Submitted to UNESCO, What is the Politics and History of Kebaya? 

During the New Order era, Kebaya was taken over and usurped by New Order politics as a symbol of the middle class or employee family. Kebayas with specific colors were once used as uniforms for women's organizations for the New Order political machine.

Kebaya has a long history in Indonesia. We can see how Kebaya has undergone changes influenced by culture and politics.

Indonesia has decided to join Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Thailand in submitting Kebaya as a UNESCO cultural heritage. This decision was made by Itje Chodidjah, Daily Chair of the Indonesian National Commission for UNESCO (KNIU).

“Regarding Kebaya, it has been decided to join the nomination. It’s  fixed,” said Itje, quoting in the FGD Assistance for Proposals for the Nomination of the 2023 UNESCO Creative City Network with the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy in Jakarta, Tuesday (14/2/2023).

Initially, Indonesia insisted on not involving other countries in this nomination. But, Itje explained that they would have to wait another seven years if they did it themselves. By joining other countries, they can submit the nominations immediately.

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Kebaya is being registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (WBTB), which, according to UNESCO, an intangible cultural heritage are practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills and instruments. Also objects, artifacts, and related cultural spaces that are recognized by communities, groups, and /or individuals as part of their cultural heritage.

This intangible cultural heritage passed down from generation to generation is constantly being reinvented by communities and groups in response to their living environment, as an interaction with nature and their history, and creating pride of identity through sustainability, encouraging respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

The aim is to raise awareness of the importance of these practices and expressions encourage dialogue that respects cultural diversity, and provide the right recognition to the practices and expressions of communities worldwide.

Kebaya is a garment made by female tailors in Indonesia and is also found in Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand. Each region has made the Kebaya its own, and each stitch tells its historical story. Highly loved by these five countries that they have joined forces to nominate Kebaya on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list in March 2023.

The Origin of Kebayas

“Kebaya crosses countries and ethnicities,” said Cedric Tan, former president of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Baba Nyonya Peranakan Association– a society in Malaysia for Peranakans, who was involved in the Kebaya’s submission to UNESCO, quoting from

Kebaya is believed to have originated from the Middle East. Qaba, a jacket of Turkic origin, takes its name from the Persian word for “robe of honor.”

The people of the Javanese royal era were found wearing Kebaya when the Portuguese arrived in Java in 1512. This was written by American fashion history professors Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun in the book Fashion History: A Global View. The clothing ultimately took its name from the Portuguese word “caba” or “cabaya,” which means “tunic”.

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Kebaya became the word used to refer to a robe or blouse for both men and women, but starting in the 19th century, the term became synonymous in Southeast Asia with women’s blouses combined with batik sarongs. This style became popular among Dutch women during the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) era and was also adopted by women in Southeast Asia who followed the Islamic faith and wanted to dress more modestly.

Beautiful and practical, Kebaya is suitable for tropical climates. Over the years, Kebaya has taken many forms. Early clothing included a long kebaya, an open knee-length blouse tied with a brooch, and long sleeves. Today, there are the most famous versions, including the Kartini kebaya, which was popular among Javanese aristocrats; Kebaya Kutu Baru, which has a piece of material underneath to look like a cloth on the chest (kemben); and Kebaya Nyonya, which is made from colorful silk or voile and decorated with embroidery.

Kebaya in Colonial Era

Elsbeth Locher-Scholten in her book Women And the Colonial State (2000), shows how the replacement of Javanese clothes with Dutch-style clothes in the 1920s and 30s by Dutch women promoted a false “modernization” among the local native population, which strengthened the power of colonialism by reinforcing the categories of natives and rulers based on racial lines, which then triggered a nationalist reaction against it.

Sarongs and kebayas completely disappeared. Before 1920, this iconic Indonesian clothes, consisting of a long batik cotton cloth folded around the body as a skirt and a long, lace jacket with long sleeves, had lost its appeal to Europeans.

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“In the early 1900s, Catenius-vander Meijdenn warned against wearing sarongs and kebayas on ships. Married women were only allowed to wear it at home in the morning.

In 1914, the struggle for sarongs and kebayas was still in full swing. Eurasian writer J. Kloppenburg-Versteegh (1862-1942), who was born and raised in the Indies as the daughter of a coffee farmer, admired the sarong and Kebaya as ‘the most suitable dress for our people,  the Indies, elegant garments, as long as one knows how to wear them.’

She tried to popularize these costumes by providing sewing patterns in her books. However, Beata van Hesdingen-Schoevers (1886-1920), also Eurasian but of a younger generation, hated this clothing. She considers it as a ‘bad habit not to dress up, to walk around in nightgowns, or even in a disheveled state.

Reduction of Kartini’s Struggle in the New Order Era

Lies Marcoes Natsir wrote Kebaya Politics for during the New Order era, the Kebaya was taken over and seized by New Order politics as a symbol of the middle class or employee families.

Kebayas with specific colors  was used as a uniform for women’s organizations in the New Order political machine, such as PKK and Dharma Wanita. It was then that Kartini’s struggle for the emancipation of Indonesian women was reduced to the lowest level. Kartini’s fierce battle against patriarchy and the Javanese feudal system that oppressed women was simplified into Kebaya Kartini.

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The Kartini celebration was enlivened by competitions emphasizing women’s domestic role not far from cooking ‘macak manak’. Progressive women’s groups or feminist at that time rejected the Kebaya with all its state interpretations. Hence, the Kebaya was rejected and considered a form of duping women and oppression.

From the long history of  Kebaya, we can see how this garment has undergone changes influenced by cultural and political influences.

(Translated by Marina Nasution)

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