Singapore, Sarong Kebaya and Style: Peranakan Fashion

Discover the style of the Perakanans – a hybrid of interactions between people from Asia and Europe

National Heritage Board, Singapore

Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka & The Shoto Museum of Art, Tokyo

Installation view "Singapore, Sarong Kebaya and Style: Peranakan Fashion"National Heritage Board, Singapore

Sarong, Kebaya and Style

2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Singapore-Japan diplomatic relations. On this occasion, an exhibition entitled Singapore, Sarong Kebaya and Style: Peranakan Fashion in an Interconnected World was jointly organised by Fukuoka Art Museum, the Shoto Museum of Art, and Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, with Peter Lee, an expert on Peranakan culture, as guest curator. 

Installation view "Singapore, Sarong Kebaya and Style: Peranakan Fashion"National Heritage Board, Singapore

The exhibition

A showcase of 136 items including various sarong, kebaya, Indian chintz robes, jewellery, and beaded sandals.

Tunic and Sarong (1900 - 1910s / 1890s - 1910s.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Evolving from Sarasa and Indian Ocean style

At Asia's ports, people of various ethnicities had already been interacting dynamically for centuries before Portuguese ships started arriving. Once Portugal occupied Goa, India in 1510, the Portuguese colonial network extended across a region stretching from India to the eastern end of the Malay Archipelago. 

Ceremonial robe (kawai). 18th century.National Heritage Board, Singapore

The baju and kebaya

Among the Peranakan garments presented in this exhibition, the upper garments are known as baju and kebaya.

Sarong (Late 18th or early 19th century)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The sarong, kain panjang and ebaya panjang

The lower garments for half of the body are called sarong (a long tubular skirt) and kain panjang (meaning "long upper garment") or, kebaya panjang. These were made by cutting pieces of batik fabric in straight lines and sewing them together.

Kebaya and sarong (1950s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The kebaya and sarong

A nyonya kebaya is typically identified as a sheer blouse, made using lightweight fabric.

It is a large length of fabric sewn together to form a wide tube. The sarong is worn by both men and women in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Baju panjang and sarong (Late 19th or early 20th century.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The collar

The collar extends from the back of the neck down to the hems on either side of the front body. The sleeves are narrow and tubular, and gussets are added under the arms.

Tunic and Sarong (1900 - 1910s / 1890s - 1910s.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Garments in this style are worn extensively across the Indian Ocean region, and there are many surviving examples made with Indian sarasa (calico).

Baju panjang and sarong (Late 19th or early 20th century)National Heritage Board, Singapore


The preference for this pattern continued until the 19th century, and its legacy persisted afterwards through the patterns of Indonesian batik. During this era, batik artisans used natural dyes, with a limited number of colours.

Peranakan Girl. Singapore, ca. 1860s.National Heritage Board, Singapore

19th century: Daily fashion of Peranakan women

The batik baju panjang was widely worn by Peranakan women in the late 19th century. The fabric often came in subdued shades with checkered patterns, or coloured with natural dyes.

An Eurasian family (ca. 1920s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Lace and Colonial Aesthetics

The words kebaya and baju, both meaning "upper garment", were not strictly differentiated and were sometimes used interchangeably, with the same garment referred to as either kebaya or baju, depending on the region. The white upper garments extending down to the waist discussed in this section are manly referred to as kebaya. In the Dutch East Indies during the mid-19th century, wearing an outfit consisting of a white lace kebaya and a luxurious batik sarong was regarded as a privilege of European and Eurasian women. While these white kebaya had a different look, they are structurally the same as the baju panjang. 

Eurasian woman and her daughter (ca. 1890 - 1900)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The mid-19th century ones in particular featured a loose-fitting body and gussets under the arms, like the baju panjang. Afterwards, the kebaya gradually became a tighter, more form-fitting garment.

Kebaya, 1860s - 1890s. Sarong, ca. 1880s.National Heritage Board, Singapore

Lace and Batik Belanda

A notable feature of the white kebaya worn by European and Eurasian women was its elegant lace ornamentation. 

During this era, while European and Eurasian women who preferred to wear white kebaya shifted to European-style clothing, Peranakan women began to wear white kebaya.

