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 the 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:
How to wear nyonya kebaya with pants and prints
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 daywear 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 traditional batik sarong style with a modern twist. Look to chic, fashionista Aniesh Berlian who masterfully pairs nyonya kebayas with pants in elaborately detailed songket fabric.
How to wear a nyonya kebaya at the beach
Follow Peony Lim’s lead and 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. Mata Hari Embroidery make the cute-as-heck shorts below, to pair with their kebayas.
How to wear a nyonya kebaya with jeans
A kebaya worn open over a camisole is a stylish, dressed-down look when matched with your favourite pair of jeans. Take your queue from these gorgeous Singaporean’s photographed by Suasti Lye for the Modern Nyonya Photography Exhibition.
How to style a nyonya kebaya with a belt
A belt is a modern way to close a kebaya in place of traditional kerosang. Here is belted kebaya inspiration by two young fashionistas. Laras Arum modernises her mum’s white kebaya with black skinny jeans and heels.
How to take style a Nyonya Kebaya for any occassion
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. Take your kebaya from day to night, traditional to modern, with these suggestions by Sellia Kebaya.
I wear my vibrant, peacock embroidered kebaya over navy, silk pants and camisole. My shoe and accessory choices depend on the occasion. Here, sightseeing in Chicago, I’m wearing sneakers and scarf. For evenings I exchange the sneakers for heels and the scarf for a pair of statement earrings.
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.
Where to buy a nyonya kebaya in Singapore
Here are a few places to shop for a nyonya kebaya if you happen to be in Singapore, with a couple of online options too:
- Take to Toko Aljunied at 91 Arab Street, not far from Bugis MRT. This is was where I picked up both my cotton kebayas. You’ll be spoilt for choice with their range of very affordable, ready-to-wear kebayas.
- Visit Bebe Seet’s heritage boutique, Rumah Bebe, at 113 East Coast Road. You can drop in to browse her wares Tuesday-Sunday 9:30-6:30, or book an inhouse tour to learn more about Peranakan fashion.
- While you’re on East Coast Road, pop into number 109 and where embroidery and bead master Raymond Wong manages the Kim Choo boutique which contains some of his own designs.
- If you are looking for a traditionally made, bespoke design, drop into the floristry shop Hiew at 136 Tembeling Road, where Heath Yeo creates his Kebaya’s the old-school way.
Have fun experimenting with your kebaya, and enjoy the unique elegance of Peranakan women past and present. If you’re not ready to don a Nyonya Kebaya but you love the look, this is a beautiful book documenting the garments’ history with stunning images that you can drool over for hours.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,