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Sarong Kebaya


Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I paid tribute to my Indonesian Peranakan heritage last week by donning on a baju kebaya. I skipped the sarong and replaced it with some modern capris instead and felt very pleased with the way I looked that day.


The yellow kebaya in the photo is almost ten years old and as far as baju kebayas go, this is not the best of quality but it's good enough for daily wear. Every summer, I give it a couple of outings. The thin cotton muslin is so good for the heat.


On my bucket list of things to buy in Singapore was a complete sarong kebaya ensemble. A fine set, meant for special occasions. So while Hubs and Sonny-boy went off doing their men thing, I headed down to Rumah Kim Choo in East Coast Road. The lady in charge, Belinda, was very helpful and had an eye for matching up the various garments. She didn't rush me at all and gave me a whole lot of outfits to try. I think it was the third or fourth ensemble when she and I knew we hit the right combination: A crimson baju kebaya with embroidered flowers and butterflies and a two paneled sarong skirt in dark green and russet.


The sarong is a bit of a cop out. If I wanted to go old school all the way, I would have to fold my own sarong and secure it with a silver belt. Something which:
  • even though I have the know-how, didn't want to waste time folding the tubular fabric in place and

  • while wearing it, didn't want to worry when the entire skirt was going to collapse like the walls of Jericho. I am the kind of person these things happen to.

So no, ready-made and folded with all the convenience and security of a YKK zipper, if you please.

When the zipper and stitches are undone, the fabric will unfurl into a traditional tubular sarong, says Belinda of Rumah Kim Choo.

I also bought a set of gold plated kerosang rantay to secure the front of the kebaya. It's got a phoenix motif, to match the edges of my sarong.



Back in the 18th century, during the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) period , the ruling classes in Batavia were made up of Dutch families who had been in Java for generations. The Dutch women took to wearing the kebaya to suit the weather and lifestyle of their adopted country.

Dutch couples, not unlike Hubs' parents and their friends if I may be so bold to add (Mother-in-law reads my blog), playing cards at home in Java, circa 1900. The women wear sarong kebaya and the men are dressed in cotton jackets and batik chelanas or pants. Never mind the clothing or era, some things never change.

The kebaya then was plain, very much like the baju panjang, a long tunic-like jacket. It was only in the late 18th Century where the women started trimming their kebayas with lace. As with every new trend, word gets around fast and very soon, all the Dutch women had a kebaya rendah (lace kebaya) to go with her batik sarong and a new fashion was born.

Kebaya rendah and batik sarong worn by Dutch women in the Dutch East Indies, circa 1900.

Now the Chinese Peranakan women knew a good thing when they saw one and took to it immediately. This new style then got exported to Singapore and made it all the way down the Straits Settlement, namely Malacca and Penang. Over the years, the floral motif and sulam (embroidery) evolved to what we see today on the modern kebaya.

And regardless of style or era, an outfit is never complete without matching footwear. With the Peranakan sarong kebaya, this comes in the form of beaded slippers. This was also on my bucket list but unfortunately, didn't find any that sang to me at Rumah Kim Choo so it will just have to wait for the next time we are in Singapore. By then, I would also like to look for a set of antique intan* kerosangs, if Hubs' my pockets allow it and maybe add another ensemble to my little collection. The lavender one I tried the last time was quite fetching too ...



*Intan are the shavings from cut diamonds. They are always flat at the back. Good quality intan have facets and are more valuable. The yellow coloured variety was the most popular and highly regarded in the late 19th century.

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Comments:
Darling, I'm no Nonya but I've always wanted a kebaya!!!

Never got round to buying one but this may indeed be the time.

Won't look as nice as you though, you looked fabulous in that yellow top. I want one too!!!
 
I bought a sarong kebaya emsemble for my girl for CNY. I can't remember if it was from Rumah Bebe, but I think it might have been. Is that the shop on the same row as Kim Choo kueh chang 2 doors away? However, it was a last minute thing and they didn't have a skirt in her size, the type with zip like you bought. So I had to go through the folding etc for her and borrowed a gold belt from a friend & completed it with a child-size kerosang. I get what you mean by the skirt coming apart thingy. And I really need to send the sarong in for tailoring so it's easier for her to wear it. A friend recommended a shop in Arab St where I found some beautiful sarongs & they do made-to-measure kebaya. Maybe S, you might want to check it out? And the sewing charge there is cheaper.

I think you look absolutely great in the yellow kebaya and it matches very well with the capri. Unfortunate about the beaded slippers. I couldn't find a pair for her too. Maybe try Malacca?

And just curious, does you MIL possess any of those Dutch kebayas?
 
Lotus, as you are going to be in Singapore during the summer, you can, like D suggested, go to Arab Street and have one tailored. I bought off the rack as I was short of time and the sizes did fit me. I think you'll look good in one.
 
D, hi!

Thanks for your compliment.

Yes Rumah Bebe is just a couple of doors down the same stretch of shophouse from Kim Choo kueh chang. The entrance is very small and nondescript. It's the doorway leading upstairs just by the kueh chang store itself. I was also planning to drop by Rumah Bebe for a look see but again, didn't have enough time. Will definitely pop in again if we are in town.

Folding the sarong is easy but securing it is another matter. Did your girl have to walk very carefully? :D You really went all the way with your Little Nyonya. LOL.

As for the slippers, if I really can't find any I like, I may actually bead one up myself. I do know how to do it but it's a case of too many crafts, too little time!

MIL doesn't own one. I don't think she knows what a sarong kebaya is because you never see it worn nowadays, not even by the Indonesian women here. The only sarong kebaya most Dutch people are familiar with is the Singapore Airlines cabin crew uniform.

But it's interesting, don't you think, that it was the Dutch who influenced the way our baju kebaya looks today. I suspect back in the day, the women used Dutch lace (bobbin lace made in Flanders but exported to Holland) to trim their kebayas.
 
Yes, S, I could take you there so maybe that will push me to get my girl's skirt tailored haha.

Yes, I think it's the same rumah we are thinking, but it wasn't up a staircase, or maybe I didn't know about that part. Mine was an entrance like Kim Choo's.

My little nonya got very ex taste haha. Cost me $80 for the little kebaya which she insisted on having, but the sarong from Arab St was cheap, only $15.

She was very good, vain lah, and walked very carefully, and it was on her the entire first day of CNY. Marvellous!

Oh yes, I'm sure you can find time to bead a pair for yourself with your excellent crafty skills haha.

How about the shop owned by Peter Wee in the row of Chin Mei Chin bakery beside Holy Family Church at Katong? He does have antique and more original stuff. Try there.

It'd be interesting to see the original kebaya of the ancient Dutch times. Should send a photo of her to you haha.
 
Oh ya, the one by Peter Wee is Katong Antique House.
 
Hi..I absolutely love your entry on kebaya. I am an avid fan of nyonya kebaya myself(although i am not a nyonya)

I just adore the colours, and the intricate design. I normally bought a few pairs whenever i come back home to malaysia for my own use in Dublin.

Malacca is a good place to shop for nyonya kebaya.Prices are not too bad. However, the one tailor i would recommend would have to be Kim in Gurney Plaza in Penang. Her collection is just amazing.Then again so is her price tags..Prices started from RM 2500 for the kebayas, but even if you dont want to buy any, a visit to her will make you happy just by looking at all the beautiful designs.

nadia
 
Hi I'm a long time collector of Peranakan antiques back in wonderful Singapore after an absence of 10 years!!! Way too long.
I bought with me around 12 antique kebayas a silver and rose cut diamond kerosang and some silver keychains. Call me 844 596 32 if you want to see lah.
Robyn
 
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