Diversity in every stitch at 'The Secret Of Kebaya' exhibition in KL


A close-up detail of the 'Baju Kebaya Sulam' - a short kebaya, with filigree embroidery of a gold fish pattern and flowers made of plain black voile. It is worn with a sleeveless inner garment and embellished with ketuk lubang (punched holes). This garment is matched by a 'Pekalongan' batik sarong tied in the front fold style. Typically worn by Peranakan Chinese and Chetti women. Photo: The Star/Daryl Goh

The wearing of the baju kebaya has long had a strong cultural presence in Malaysia’s multiracial society.

As a traditional clothing, the kebaya represents a significant part of the cultural heritage and identity of women from the Malay, Peranakan (Chinese, Baba Nyonya, Chetti, Siamese, Kristang) and other communities in Malaysia, as well as other countries in South-East Asia.

Each community has its own uniqueness and speciality in terms of styling the baju kebaya, depending on the traditions and occasions being celebrated.

Earlier this year, Malaysia joined four other countries to submit a multi-national nomination for the kebaya to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for the year 2023.

The exhibition captures the kebaya’s wider story, giving viewers in the Klang Valley a chance to discover its multi-racial roots, fashion heritage and also its place in pop culture. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin The exhibition captures the kebaya’s wider story, giving viewers in the Klang Valley a chance to discover its multi-racial roots, fashion heritage and also its place in pop culture. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

To coincide with the current buzz surrounding this treasured and versatile garment, Kuala Lumpur’s National Textile Museum recently opened an exhibition titled The Secret Of Kebaya, which offers an overview of the kebaya’s rich history and how it has evolved through the years.

The exhibition, organised by the National Unity Ministry in collaboration with the Department of Museums Malaysia (Jabatan Muzium Malaysia, JMM), features more than 60 kebaya exhibits, showing across two levels at the National Textile Museum’s Saindera Gallery until Dec 31.

National Textile Museum’s 'The Secret Of Kebaya' exhibition features more than 60 kebaya garments and related cultural accessories. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin National Textile Museum’s 'The Secret Of Kebaya' exhibition features more than 60 kebaya garments and related cultural accessories. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

“Hopefully, this exhibition can be a medium in educating and fostering the spirit of appreciating and loving our national identity at all levels of society, for the sake of the cultural sustainability of the nation’s heritage,” said Datuk Kamarul Baharin A. Kasim, director general of JMM.

The Secret Of Kebaya was officially launched by Tengku Permaisuri of Selangor Tengku Permaisuri Norashikin on Oct 25, who also loaned a set of her “long kebaya” made from the Royal Pahang Weave (Tenun Pahang Diraja), gifted to her by the Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah.

Intangible cultural heritage?

In Malaysia, the hope is that the kebaya meets the definition of Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage, considering the traditional craftsmanship skills such as embroidery and sewing techniques involved to create each garment.

“It is one of the national costumes that symbolises our country’s national identity and is frequently the garment of choice. In fact, the baju kebaya reflects the cultures and traditions of several other Asean countries, including Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand,” said Datuk Aaron Aro Dagang, National Unity Minister at the recent opening ceremony of the exhibition, which aims to draw 10,000 visitors.

A ‘Baju Kebaya Kota Baru’ (1960) exhibit, featuring a design cut according to body shape, narrow sleeves, darts in the front and back. It also has an additional fabric called a tongue that is triangular shaped and fastened using buttoned clasp. The length end at the hips and the bottom of the garment has a slanted cut. Photo: Ong Soon Hin A ‘Baju Kebaya Kota Baru’ (1960) exhibit, featuring a design cut according to body shape, narrow sleeves, darts in the front and back. It also has an additional fabric called a tongue that is triangular shaped and fastened using buttoned clasp. The length end at the hips and the bottom of the garment has a slanted cut. Photo: Ong Soon Hin

“The joint (Unesco) nomination began in January 2022 and was submitted to Unesco in March. The decision will be finalised during the 19th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage next year,” he added.

In preserving cultural heritage, Aaron also views this exhibition as a platform to showcase traditional kebaya-making techniques from various communities, supported by local organisations and designers.

Across the generations

For the visitor, there is plenty to explore at The Secret Of Kebaya, especially with JMM’s collection supplemented by a range of kebaya and accessories loaned from private collections.

The show is divided into five sections: “Kebaya: Heritage of the Past”, “Present, and Eternity”, “Cut of the Baju Kebaya”, “The Kebaya’s Accessories”, “The Kebaya’s Continuity” and “Kebaya in the Eyes of the World”.

Beaded shoes and accompanying kebaya accessories are also a part of the exhibition, which features the Department of Museums Malaysia collection and also exhibition loans from private collectors. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon HinBeaded shoes and accompanying kebaya accessories are also a part of the exhibition, which features the Department of Museums Malaysia collection and also exhibition loans from private collectors. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

The garment, worn for centuries, is very popular to both nobles and commoners alike, and is the preferred clothing to wear when attending formal and informal events.

The uniqueness and identity of this garment can be seen through its cut and design. The basic cut is characterised by a split and pleats at the front, a long or short hem, long sleeves which are secured with three pins and brooches.

From this exhibition, you can see technical drawings and basic patterns of the kebaya according to the different categories.

Besides that, there are also displays of accessories which complement the kebaya such as hairpins, earrings, shawls, and many others.

‘Baju Kebaya Labuh’ (Long Kebaya) is a design that comes from Terengganu around the 1950s. Made of songket with a scattered floral pattern in a modern cut, this garment is matched with a fabric in the front fold style. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin ‘Baju Kebaya Labuh’ (Long Kebaya) is a design that comes from Terengganu around the 1950s. Made of songket with a scattered floral pattern in a modern cut, this garment is matched with a fabric in the front fold style. Photo: The Star/Ong Soon Hin

For kebaya fans and culture vultures, The Secret Of Kebaya is a welcome year-end exhibition.

Over at local jewellery company Habib’s new Harta Heritage Jewellery Museum in Ampang, Selangor, there is the mini museum’s inaugural exhibition highlighting the artistic heritage of Peranakan jewellery across the generations, covering Peranakan Chinese, Jawi and Peranakan Chitty communities.

The Secret Of Kebaya now adds to the fascination for the garment as it captures the kebaya’s wider story, giving viewers in the Klang Valley a chance to discover its multi-racial roots, fashion heritage and also its place in pop culture.

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