We didn’t wear any kebayas , to start with,” said Asmoro Damais, an avid collector and researcher of Indonesian traditional textiles and costumes. Outlining the background of this special traditional Indonesian blouse, she made her comments shortly after a lecture at an exhibition highlighting clothes worn by women in cities along the northern coast of Java during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Asmoro’s lecture “Traditional Costumes of the Coastal Areas,” was part of a three-day exhibition at Rumah Rakuji in South Jakarta last month that sought to explain the roots and traditions of the kebaya as we know them today.
“Traditionally, we only wore a piece of long cloth wrapped around the body, a girdle and a stole. That’s it,” Asmoro said.
The blouses were later introduced by traders and religious leaders from China and the Middle East who came to Java between the 13th and 19th centuries.
“But most people today are not aware that kebaya, as a fashion item, also followed certain trends and styles,” Asmoro said.
She said that when the kebaya was adopted by Chinese-Indonesian and Dutch women, the garment’s variations in color, cut and style grew as women introduced influences from their own cultural backgrounds and preferences.
“Starting from the mid-19th century, Dutch women living in Java started to wear kebaya and batik sarongs as home dresses,” she said. The women’s loose-fitting kebaya was usually enhanced with soft and intricate lace or embroidery around the edges. A plain cotton chemise was usually worn underneath the kebaya.
“Their kebayas were usually white and stiffly starched to perfection,” Asmoro said. “They would change several times during the day to ensure it remained crisp and immaculate.”
Dutch women also preferred brightly colored batik patterns of spring flowers and tulips, which only grew in Europe.
“They asked the batik painters to copy those flowers from postcards or magazine cuttings,” she said.
The kebaya came into fashion for Chinese-Indonesian women during the beginning of the 20th century. Before that time, first generation Chinese immigrants wore cheongsams (long gowns with Mandarin collars), while local women preferred loose, long tunics or coat-like blouses over batik sarongs.
“The Chinese-Indonesian ladies were very fashionable,” she said. “Their kebaya was always tight fitting and very colorful.”
Underneath the kebaya, women also wore a chemise, a cotton sash to hold the sarong, as well as a gilded gold or silver belt. At their feet were embroidered or beaded slippers.
“In Chinese-Indonesian communities, especially in coastal areas, all daughters had to be able to embroider or bead their own slippers, handbags and various other accessories,” Asmoro said. “A prospective mother-in-law would check; sloppy work would mean a sloppy housewife.”
The exhibition also highlighted the importance of the chemise, which was displayed at Rumah Rakuji in various colors and styles.
“The Chinese-Indonesian kutang [chemises] were different from the pristine white European chemises,” Asmoro said. They became fancier and fancier as their kebaya fabrics became more sheer.”
The intimate clothing items, with vibrantly colored patterns featuring birds, dragons, ducks and flowers, were displayed along the walls of the exhibition.
Each beautifully embroidered piece is buttoned down at the front and equipped with one or two little pockets for small change or keys.
Asmoro’s infatuation with the kebaya and other traditional costumes and textiles started at an early age.
Growing up in Jakarta, as the daughter of a French historian and a Javanese mother, the household was a continuous whirlwind of culture. But Asmoro fully realized her true love for Indonesian clothing and culture while living abroad.
“In Europe, I started to realize that Indonesia has a beautiful culture and I began to really appreciate it,” she said.
Her extensive traditional textiles and costumes collection started in 1972 when a friend’s aunt asked her to buy her family’s old clothes to help lift a financial burden. “She came with three suitcases full of old clothes,” she said.
When Asmoro heard the stories and history that came along with the pieces, she was smitten.
Her extensive collection of kebaya and batik is now on display at her residence in South Jakarta.
Full article by Sylviana Hamdani