The kebaya is a sheer elegant blouse pinned at the front with a brooch that is worn in various permutations around South East Asia. It gives any woman, rich or poor, young or old, a certain poise and elegance not only with its tailoring, embellishment styles and bright colours, but by way of the identity it gives them. And that is why I love it.
The original kebaya is essentially unchanged from the Javanese style as seen in the 16th century. Prior to 1600, kebaya on Java island were considered to be worn only by royal family, aristocrats and minor nobility, and women walked publicly bare-chested.
In the many years that have passed, this simple blouse became a symbol of political expression of solidarity during war times in Indonesia and as highly localised expressions of ethnic culture, artistry and tailoring traditions in the various countries where it is worn today: Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Burma, Singapore, southern Thailand, Cambodia and the southern part of the Philippines.
Having grown up in South East Asia, I am very familiar with the sight of women wearing kebaya. As I find myself currently on a repeating traveling triangle between Singapore, Phnom Penh and Bali, I decided to take the opportunity to delve deeper into the origins and style of this lovely garment in those cities.
In Bali there are many ceremonial days when people wear their best clothing for a temple visit so there is always a good reason for a new lace number in the wardrobe. A bit like shoes I guess...or is that just me? Receptionist Ni Luh (below) tells me that most of the time women buy fabric, and get a tailor to make the kebaya in the snuggest fit. They then tie a contrasting coloured scarf in a beautiful half bow around the waist.
I had a bit of a shop around in Ubud to see what I could find. There are shops on several streets in Ubud and in the area, that sell finished kebaya. Canangsari on Ubud Main road has a selection of ready made lace kebayas in delicate and two tone changeant colours. Owner Ni Nyoman Soja told me she has around 10 kebaya herself. I tried a deep blue/gold one on and it fit pretty well...
But down the road Toko Yude blew me away with their vast selection of fabrics in the most amazing colours and beadings. Selling the fabrics by the 2 ½ meter piece with the corners and edges already embellished with contrast colour cut work lace broderie and sequins, prices are surprisingly affordable. An olive jacquard silky piece with beautiful plum lace hand beaded edging that I very nearly bought was Rp 650 000 (HK$393). Lovely ikat sarongs in muted colour tones are also on sale and on display. Such a nice blend with the boldness and texture of the cut work lace!
What's your favourite?