Nyonya kebaya receives quite a bit of publicity lately. If you ask me, I would say that kebaya came from Indonesia and the style has developed into several versions. What makes the nyonya kebaya different from other kinds of kebaya? And what exactly is a kebaya?
Kebaya is a costume worn by South East Asian women. It consists mainly of a jacket and a sarong. The styles of the jacket and the sarong differ from place to place. The materials and embellishment that go with them also differ regionally.
Nyonya Kebaya is a unique traditional ethnic clothes worn by the Straits Settlement Chinese ladies who are known as nyonyas. The Baba and Nyonya, even though originally are ethnic Chinese, adopt the way of dressing, some cultural practices and also local food in their daily lives.
The main difference of nyonya kebaya from other kebayas is that, the material used for the top is sheer. The material can be gauze cotton, voile or georgette. Since the top is made out of translucent material, it is necessary to wear an inner cotton camisole which is called "anak baju".
The top is embroidered with beautiful motifs with extra emphasize at the collar, the sleeves and the hem of the jacket. The motifs are usually hand-made. As with other craft, machine-made embroidery would not look as good as the hand-made ones.
As for the sarong, batik from Java is used. Locally known as "batik Jawa", there are several cuts to choose from. The more shapely ladies would love to show off their lovely legs with a sarong with a slit in front. The slit would only show as they walk.
"Now you see it, now you don't" is supposed to be so seductive that jealous husbands would not allow their women to be seen wearing these costumes outside the house. A more modest version does not have slits, but instead adorned with pleats at the seams in front so that the movement is not hampered much.
There are two basic styles of nyonya kebaya. The one with long jacket (known as kebaya labuh) and also another with the short jacket (kebaya pendek).
Kebaya labuh is usually worn by elderly ladies. The cut is straight, and the length comes down to the knees, sometimes almost to the calves. The material is still sheer, and anak baju is also needed. A set of brooches (usually a set of three) are used to secure the front of the jacket. A chiffon embroidered handkerchief is cleverly tucked at the collar completes the look.
Kebaya pendek is much preferred by the younger nyonyas. The cut hugs the figure and the length of the jacket only reaches the hips. This costume shows off the shape of the women beautifully.
Other accessories required to be worn together with these kebayas are slippers embroidered with beads known as nyonya slippers. These slippers are also handmade, and therefore not practical for daily use. They are delicate and obviously not suitable for rough walking. A beaded purse can also be part of the attire.
It is also customary for the nyonyas to wear their hair in a certain style while wearing the kebaya. A simple neat bun adorned with flowers are usually the case. The choice is usually fresh fragrant local flowers.
Now, the kebaya becomes designer items. The hip youngsters wear them with jeans.
The price of hand-made nyonya kebaya can easily reach hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
This depends on the quality of the workmanship. Naturally handmade embroidery, being more intricate, will fetch a very high price.
Only very few people can make these patterns beautifully. Apprentices train since young to master this art form.
Every woman feels elegant when they wear this traditional costume. The kebayas are normally worn for special occasions only.
During Hari Raya also, kebaya nyonya is the costume of choice by many trendy Muslim ladies. They are worn with shawls and high heels, complete with chunky costume jewellery and matching brooches. A matching sarong or pareo will complete the look effortlessly.
It is good that these kebayas make a comeback. So, how do we make it more available to the public?
In order to lower the price, why not learn to make the kebayas yourself. After all, the skill in dressmaking is always handy. Who knows, you could even start your own business in tailoring these traditional treasures.
To get started, you may order the materials that are featured here on the right column if this page. Or, buy it and send it to your favorite tailor to make your own nyonya kebaya. This collection is especially selected for Penang Heritage City website.
Each piece is exclusively designed. You will be hard pressed to find the same patterns elsewhere.
Price? RM280.00 per piece for the material only. Normal postage and packaging charges apply.
Samples of modern nyonya kebaya materials
Click on these thumbnails to view the intricate patterns (kerawang).
Nyonya Beaded Shoes
From Dr. Farish A Noor's private collection, a beautiful set of traditional Nyonya beaded shoes:
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