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nyonya

 

In the second of my three part series about the kebaya, we follow the kebaya style as worn in Singapore. Interestingly, although the sarong kebaya uniform has served Singapore Airlines well in establishing their brand message, the kebaya does not in fact originate in Singapore.

Since Stamford Raffles named it the Lion City, Singapore has always been a melting pot of different cultures. Having spent most of grade school in this city, it's easy for me to feel at home here. Besides the Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, there is a community of Eurasians, beautiful dark skinned people, with distinct Portuguese heritage in looks and in a westernised perspective on life underpinned by their Catholic faith. I know because I dated one and roomed with another as I interned in Singapore for 4 months as a fashion student.

Their ancestry goes back to the time when the Peranakan-also known as Nyonya or Straits Chinese- began to populate the area, giving rise to Peranakan, or Nyonya style. For centuries, the riches of Southeast Asia have brought foreign traders to the region. many of whom ended up marrying local women. This brought rise to a new cultural style flavoured with European, Indian and even Arab influences which I find super interesting. Subsequently the Javanese origins of the kebaya were elaborated into the Nyonya style.

The long-sleeved kebaya comes in two lengths, the blouse style that finishes at the hip (kebaya pendek) and the jacket style that ends near the knees (kebaya panjang). Nowadays the blouse is made in lovely light fabrics such as silk, cotton lawn, gauze or lace featuring cutwork, embroidery, prints, jacquard patterns or a combination of them. A contrast colour bodice or bra is worn underneath. The fabrications and colour options are endless and to best effect in contrasts to each other.

Originally there is a story behind every Nyonya kebaya: when it was made, where it was made, who it was made by, what it was made for. Every kebaya was made for a particular occasion, which significance was conveyed through its embellishments: the more lavish, the more important the event, and the more hours it took to make it.  Kebaya tailors are usually women who inherit the art from their mothers or other women in their family. 

The kebaya evolved during changing times and even now it continues to adapt. Below are some examples of modern kebaya. As a print designer I'm all about colour, print and texture and so I find this culturally loaded garment especially fascinating!

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Miss Singapore 2003, Bernice Wong

 

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Oscar Lawalata

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