco nomination – feels that the bid will not only help the younger generation appreciate the kebaya, but will also benefit the region’s makers with increased awareness of cultural diversity in a global marketplace.
“Our team consists of talent and experts, including artisans in cottage industries, that are all over South-east Asia, each specialising in his or her own niche,” says the 52-year-old, who has been a kebaya craftsman in Singapore’s Malay community for almost 20 years.
Although her shop stocks mainly ready-to-wear kebaya, batik sarong and accessories, she and Ms Putri, 29, also design and make bespoke pieces for their clients.
Ms Ratianah says: “With greater exposure, there will also be greater demand for the works of these artisans. There are so many variations of the kebaya, as well as different skills for each step of constructing the silhouette by hand, from fabric to finished product to accessories. There are entire ecosystems of artisans in the region that need our support.”
One of the shop’s regular customers, Mrs Zaiton Sanghar, 55, says the kebaya is a versatile addition to her wardrobe which can also be fun and whimsical.
“I fell in love with the kebaya when I turned 18,” says the Javanese Singaporean, 55, who is married to a retired businessman. The couple have two children.
“I started pairing it with a ‘kain batik lepas’ – a batik cloth which is more than 2m long – because that is the way it is traditionally worn in Java.”
Today, she is more adventurous, preferring to wear the full kain kebaya with Western-style sneakers instead of “kasut manik” (beaded footwear) and experimenting with a range of fabrics for the tunic, from “kain kasa robia” (Swiss voile) to cottons with colourful polka-dot prints.
She has been shopping at Kebaya By Ratianah since 2017, when she bought her first ready-made mint-green lace kebaya. Over the last few years, she has built up a variety of kebaya styles, from off-the-rack designs to custom-tailored tops with intricate embroidery and lacework.
“The kebaya belongs to the region and the Unesco joint bid will help raise awareness among the younger generation to wear it more often and not wait for special occasions. I will be doing my part to promote the kebaya when I visit the United States in August with my family. I have quite a collection now and hope to wear it every day.”
Adds Ms Ratianah: “It’s a good feeling to know that five countries in the region are coming together for this nomination. The intangible cultural heritage of the kebaya is a symbol of unity for the Asean region, and I hope we can inspire other countries to look at what brings us together and not what sets us apart.”
What makes a kebaya?

In the 1930s, sewing machines allowed kebaya to be made with complex, lace-like embroidery on long tapered ends. The colours of the early kebaya ranged from white to pastel colours and were made from cotton or robia voile (trademark name for a type of voile produced by the British Tootal company), which allowed the intricate embroidery and lace panels to be clearly visible. From the 1960s, the Chinese Peranakans preferred brightly coloured kebaya with auspicious motifs such as peonies, chrysanthemums and phoenixes.
In the late 1800s, photos taken by German photographer August Sachtler of wealthy Peranakans showed loose tunics and subdued designs on plain, long kebaya known as baju panjang (a long tunic common in the late 1800s and early 1900s).
From the 1960s, the kebaya took on a more curvaceous silhouette, flaunting a woman’s curves. Even the batik sarong became more tapered towards the ankles instead of its original tubular shape, as a result of tailoring the sarong into a fitted skirt. This can be seen in the kebaya uniforms of flight attendants in Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia.
Kerosang (Brooch)
The open-fronted design of the kebaya had to be fastened with brooches or kerosang (also called kerongsang), which were fashioned in myriad styles by Malays, Sumatrans as well as the Javanese.
Art historian Peter Lee says it is well-established that the Malay word “kerosang” is derived from the Portuguese “coracao”, meaning “heart”, and existed from at least the early 1800s.
Jewellery collector Norman Cho, who wrote the 2020 coffee-table book The Bejewelled Lives Of The Peranakans, adds that a popular design is a circular brooch that comes as a three-piece set for the baju panjang. It was worn by Malays, Eurasians and Peranakans.
Tali Pinggang (Belt)
Ornate gold or silver belts, known as “tali pinggang” in Malay, were worn throughout South-east Asia to hold up the batik sarong or kain panjang, which form the long skirts of the kebaya ensemble. Their metallic sheen catches the light under diaphanous tunics made of robia voile kebaya.
The belts featured small to bulky buckles, also called “pending” in Malay, and were popular with Malays since at least the 17th century. The rest of the belt was made up of individual panels linked by clasps or consisting of a series of interlocking rings.
Kasut Manik (Beaded footwear)
The decorative beaded slippers commonly used by Malays, Indonesians and Chinese Peranakans are called “kasut manik”, which is derived from the Portuguese “calcado” (shoe). The Malay word “manik” refers to decorative beadwork.
The shoe art is made entirely by hand and takes hours to complete. Rocaille beads, also known as “manik potong” (cut beads), are sewn one by one to create a mosaic of colourful motifs depicting flowers, foliage and animals.