Kebaya and sarong (1880s - 1910s / 1880s.) by J. JansNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Kebaya and sarong
(1880s - 1910s / 1880s.)

Child's kebaya and sarong (1890s - 1910s.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Child's kebaya and sarong
(1890s - 1910s.)

Kebaya and Sarong (1890s - 1910 / 1890s.) by Eliza van ZuylenNational Heritage Board, Singapore

The craft of lacework came to Asia by way of Goa, India in the 16th and 17th century, and became popular among the local people of southern India, Sri Lanka, and Malacca.

Kebaya and Kain panjang (a. 1900 / 1900-10.) by Eliza van ZuylenNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Accompanying the development of more luxurious kebaya decorated with lace, around this time a new style of batik known as batik Belanda ("Dutch batik") was created, featuring ornate patterns such as bouquets of flowers.

Kebaya and sarong (1890 - 1910 / 1900-1920.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

European, Eurasian, Javanese and Peranakan batik artists took part in the creation of batik Belanda designs, where batik artisans drew in wax on cloth.

Kebaya and Sarong (1890s - 1910s / 1890s.) by Eliza van ZuylenNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Kebaya and Sarong
(1890s - 1910s / 1890s.)
by Eliza van Zuylen.

Blouse (lian lah por tay sah) and Sarong (1910s - 1920s /1920s - 1930s) by Oei Khing LiemNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Developing Modern Identities with Fashion: New Relationships with the Homeland

At the beginning of the 20th century, the effects of turmoil surrounding the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912) extended to the Chinese Peranakan. The Chinese nationalist movement that swept the Chinese mainland in the first half of the 20th century, fomenting revolution, was carried directly over to Singapore. Caught between the upheaval in their ancestral homeland of China and their identities as British subjects, the Peranakans were forced to take a stand of some sort, either finding a way to maintain and weave together their allegiances to both empires, or else showing strict loyalty to one or the other. They responded to the dilemma in many different ways. 

When dressing, women chose strategically from a range of apparel options: baju panjang, lace kebaya favoured by European and Eurasian women, traditional Chinese costume, or Western-style clothing. While some women continued to adhere to one particular style, others dressed in different styles depending on the circumstance and the occasion.

A wide range of factors influenced fashion, and new elements were incorporated into the baju and kebaya, resulting in developments such as the baju peki with a mandarin collar – resembling the Chinese garment known as duanshan. In addition, white lace kebaya, a tradition inherited from European and Eurasian women, came to be decorated with dragons or kirin (a Chinese mythical animal) in embroidery or appliqué. Elegant duanshan in European organdie, with hand-embroidered decorations, were referred to in the southern Chinese Hokkien dialect as "lace fabric duanshan". Peranakan women also wore stylish Chinese qipao and cheongsam, which at the time were popular as an international fashion trend in Japan as well.

Two nyonyas (ca. 1920s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Nyonya is a term commonly used today to describe a Peranakan Chinese woman. Derived from the Portuguese word "nonha", the Malay term nyonya originally described women of European or mixed blood.

Nyonya in sarong (ca. 1915)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The Excitement of Technological Innovation: Printed Fabrics and New Dyes

In the late 19th century, baju panjang were dyed in sober shades, but in the 1910s, the wave of modernisation struck its design in the form of organdie, a cotton fabric from Europe. As an extremely thin, sheer variety of muslin, organdie has been used for women's clothing and hats since the 19th century. During the 19th century the technology of roller printing made great strides, and resulted in the development of new dyes. Once the first synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, there was an explosion in the number of dye types. Peranakan women were fascinated by the vividly coloured floral patterns of organdie that arrived from Europe.

Baju panjang and sarong (1940s - 1950s) by Oh Ju MayNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Baju Panjang

Having glamorous organdie baju panjang made was an exclusive privilege amongst young women. Among textile retailers, many of whom were Indian, organdie was known as kasa, after a centuries old Indian organdie known as kasa (meaning 'gauze'). The Peranakan women sang the praises of transparent organdie, calling it 'kasa gelair' ("glass-like organdie"). By acquiring splendid colours, baju panjang came to be suitable for pairing with vividly-coloured, high-priced batik handmade on the north coast of Java. Then, in the 1930s, further varieties of colour flooded both sarong and baju panjang, and the introduction of German chemical dyes produced a range of brilliant yet nuanced neutral tones into the production of batik.

