Brunei Darussalam is one of the nations bidding to nominate the kebaya for inscription onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity. As a small nation with a vibrant, very present, and celebrated culture and history, Brunei sure knows and understands the value of preserving cultural heritage. The other nations alongside Brunei are its neighbours in the Southeast Asian region — Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.
Brunei and its neighbouring three countries have come together to work in harmony about the kebaya’s nomination, as the kebaya is representative of much of the region’s shared culture and history. As the unique traditional garment common to many of these countries with their own wonderfully diverse variations, the kebaya celebrates and promotes cross-cultural bonding.
Experts believe that the word “kebaya” comes from the Arabic word qaba, which means clothing. It may have further borrowed from the Portuguese cabaya. Worn by women in Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, a kebaya is a traditional tunic-like upper garment with long sleeves and an open front usually secured with brooches. Made from a range of materials and fabrics, kebayas are often colourful and intricately embroidered.
Whether you take the iconic nyonya kebaya or the popular Javanese kebaya, the beautiful cultural apparel has secured a lasting place in the region’s sartorial history, culture, and society. While the earliest variation of the kebaya is believed to originate back in the 15th century, it grew highly fashionable only in the 20th century, becoming one of the most long-lasting traditional garments in the region today. In fact, it is still worn to this day in some regions and communities. Traditionally, the kebaya is worn with a kemban torso wrap and a sarong wrapped about the hips.
Brunei and the other countries expressing their support invite the other nations to nominate the kebaya as well. The nomination will be submitted in March 2023, with the result expected to be declared a year later in 2024.