According to Lim Yu Lin, who co-runs the family business founded by her grandmother in 1955, kebays are unique because they are worn by women of all ethnicities in a diverse region.
“It’s not just for one culture,” she told AFP.
In a moment of unity, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand have jointly nominated kebaya for the prestigious UN list of intangible cultural heritage, with a decision expected in 2024.
Suitable for hot tropical days, the intricately embroidered blouse is usually long-sleeved and comes in a variety of cuts, from loose to semi-sheer to flatter the figure.
Indonesia chose the centuries-old kebaya as the national costume for women after declaring independence from the Netherlands in 1945.
Author and pro-independence activist Soerastri Karma Trimurti celebrated the new country’s cultural roots by wearing a kebaya for the proclamation ceremony. She later became the country’s first labor minister.
The blouse was later popularized by Malaysian film actors.
The national airlines of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have also used it as inspiration for their uniforms.
Kebaya were traditionally worn at weddings and formal events, but are seeing a steady comeback among enthusiasts who wear them on a daily basis.
In Singapore, Charmaine Neo, 36, said she wears the outfit to family events and that it is suitable for women of all ages.
“It’s not just limited to older people. You see a lot of young people wearing kebaya as well,” she said.
“It accentuates the figure very nicely.”
In Indonesia, 49-year-old Telly Nathalia said that while on vacation with friends in Central Java province, she decided to start wearing a kebaya every day.
In her eyes, it was a way to connect with the history of her country.
“Our ancestors lived here wearing kebaya,” she said.
“People were asking, ‘are you going to a party or something? Wedding reception? Because in Indonesia, when you wear kebaya, they’d think you’re going for something special.”
“Our Culture, Our Identity”
The kebaya is believed to have originated in the Middle East and was once worn by both men and women.
In Southeast Asia, mainly Indonesia and Malaysia, more than a dozen styles have been developed.
“It’s a form of women’s traditional clothing that has evolved over time,” said Yeo Kirk Siang, senior director of the Singapore National Heritage Board (NHB), which organized the kebaya exhibition in April following its UNESCO nomination.
“There was something of a fusion of cultures, influences and different communities that resulted in their own kebayas.”
Oniatta Effendi, a Singaporean fashion designer who creates modern versions of the traditional blouse, said it was a symbol of cultural heritage.
“Many of us grow up seeing the kebaya worn by our mothers and grandmothers. It represents our culture, our identity,” she said, according to the NHB statement.
“Kebaya may look different in different countries. Its meaning for each person may also be different, but one thing is certain: kebaya connects us through a common identity.”