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Malaysia's Fashion Heritage - Kebaya Nyonya

(2 November 2002)

 

Click on covers above to enlarge.

When the Nyonyas first donned the baju panjang, the long, Arab-inspired top made of woven cotton (known in Arabic as habaya), little did they know that the garment would become the Malaysian fashion icon that it is today. Through the years, the progeny of those first ladies have creatively taken the best of influences around them and adapted this garment. Unwittingly or not, they have taken a costume that was once traditional, plain and have straight in cut, and turned it into a shapely, decorative work of sensual art. This evolution was in part facilitated by the availability of new fabrics. With the advent of softer and synthetically colored voile, the baju panjang gradually evolved into more comfortable garment as compared to her highly starched predecessor. With the hot climate and their exposure to European blouses and lace, the practical Nyonyas shortened the dress top to hip length and enhanced its beauty with lace trimming along the fringes of the tunic.

This became the kebaya (be)rendah. Attracted by the colorful Nyonyas picked up their embroidery needles and multi-hued treads and sought to carry the patterns from the sarongs over onto the top. Thus was born the embroidered voile kebaya.

Initial pieces were painstakingly and lovingly hand-embroidered but this process was later quickened with the appearance of sewing machines. Such fine handiwork - usually with one-off designs that made them exclusively to the owner - became the pride of the wearer. Most of the embroidered motifs were repetitive and adapted from either single or an assortment of flowers, insects, fishes or fruits while some were thematic and based on certain festivities such as weddings, Easter and other festivities. The main motifs were further highlighted when set against an intricate web-like base of time-consuming embroidered cut-work. Heavily embroidered kebayas are worn during festive gatherings while simple scallop-edged ones are for daily activities. Brightly colored fabric and exuberant embroidery are said to suit younger maidens while older womenfolk prefer more subdued tones. White, blue or green ones are reserved for mourning or to attend wakes.

This lovely piece of art is traditionally worn with matching batek kerosang. Sadly, the artisans producing these lovely kebayas are diminishing as tastes and fashions change. With this in mind, YA Bhg Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, wife of Deputy Prime Minister YAB Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has been collecting them over the past decade and has taken the liberty to record these cultural treasures for posterity in her book entitled The Nyonya Kebaya. It is hoped that with this book, interest in this cultural heritage of ours will be rejuvenated and interest in wearing the Nyonya kebaya rekindled.



Technical Details

Date of Issue 02 November 2002
Denomination 30 sen (2 Designs), 50 sen (2 Designs)
Stamp Size 28.46mm X 42.58mm
Miniature Sheet Denomination RM2.00
Miniature Sheet Size 70mm X 100mm
Stamp Size in Miniature Sheet 35mm X 70mm
Perforation 13
Sheet Content 10 stamps
Paper SPM Watermarked, Phosphor Coated
Printing Process Lithography

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