It is not just a piece of clothing, but a symbol of adaptation, acceptance and empowerment, as well as a reminder of a time when Malaysians were more relaxed and knew how to have fun.
DURING one of my trips back home, I came across old photo albums tucked away in the corner of what is left of my late grandfather’s library. One particular photo caught my eye – where my mother, her sisters and other young women were photographed in elegant kebayas and sarongs, presumably at a locally organised social event.
In the photo, it seemed that all the women, regardless of their ethnicity and body size, wore the kebaya.
As a child of the 80s, this is interesting to me, as I grew up watching Tourism Malaysia advertisements that had Malaysian women wearing clothes specific to our ethnic origins.
At a time without smartphones and Instagram, it would be logical to assume that women in those days would dress up when they had their pictures taken, hence the kebayas and sarongs. However, from recent conversations with women who lived through the early days of Malaya (and then Malaysia), I was informed that the kebaya was considered daily wear.
The kebaya was adapted to daily activities, with those made from more airy, light fabrics preferably worn at home or for work. Kebayas made from heavier fabrics like songket or brocade were reserved for brides and more formal, celebratory occasions.
One also cannot talk about the kebaya without engaging the Peranakan and Baba Nyonya cultures. Today, when the kebaya is mentioned, most would automatically relate them to the image of the Nyonya kebaya with its intricate embroidery, vibrant colours and picturesque sarongs.
Truth is, there are many forms of kebaya. What is more intriguing is the fact that this simple blouse, generally sewn without buttons or hooks, transcends not only the Malay archipelago (including Indonesia), but is also found in Burmese, Chitty, Filipino and even Portuguese cultures.
Today, the kebaya can be worn over dresses or sleeveless tops as a light jacket. One can wear the kebaya traditionally with a sarong or trousers, or even pencil skirts!
What is of more interest to me, however, is the fact that the kebaya is heirloom. I love listening to and reading stories of how women inherited a particular kebaya from their mothers and grandmothers, keeping the tradition alive by wearing these kebayas at their own weddings or reminiscing about how a particular kebaya symbolises the relationship in their families.
Some, like me, can only run our fingers over the delicate fabric of our mother’s and grandmother’s kebayas, and appreciate the intricate and meticulous details of how clothes used to be handmade, as we cannot fit into the sizes our mothers used to be long ago. As I delve further into my interest with this simple blouse, I realise that what the kebaya means to me is more than just a piece of clothing.
Personally, the kebaya symbolises adaptation (through its many mixes of culture and flexible fashion sense), acceptance (where women from different ethnicities wear and adapt the kebaya accordingly) and empowerment (it is sexy, no doubt). Women in kebayas also remind me of a time when Malaysians were more relaxed, apparently knew how to have fun and were more accepting of each other, as archived in photographs of old.
It has only been three months since I publicly announced #bringbackthekebaya, but the response, both good and bad, has been overwhelming. I am learning so much about my own identity and, by extension, on what the Malaysian identity is, through this little passion project.
What I learnt these past few months is the fact that women’s bodies are political. What started as a simple hashtag to reclaim the kebaya as an identity I can resonate with has opened up discourse on the origins of the kebaya, whether Malays are becoming Arabicised, whether the kebaya only belongs to Peranakan heritage, and many other issues.
Patriarchy taught us women to sometimes be embarrassed of our own bodies. What better way to stand up to patriarchy than to celebrate our feminine figures, our love for beautiful things, and for us to allow ourselves to wear what we want without jeopardising our ethnic or religious identities?
My grandiose dream is to recreate that community depicted in that old photo of my mother. Within my capacity, and with the help of many amazing friends, I could only organise a small gathering in the Klang Valley to celebrate the kebaya, to benefit a local NGO that works with the marginalised in Chow Kit.
One gathering that not only encourages small businesses to promote Malaysian heritage, but also to create a sense of community, of belonging and of simply being Malaysian.
I am bringing back the kebaya – from the boxing of identities, from the shaming of bodies who are different, from the claim that it is only for special occasions and for particular groups of people – and reclaiming it as Malaysian.
I hope that many will join me in this journey and remind our fellow Malaysians that our strength lies not in uniformity, but in acceptance of our diversity.
Lyana Khairuddin is an academic with a local public university who runs to keep being optimistic about Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
Did you find this article insightful?