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-By Ankita Dutta

A tiny crew of seamstresses work at noisy sewing machines at a Malaysian boutique, embellishing kebayas, the customary blouses donned by women all around Southeast Asia, with vibrant flowers and foliage. According to Lim Yu Lin, who co-manages the family business her grandmother began in 1955, kebayas are unique since they are donned by women of every ethnicity in a varied region.

The kebaya has been jointly nominated for the prestigious UN list of intangible cultural heritage by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and Thailand, with a decision anticipated in 2024. The beautifully embroidered shirt typically has long sleeves, comes in loose-fitting to semi-transparent, figure-hugging designs, and is perfect for hot tropical climates. A cheap machine-made kebaya can be purchased for as little as $7, while a more elaborate handcrafted one can run as high as $1,200.

National attire for women After gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1945, Indonesia chose the centuries-old kebaya as its symbol. Soerastri Karma Trimurti, a writer and activist for independence, honoured the new nation’s cultural heritage by attending the proclamation event while dressed in a kebaya. She later rose to become the nation’s first labour minister. The blouse later gained popularity thanks to Malaysian actresses in movies. The national airlines of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia also took influence from it for their attire. Kebayas were typically worn at weddings and other formal occasions, but fans are wearing them more frequently now.

Charmaine Neo, 36, a woman from Singapore, said the outfit is appropriate for ladies of all ages and that she wears it to family gatherings. In Indonesia, 49-year-old Telly Nathalia claimed that she made the decision to start wearing a kebaya every day while on vacation with friends in the Central Java area. She saw it as a means to engage with the past of her nation.

Their culture is a part of who they are. Both men and women used to wear the kebaya, which is thought to have its roots in the Middle East. Southeast Asia has seen the development of over a dozen different styles, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Yeo Kirk Siang, a senior director at Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB), which produced a kebaya exhibition in April as a result of the UNESCO nomination, described the kebaya as a traditional women’s clothing that has developed over time. The traditional blouse, according to Singaporean fashion designer Oniatta Effendi, is a representation of cultural history.