As I was showing a guest around the hotel today I happened upon a special site. Two elegant ladies dressed in the traditional Peranakan outfit, the Sarong Kebaya. The Sarong Kebaya is an image that resonates strongly with the Singapore culture.
The Peranakan, with whom the Sarong Kebaya originated, are descendants of an early Chinese community that settled in the Malay Archipelago. Many members of the early community were seafarers who traded between the ports of southern China and those of Southeast Asia. They also worked as compradores (Chinese middlemen) for British and Dutch companies during the Colonial era. What makes the Peranakan traditions so unique are that they posses elements from Chinese, Malay and even Colonial British cultures!
The word Sarong is from Malay and translates to “sheath.” These large pieces of fabric are tied and worn like a skirt. The fabric can be very ornate and has a very specific method of tying. It was customary for both women and men to wear sarongs. However, these days it is more common for women to wear them in public.
The Kebaya is the blouse, which is worn over the Sarong. The word Kebaya actually has Arab roots, but is part of our region’s traditional attire. The blouse is typically made of sheer material and buttons in the front. It is often figure flattering.
While the Sarong Kebaya is not worn as frequently as it once was, it is still very central to our society. In fact, Singapore Airlines flight attendants wear specially designed Sarong Kebayas as their uniforms!
If you have a chance to visit Capella Singapore there is currently an exhibit at the Peranakan Museum that traces the history of this beautiful and time-honored attire.