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The Nonya Kebaya is the traditional dress of Peranakan women (’Nonyas’) largely worn during colonial days as a form of status symbol and identification as the elite. It is a combination of Malay, Chinese and European influences which Peranakans drew upon to create an outfit most representative of their hybrid identity.

 

In modern day Singapore, the Nonya Kebaya is undeniably less worn, mostly reserved for special occasions. However, the Nonya Kebaya as a visual representation of Peranakan culture’s diverse and eclectic origin should not be forgotten.

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(source: Instagram @chungkayanlinda)
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(source: Twitter @mokcibnab via airasia.com)
One outfit, many ways↘︎
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(source: Little Nyonya Batik)
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(source: Suasti Lye via Duende by Madam Zozo)
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Nonya

Peranakan women are called Nonyas. The term Nonya is said to derive from the Portuguese word for lady 'Senhora'.

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Hover for more information

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Kebaya

Kebaya is the upper garment worn by Nonyas. A notable feature of the Kebaya is the triangular front lapels ('Lapik'). Kebaya is made of varying materials like cotton, organdie, lace and voile. The Kebaya is accompanied by elaborate embroideries.

 

The word Kebaya is said to have originated from the Arabic word 'Kaba' which means 'clothing'. The first ever Kebaya was worn in Indonesia.

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Baju Dalam is the Malay term for undershirt or camisole. It is worn under the Kebaya top, especially  when the Kebaya is made of a sheer material like voile. Often, Baju Dalam would also have some embroidery along the edges.

Baju Dalam

'Undershirt/Camisole'

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Kasut Manek is the Malay word for beaded slippers. Kasut Manek is a slip on made of glass beads sewn on one by one. The beaded slippers were also often sewed by the Nonyas themselves as sewing is an essential skill of Peranakan women.

'Beaded Slippers'

Kasut Manek

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Cucuk Sanggul

Said to be borrowed from Malay culture, the Nonya Hairpin is one of the many accessories Nonyaswould wear with their Nonya Kebayas.  Accessories are a form of airing their wealth to others. This was especially true during colonial times as jewelry, diamonds and gold were hard to come by, usually reserved for the elite.

'Hairpin"
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Sarong

Sarong is a long, tubular skirt formed by sewing two pieces of cloth together. Early versions of the Sarong required its wearer to wrap it around their waists to fit. Later versions of the Sarong did away with this, slipped on like a skirt.

 

Early Sarong versions were also dull in colour and had simple, geometric designs. With the advent of chemical dyes and free-hand wax drawing, Sarongs became more decorative.

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The Kerosang/Kerongsang refers to the three brooches Nonyas use to fasten the Kebaya top. The Kerongsang has been worn with the Baju Panjang but became known as Kerosang('Heart') during Portuguese colonisation and the creation of Malaccan Portuguese Creole language. 

Kerosang

/Kerongsang

'Heart-shaped brooch'

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(source: Roots Singapore)
(source: Roots Singapore)
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(source: Roots Singapore)
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(source: Roots Singapore, Carousell/ @paperboxm)
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(source: Roots Singapore)
 

Contrary to popular belief, the Nonya Kebaya is more than a Malay costume even though it may have originated from the Malay Baju Panjang. The Nonya Kebaya is a product of trade and migration over centuries which resulted in the Peranakans ability to gather inspiration from these different influences, turning it into a traditional outfit they can call their own.

 

Follow along on this journey! 

Baju Panjang i

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Nonyas originally wore the Baju Panjang which is a Malay traditional outit. The Baju Panjang consists of a long, loose-fitting tunic and a sarong bottom.

 

1800s

Baju Panjang ii

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 This Baju Panjang experimented with different fabrics that were made available during colonisation. While the overall form of the Baju Panjang remained the same, these were more vibrant and experimented with sheer and opaque looks.

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1920s

Kebaya Renda marks the first time the term 'Kebaya'  was used on the traditional clothing. Kebaya Renda is the Portuguese word for lace. Lace was imported by the Europeans during colonisation, considered as material worn by the elite in social status.

Kebaya Renda

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1880s

Kebaya Biku introduced simple embroideries to the Kebaya top to match with the printed fabric designs of the Kebaya. 'Biku' is the Malay term for patterned or sewn edges, a notable feature of Kebaya Biku. 

Kebaya Biku

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Kebaya Sulam is the version of the Nonya Kebaya we are all familiar with today. It is a culmination of the different influences Peranakans engaged in over centuries reflected in their unique traditional outfit. 

 

Kebaya Sulam

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1930s

1950s to Present

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Modernised Kebayas

Singapore's last traditional Nonya Kebaya maker  Raymond Wong  proves that the Nonya Kebaya can be timeless with his modern takes on the traditional outfit.

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View some modern works here↘︎

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(Source: Raymond Wong & Rumah Kim Choo)

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In conversation with Singapore's last traditional Nonya Kebaya maker, we delve into the story of Raymond Wong and his love for the traditional outfit and its craft.

Our last maker

(Source: Raymond Wong & Rumah Kim Choo)