Baju panjang and kain panjang pagi sore (1940s - 1950s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

It is short tunic with a v-shaped opening for the head. Islamic in origin, the baju was worn throughout Southeast Asia.

Robe (pashu aingyi shay) and Sarong (1930s - 1950s / 1930s.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Baju panjang is a longer version of the Baju, favoured by Peranakan women in the 19th century.

Kebaya and sarong (1910s /1920-1925) by Njonja Tang Sing IngNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Kebaya and sarong
(1910s /1920-1925)
by Njonja Tang Sing Ing

Kebaya and kain panjang pagi sore (1950s) by NjooTjoen Bie, Nyonya Njoo Gwi LienNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Modernity in Colour and Machine-made Artistry

Kebaya had long been decorated with hand-knitted bobbin lace or hand-sewn embroidery. In the 20th century, kebaya became increasingly luxurious and glamorous, and came to cover an ever larger area of the body. Through the introduction of European organdie, baju panjang also took on glamorous printed patterns with vivid, brilliant colours. 

Kebaya and kain panjang (1920s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The final innovation in the technologically-driven evolution of the sarong kebaya was the introduction of machine embroidery. Previously, hand-sewn cutwork was carried out to create the patterns of hand-made lace attached to kebaya, but after World War II, a rise in the price of lace led to the adoption of machine embroidery that mimicked lace.

Kebaya (1910-30 / 1920s.) by Phoa Tjong LingNational Heritage Board, Singapore

With the introduction of the sewing machine, cutwork did not require as much time as with hand sewing, and it became possible to produce beautiful kebaya completely covered with lace in a manner that could not have been hoped for during the hand-sewing era.

Kebaya and sarong (1950s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Seeking to produce more striking patterns and more intense colours, manufacturers increased the size of decorative motifs, and more colourful embroidery threads were used. The sarong overflowed with vivid colours as well.

Kebaya, kain panjang pagi sore and sarong (1930 - 1940) by Oey Soe TjoenNational Heritage Board, Singapore

Meanwhile, the development of chemical dyes gave the sarong spectacular colors that would have been inconceivable in the past.

Blouse (lian lah por tay sah) and Sarong (1910s - 1920s /1920s - 1930s) by Oei Khing LiemNational Heritage Board, Singapore

However, just when the sarong kebaya reached a new pinnacle of beauty, the abrupt adoption of Western-style clothing brought an end to the evolution of this distinctive style of dressing.

Three generations of a Peranakan family (ca. 1930s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

The women are all dressed in fashionable kebayas with tapered ends. The men, typically, are in Western suits and ties.

A beauty pageant queen in sarong kebaya (1950s.)National Heritage Board, Singapore

A beauty pageant queen dressed in sarong kebaya

Kebaya and kain panjang pagi sore (1950s) by NjooTjoen Bie, Nyonya Njoo Gwi LienNational Heritage Board, Singapore

For many years, hand-sewn cut work was carried out to create the patterns of hand-made lace that is attached to the kebaya, but after World War II a rise in the price of lace led to the adoption of machine embroidery that mimicked hand-made lace.

Kebaya and kain panjang pagi sore
(1950s) by NjooTjoen Bie, Nyonya Njoo Gwi Lien

Kebaya and sarong (1950s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Kebaya and sarong

Nyonya Penang (ca. 1920s)National Heritage Board, Singapore

Modernity is expressed at different levels by the short bob and clutch, and also by the latest sewing-machine-embroidered kebayas, that pinned lower at the collar – which would also suggest a Western-style camisole was worn. The jewelled kerosangs have become so light that they almost cannot be seen.

Credits: Story

We would like to extend our sincere appreciation to the following individuals for their generous cooperation and support towards the opening of the exhibition:

Iwanaga Etsuko
Dick Lee
Peter Lee
Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee
Evelyn Lim
Agnes Tan Kim Lwi

Sponsored by:
Agnes Tan Kim Lwi (Singapore)
Helu-Trans (S) Pte Ltd
Light Editions
Singapore Tourism Board

Supported by: Wonder Asia Pte Ltd

Official Airline: Singapore Airlines

Website: John Teo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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