Just as Malaysia’s multi-cultural population is reflected in its art, architecture, cuisine, festivals and customs, so is it reflected in its fashions. Any crowd in Kuala Lumpur is an interesting mix of sari, cheong sam, busana Muslim, western dress, as well as stunning, uniquely Malaysian fashions like the baju batik, the baju kebaya, the baju kurung and the baju kebarung.
The centuries-old trade with India, China, the countries of mainland South-East Asia and the Indonesian Archipelago contributed greatly to the development of Malaysia’s clothing traditions. Along with textiles such as silk from China and cotton from India, techniques of decoration printing and dyeing were passed along these ancient trade routes; techniques like embroidery, appliqué, beading, and, most importantly, the Batik method of wax printing that has become a hallmark of Malaysian fabric design.
Historically the baju, or sarong type skirt was the main attire for both men and women. With it, women wore a kemban or bodice wrap. However, in the 1900s it was deemed inappropriate by the Muslim Sultan of Jahore and thereafter women began to wear the Kurung, or long-sleeved matching tunic, with the baju. The resulting ensemble, now known as the baju kurung has evolved constantly over the years. Today’s model is a floor-length sarung and matching long-sleeved tunic made of silk and worn with a colour co-ordinated selandang, or headscarf. It still has the traditional round neck edged with a distinctive “eel-bone” embroidery stitch. Colours vary according to the fashions and tastes of the particular times. The baju kurung is the most typically Malaysian national dress.
The sarung kebaya, or sarong with blouse, is another of the older forms of traditional dress. Traditionally the kebaya was worn with a sarong of floral patterned-cotton batik, hemmed into a cylindrical shape, which the wearer stepped into. It was then folded left to right, tucked in and worn with a silver or gold chain belt. Beautiful examples of modern sarung kebaya can be seen in the uniforms of the hostesses on Malaysia Airlines.
The kebaya was adopted and adapted by the Nyonya women of the Peranaken (Straits Chinese) community. The Nyonya kebaya was a long-sleeved blouse made of diaphanous fabric, pleated above and below the breast. In the 1940s the Kebaya Sulam or embroidered kebaya appeared. It was made of silk, voile or kain rubiah, its borders were embroidered with silk thread of various colours, or appliquéd with lace and it was fastened with a keransong or chain of three brooches. Kebaya of the later forties and fifties had even more elaborate embroidery with cut through lace-work and tee too bang or spider web lace. The original Nyonya kebaya was a work of art, a creation of timeless beauty, translucent, figure-hugging, elegant and feminine.
Today descendents of the Nyonya continue to craft these beautiful kebaya in the tradition of their grandmothers. Made of voile or kasar robia, non-iron Georgette or Shantung, they still have the authentic, narrow, slimming Princess cut back and French seams. Modern technology now allows for a greater range of patterns and motifs such flowers, butterflies and insects. It has also made the process of embroidery faster and easier but even so, a Kebaya is still a time intensive labour of love and the price reflects this.
Sadly, the kebaya has now fallen out of favour as a public garment and is reserved for festive and formal occasions within the home.
The baju kebarung is a combination of the the baju kebaya and the baju kurung. In the 1950s they were made in subdued pastel colours but today’s baju kebarung are in bold vibrant silks with large floral patterns and matching headscarves. The Baju kebarung is the feminine fashion of choice at Ramadan, when most Malaysian ladies will head for the shops to buy a new outfit to wear to family gatherings. At public functions, it is recommended dress. The Baju kebarung is worn by Chinese, Indian and Malay alike and has become a unifying symbol of Malaysian women.
In an age where business suits, jeans and t shirts seem to be colonizing the world, it is refreshing to walk among the vibrant, colourful, feminine and diverse fashions of Malaysia.