History of Kebaya
There is much speculation as to where the kebaya could have originated from. There are some who say that the kebaya originated in the Middle East, while others argue that it may have come from nearby China. Derived from the Arabic word kaba meaning “clothing” and introduced to Indonesia via the Portuguese language, the term kebaya has come to refer to a garment whose origins appear to be a blouse. It was first worn in Indonesia at some time during the 15th and 16th centuries.
On the island of Java before 1600, kebaya were sacred clothing to be worn only by members of the Javanese monarchy. Now kebayas are very popular among Indonesian and Malaysian women.
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Indigenous Dress in the Making of a Nation
Considering the enormous historical – political and social – shifts that have occurred in Indonesia during the last century, the form of the kebaya, has remained relatively unchanged. Its function and meaning however, in contrast to its form, has seen major changes in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia, operating to meet different groups’ political agendas, social needs and aspirations. The kebaya has come to symbolize the emancipation of women in Indonesia through a representation linking the kebaya to the 19th century “proto-feminist” figure of Raden A. Kartini. During the 19th century, and prior to the Nationalist movement of the early 20th century, the kebaya had enjoyed a period of being worn by Indonesian, Eurasian, and European women alike, with slight style variations.
During this time distinguishing class and status was important and produced variants of the basic costume. The kebaya of Javanese royalty were constructed of silk, velvet and brocade; Javanese women belonging to the commoner class wore figured cottons; the kebaya worn by Eurasian women was of white cotton trimmed with handmade European lace during the day, and of black silk in the evening; while the Dutch women preferred a shorter white kebaya. It was even possible for Dutch women planning to travel to the Dutch East Indies to purchase their kebaya in the Netherlands prior to leaving.
Emerging as National Dress
By the 1920s however, and with the full emergence of the nationalist struggle in Indonesia, European women stopped wearing the kebaya because it was identified with typical Indonesian attire. For the European colonizers the Kebaya had become associated with Indonesian nationalism. During the period of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (1942-1945), educated Indonesian women prisoners-of-war chose to wear kain-kebaya rather than the western dress allocated to them as prison dress.
A different set of political conditions produced a reversal of meaning. In this situation the women employed a cultural code (of traditional dress) to assert their political position, differentiating themselves from their European women that were also prisoners-of-war. During the Proclamation of Independence by President Sukarno on August 17, 1945, the only woman in attendance, Ibu Trimutri was wearing kain kebaya. This image helped transform the kebaya from mere traditional dress, elevating it to the status of national dress for Indonesia women.