How to Kill it in a Nyonya Kebaya
June 23, 2016
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How to incorporate a traditional Nyonya Kebaya in a modern wardrobe

The most likely place you’ve seen a kebaya (and maybe not known it) is the impeccably dressed Singapore Airlines’ female flight staff, in their figure hugging uniform. This uniform is a modern adaption of the traditional dress worn throughout much of South East Asia and the work of French fashion designer Pierre Balmain in the 1970’s. However, the kebaya has many variations and the nyonya kebaya is specific to Peranakan women – nyonyas. It’s much sexier than other kebayas with a svelte form, cropped length, translucent texture and elaborate embroidered decoration. The nyonya kebaya is a distinctive and diverse piece that pays compliments to any modern wardrobe.

History and tradition

The Nyonya Kebaya evolved in South East Asia, particularly major ports such as Singapore, Sumatra, Penang, and Malacca where the Peranakan culture developed between 14th and 19th centuries. Here foreign traders settled, married local women and gave birth to a new generation – the Peranakans – with their own unique culture. While there are various smaller sub-groups of the Peranakans, the dominant group are of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.  Their traditions are a melding of cultures, creating an aesthetic that is eye-catchingly colourful and exquisitely detailed.


The complete outfit

Nyonyas took inspiration from their families varied ancestral traditions to create their own sense of style. The nyonya kebaya is one element of Peranakan women’s traditional dress known as the sarong kebaya. The sarong kebaya has a long history, but the modern version originated in Indonesia during the roaring 20’s and soon spread among the Straits communities. The sarong, usually made from Batik, was originally worn under a long tunic which derived from Malay women’s attire. The tunic was abandoned in the 20th century for the cropped, figure hugging style of today, a sheer blouse with a front opening that is kept in place by a three segment brooch – kerosang. The modern Nyonya kebaya is worn over a camisole, and is colourfully embroidered with ornate motifs including flowers, butterflies, phoenixes, dragons and insects. Nyonyas complete the ensemble with finely beaded slippers and jewellery as elaborate as the occasion demands.

How to wear your Nyonya kebaya

There are so many ways to wear a Nyonya kebaya! Here are a few tips for incorporating this signature piece into your everyday wardrobe:

If you are print or colour shy, start with a monochrome kebaya for all that gorgeous embroidered detail with a more subtle overall feel. Light colours are great for day wear while darker tones evoke a more formal, evening air.

Maximalists might be more inclined to team a kebaya with printed pants or a maxi skirt that echo the batik sarong style with which the kebaya is traditionally paired.

Nyonya kebaya styling
Aniesh Berlain styles her Nyonya kebaya paired with printed pants

Pack a kebaya for your next beach holiday. The light cotton fabric generally used to construct a kebaya makes it perfect as a beach cover up or summer top when matched with shorts. It also makes a perfect accessory for covering your shoulders when the sun goes down or the air conditioning gets a little chilly.

Nyonya kebaya cover up
A kebaya worn as a beach cover up - photo via Peony LIm
Nyonya kebaya and shorts
Mata Hari Embroidery produces cute lace trim shorts to match with their kebayas

A kebaya worn open over a camisole is a stylish, dressed-down look when matched with your favourite pair of jeans.

Kebaya and jeans
Modern Nyonyas in their kebayas

Worn over a summer dress, the kebaya gives an air of elegance perfect for a wedding or other occasion that requires something more special than your average daytime outfit.

One kebaya, three ways
How to wear one kebaya, three ways

I wear my vibrant, peacock embroidered kebaya over navy, silk pants and camisole. My shoe and accessory choices depend on the occasion.

How to Kill it in a Nyonya Kebaya | Duende by Madam ZoZo
Madam ZoZo in her peacock embellished Nyonya kebaya

A belt is a modern way to close a kebaya in place of traditional kerosang. Here is belted kebaya inspiration by two young fashionistas.

Belted kebaya by Larus Arum
1960's lace kebaya worn with belt

Kebaya ettiquette

There aren’t too many ways you can go wrong with a kebaya. Most young Nyonya’s have adopted western dress and will only wear their kebaya on special cultural occasions. One consideration when you’re selecting your kebaya colour is that a plain white, black, green or blue kebaya indicates the wearer is in mourning. However wearing a monochrome kebaya in these colours is unlikely to offend, as most Nyonyas of today no longer adhere to this colour code.

Have fun experimenting with your kebaya, and enjoy the unique elegance of Peranakan women past and present.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.

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