Nonya kebaya



The nonya (or nyonya) kebaya is an outfit that is most associated with the women of the Peranakan community, who are commonly known as nonyas (or nyonyas). The nonya kebaya is believed to have developed from the Malay baju panjang (long dress), which comprises a knee-length tunic worn over a batik sarong (printed tube skirt).1 Instead of a long tunic, the nonya kebaya is a tighter-fitting sheer embroidered blouse that is traditionally paired with a batik sarong.

Description
The nonya kebaya is a translucent blouse that is usually made from voile, which is a sheer, lightweight fabric of plain weave that comes in various colours and shades. It is often decorated with embroidered motifs known as sulam, which are sewn on using a combination of stitches, including cutwork, running, satin and buttonhole stitches. Popular sulam motifs for the kebaya include flowers, butterflies, phoenixes, dragons, insects and even people.2 The intricate embroidery work usually takes weeks or even months to complete.3 Nonya kebayas meant for home wear feature simpler embroidery motifs along the edges.4 The sulam embroidery for the kebaya top was initially done primarily by hand. However, the cottage industry for kebaya embroidery began to decline by the 1970s as a result of the emergence of mass production technologies for clothes.5


Being semi-transparent, the nonya kebaya is usually worn over a camisole and secured at the front by a set of three interlinked brooches known as a kerosang (spelt as kerongsang in Malay).6 The kebaya top is traditionally paired with a sarong skirt featuring batik designs that are either drawn by hand or machine printed.7 Hand-drawn batik cloths from Java are the most sought after materials for making sarongs. The Javanese batiks are believed to be of superior workmanship and feature designs that the nonyas favour.8 Batik fabrics often feature intricate motifs of flowers, birds and butterflies. Sometimes, chequered and geometric patterns are also used.9

The traditional nonya kebaya outfit is completed with decorative accessories such as a cucuk sanggul (hairpin), a silver belt for securing the sarong, and a pair of beaded slippers known as kasut manek.10

Historical development
The nonya kebaya possibly originated from Java or Medan, Indonesia.11 Initially, the nonyas adopted the Malay dress form known as the baju panjang, which comprises a loose-fitting, knee-length tunic with long sleeves that is worn over a batik sarong.12 The baju panjang, also known as the long kebaya or baju belah labuh besar (long baggy dress), is thought to have its origins in the Turkish traditional dress known as “Al Akibiya Al Turkiyya”. Another source claims that the nonya kebaya originated from Surabaya, Indonesia, and was worn by Javanese women who were married to Dutch or Chinese Peranakans.13


By the 19th century, the baju panjang was already widely adopted by local Malay and Straits Chinese women in Singapore and Malaya.14 The nonyas began to modify the form of the baju panjang around the turn of the 20th century. By then, the outfit was seen as conservative and staid, worn only by the elderly.15 As an alternative, young nonyas turned to a lace-embroidered kebaya that the Europeans had begun to adopt.16 The hip-length embroidered kebaya then became popular with the nonyas around the 1920s.17 Over time, the fully embroidered nonya kebaya top became synonymous with the nonyas.18

Modern varieties

Over the years, the nonya kebaya has evolved in terms of its form, pattern and how it is worn. Generally, the kebaya can be categorised as either traditional or modern. The traditional kebaya is made either from muslin or voile and decorated with elaborate embroidery and lacework.19 On the other hand, a modern kebaya is made from materials such as printed batik, cotton, satin and chiffon, and is usually unembroidered.20 An example of a modern kebaya is the iconic Singapore Girl uniform adopted by Singapore Airlines (SIA) for its stewardesses.21 Many young women today choose to pair the kebaya with Western-style dresses, skirts and even jeans.22


Cultural significance
Although the nonya kebaya has Malay and Javanese origins, it has evolved into a distinctive outfit of the nonyas and is considered part of the cultural identity of the Peranakan community in general.23

The creation of a nonya kebaya is also regarded as a distinctive Peranakan art form. In the past, sewing and embroidery were regarded as important skills for Peranakan women to master. The ability to sew and embroider one’s own kebaya in particular was seen as an achievement that reflected a nonya’s domestic skills and good upbringing.24



Author
Jaime Koh



References
1. Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
2.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
3.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
4.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 38. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
5.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
6. O
ng, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
7.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 64. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
8.
Wee, P. (2009). A Peranakan legacy: The heritage of the Straits Chinese. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 WEE)
9.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
10.
Wee, P. (2009). A Peranakan legacy: The heritage of the Straits Chinese. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 105. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 WEE); Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 121. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
11.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 47. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
12.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 16. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
13.
Zubaidah Sual. (2000). The Malay costumes. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in Asean. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 101. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
14.
Zubaidah Sual. (2000). The Malay costumes. In K. M. Chavalit & M. Phromsuthirak (Eds.), Costumes in Asean. Bangkok: The National ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information of Thailand, p. 101. (Call no.: RSING 391.00959 COS-[CUS])
15.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 47. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
16.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 49. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS]). Wee, P. (2009). A Peranakan legacy: The heritage of the Straits Chinese. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 WEE)
17.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
18.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, pp. 49–53. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
19.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS]); Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 94. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
20.
Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 9, 86. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
21. Ong, K. N. (2011). Nyonya kebaya: Intricacies of the Peranakan heritage. Singapore: Christine Ong Kiat Neo, p. 43. (Call no.: RSING 391.2095957 ONG-[CUS])
22.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, p. 157. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
23.
Datin Seri Endon Mahmood. (2004). The nyonya kebaya: A century of Straits Chinese costume. Singapore: Periplus Editions, pp. 30–32. (Call no.: RSEA q391.209595 END-[CUS])
24.
Wee, P. (2009). A Peranakan legacy: The heritage of the Straits Chinese. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 85. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 WEE)



The information in this article is valid as at 24 September 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Peranakan costumes
Heritage and Culture
Ethnic Communities
Batik
Women
Peranakans