Why women’s groups and designers are encouraging Indonesian women to wear the kebaya
The traditional long-sleeved blouse known as the kebaya has long been part of Indonesia’s national dress and while it is usually associated with the Javanese and Sundanese areas, it is also widely worn all over the archipelago.
“A long and loose kebaya with a head scarf is the common dress of Muslim women in West Sumatra and also the Malay people,” says Lila Imelda Sari, the owner of kebaya store Lemari Lila. In Bali, the kebaya with its typical cut and sash is also commonly found in Hindu rituals and ceremonies.
But the kebaya has fallen out of favour in recent years, as women turn to modern, more Western attire for everyday wear, leaving the kebaya for formal or special events. Many of them claim that wearing a kebaya is impractical and incompatible with the spirit of youth.
Models present modern kebaya styles by designers from the Indonesian Fashion Designers and Fashion Entrepreneurs Association. Photo/The Jakarta Post
In an attempt to reverse the trend, the Kebaya Women’s Community has organised several programmes, including the declaration of 1,000 kebaya-wearing women and a seminar on the kebaya presented by writer and archaeologist Edi Sedyawati and designer Musa Widyatmoko.
Both Edi and Musa reminded the audience of why the kebaya was once the outfit of choice.
“Loosely cut and made with comfortable fabrics, the kebaya is suitable for work and neat enough to receive guests,” they said.
The wardrobes of Indonesian mothers or grandmothers always included the kebaya for daily needs but it is rarely found in more modern cupboards, as young people have no example to imitate and end up seeing the kebaya, despite its modern touch, as only for formal occasions.
“The kebaya shouldn’t just be limited to the annual celebration of Kartini and wedding parties,” says Kristin Samah, a member of the Kebaya Women’s Community. “Take Indian women: they wear traditional saris every day. Why aren’t we doing the same? After all, the kebaya meant for daily use and is both comfortable and practical.”
In fact, even non-members are preserving the kebaya for daily wear. Lila of Lemari Lila in Yogyakarta says her store is famous for its classical kebaya collection for daily use. “I wanted to promote Indonesian traditional fabrics in modern manifestations and started by offering a variety of products in traditional fabrics like gowns and culottes,” added Lila.
“I soon realised that the kebaya was the most sought-after product, especially the Mbok Jum kebaya, which gets is name from the daily kebaya mostly worn by Javanese women in the past.
Made from cotton with a flower motif, it has a kutubaru (vertical chest band) pattern and stagen (waist sash) and Lila says she designs it with the younger woman in mind. She has also modified the kebaya of Sumatra.
As a collector and lover of classical kebaya herself, she has often hunted for old kebaya in Yogya’s Beringharjo Market and found several classical pieces. “I cherish the memories of my mother and grandmother in their daily kebaya,” says Lila, who makes her kebaya from fabrics that are not too transparent and produce less heat.
“Women used to wear inner garments so they could get away with a thin kebaya,” she says.
Besides exploring kutubaru kebaya for her Mbok Jum |products, Lila also creates Kartini and long kebaya models, with modifications to enable buyers to match them with other wardrobe items for daily wear. Lemari Lila also has an Instagram account, which she uses to share ideas with her customers. Some of them, she says,, combine Mbok Jum with jeans, shorts and sneakers. Others make long kebaya their outerwear.
In Lila’s view, buyers’ ages affect their ability to mix and match. Teenagers, senior high school or college students tend to wear kebaya for formal occasions like weddings and exhibitions. Customers aged 25 and above are bolder in combining the kebaya with other clothing for work or hanging out.
“When the models suits them and they get some inspiration for a mix-and-match I can see that Indonesian women are not reluctant to include the kebaya in their daily wardrobes,” she says.