Fashionpedia: A Tale on Kebaya Kartini

Maybe we don’t wear kebaya anymore on Kartini Day like when we were kids, but we can’t help but associate the special day with kebaya whenever we think about it.

Usually the kebaya worn wear during Kartini Day is the simple one, made out of cotton, with uncomplicated but pretty embroidery, just like what Kartini used back in the days. Very different with the tight fitting kebaya in lace or tulle, adorned with glamorous sequin, and worn with bustier.

During that period of time, even though most women wore kebaya, they didn’t just consider it as a piece of clothing, but also as a symbol.

“As a  symbol, the kebaya is laden with paradoxes: it has long come to symbolize the emancipation of women in Indonesia through a representation linking the kebaya to the 19thcentury “proto-feminist”  figure of Raden A. Kartini.  In an annual celebration commemorating the life of Kartini, young school girls across Java and other regions of Indonesia wear traditional costume, which include the kebaya. In this use of the kebaya, we see the blouse simultaneously representing both ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’.”

(Victoria Cattoni, Reading the Kebaya)

This description of simple kebaya, from the outstanding documentations, is a model of kebaya worn by noble women during the era of R.A. Kartini, which is why, known as ‘kebaya Kartini’. It was similar to another piece called ‘kebaya encim’. What is different between the two is that usually kebaya Kartini has folds on the collar, forming a vertical line through the front.

Another characteristics of kebaya Kartini:

  • Typically white, for everyday clothing. The velvety black for ceremonial occasions. Back then, clothing was only a matter of habit and culture of the time, not means to express themselves.
  • Considerably loose, no body hugging silhouette.
  • The fabric used is usually a non-transparent cotton, and fine cotton or silk for a special occasion.
  • Short to mid length, just long enough to cover the hip.
  • Symmetric and flat end.
  • Has a very simple collar (v shaped), usually high enough to cover most part of upper chest.
  • A brooch pinned to the chest part to fasten the blouse.

Based on the evolving history, the young Kartini era  – around the time when she was delivering the concerns of women emancipation and problems of her society, as outlined in letters to Mrs Abendanon in the Netherlands – is a glorious time for kebaya. Kebaya had enjoyed a period of being worn by Indonesian society, as well as European and Chinese immigrants with slight style variations. During this time, distinguishing class and status could be seen from the variants of the basic costume. The kebaya of Javanese royalty were constructed of silk, velvet and brocade; Javanese women belonging to the commoner class wore figured cottons; Specific pieces worn by upper class women also visibly traced like kebaya Kartini. Certain order known as ‘pakem’ began to take shape.

The images of kebaya Kartini above are quite different than those exhibited in modern kebaya today, with exquisite style, fabric and various ornaments. But we can say for sure that kebaya Kartini in its modesty and functionality is timeless. Even the style, the folding collar, can be embedded in a more modern textile.

How and what special occassion do you wear your kebaya Kartini?