Sarong Kebaya

by Peter Lee

This article was first published in BeMUSE, Volume 4, Issue 2, Apr to Jul 2011. BeMUSE is a quarterly publication by the National Heritage Board. Reprinted with the permission of the National Heritage Board.”

The early 20th century was the golden age of the Peranakan sarong kebaya, and in recent years the garment has experienced a major revival. Yet perhaps at no other moment has the sarong kebaya been so misunderstood. One of the most arresting images of Mediacorp’s hit television series Little Nyonya, set between the 1930s and the 1950s, was of the protagonist cooking up a feast in the kitchen. Simply but immaculately dressed in a sarong kebaya, she wore her hair neatly pulled up into a chignon. However, during that period, unmarried girls did not wear an expensive and delicate sarong kebaya into the kitchen, and chignons were only sported by their mothers and grandmothers, while they themselves preferred modern short crops, crimps and perms. And most of the batik sarongs shown in the series are of a type popular only in the late 1950s and 1960s. Such anachronisms are common – and have arisen because of the dearth of information on Peranakan fashion. A new exhibition at the Peranakan Museum from 1 April 2011 to 26 February 2012 aims to fill in the gaps.

Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its International Sources presents the historical and stylistic phases of the Peranakan sarong kebaya from the 1800s to 1950s. It reveals fascinating aspects about the origins of both components of the costume over five centuries. On display will be 131 objects, including 58 outfits presented in chronological sequence. Many of the cloths and kebayas belong to types that have never been published before, including rare treasures from the Peranakan Museum, from the collection of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee, and from three Dutch museums: the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden.

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Author: The Peranakan Association

The Peranakan Association Singapore was setup in 1900 “to afford facilities for the discussion of all questions relating to the social and moral welfare” of the Peranakan community.

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