Fashion exhibition traces rise of the modern woman

Above, left: A wedding cheongsam worn by Madam Tan Lay Choo, the sixth daughter of prominent community leader Tan Kah Kee. Above, right: Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall assistant director Angela Ye (right) and assistant curator Tan Yan Ni. Ms Tan h
Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall assistant director Angela Ye (right) and assistant curator Tan Yan Ni. Ms Tan hopes the exhibition will spark more discussions among Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Cheongsams found in Singapore, such as one that is reminiscent of the Malay kebaya and others that use batik.
Cheongsams found in Singapore, such as one that is reminiscent of the Malay kebaya and others that use batik. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Enter the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the first thing visitors will see is an opulent Qing Dynasty ao, or blouse-jacket.

It is loose-fitting and long, almost negating the wearer. The individual is less important than the embroidered symbols on the garment, mostly squirrels and grapes, which signify fertility.

Compare this with a beige, cinched-waist dress found in Singapore in the 1970s, also on display. Its A-line skirt flatters a woman's figure and accentuates her femininity.

While a sign of Western influence on Asian women's clothes - the design can be traced back to Christian Dior in 1947 - it also attests to the contemporary women's need to be mobile.

Unlike their predecessors, they were no longer primarily confined to the home.

Such comparisons can be viewed from Saturday at the special exhibition, Modern Women Of The Republic: Fashion And Change In China And Singapore, which seeks to trace "the rise of the modern woman" through clothes.

Close to 100 artefacts, including 13 impressive garments, many sourced from private collectors, will be on display.

The exhibition covers the period between the 1890s and 1970s, and is for those interested in fashion or history.

"Fashion, besides being a form of self-expression, is often a reflection of the times," said the museum's assistant curator, Ms Tan Yan Ni.

"This is why we chose fashion as a medium to tap into broader conversations, to discuss how women's contributions are integral to the political, social and economic development of a society.

"We hope to spark more discussions among Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today."


A wedding cheongsam worn by Madam Tan Lay Choo, the sixth daughter of prominent community leader Tan Kah Kee. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

A significant part of the exhibition focuses on an exploration of the cheongsam, itself a reaction against the Qing Dynasty ao.

Slender and tight-fitting, it was seen as a more modernised style of dress for the "civilised woman".

The variety of cheongsams on display makes clear, however, that there was no one type, with tailors and women adapting collars, buttons and seams to suit their shifting tastes and occupations.

Photos taken in the 1920s show women in China wearing high heels - a Western import - with high-slit cheongsams.

Some posed for the photos without looking at the camera, or on horseback, injecting a sense of fun - and agency - into previously dull portraits.

Three cheongsams found in Singapore reveal how women here adapted the Chinese garment.

One green, sleeveless cheongsam with a matching lace jacket is reminiscent of the Malay kebaya. Another uses batik, a South-east Asian fabric, pairing it with a Western-style cropped jacket.

Curators also included a section on Shanghai posters and fashion magazine covers, showing how models and actresses gradually became fashion icons, rather than mere commodified accessories to sell products.

A section profiling Ms Teo Soon Kim, the first female lawyer to win a case in the Singapore Supreme Court, in 1932, drives home the feminist message, writing women into a historically male-dominated profession.

The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall said the period covered by the exhibition is particularly interesting as there were great political and social upheavals then.

For instance, the binding of feet and breasts was abolished, while female education developed, letting more women into the workplace.

To increase the novelty factor of the exhibition, the museum has also teamed up with Swiss perfumery Givaudan to create a scent, named Osmanthus Breeze, that will permeate the venue.

It should smell like the cosmetic products used by the older generation and be particularly evocative for them, the museum added.

A mobile function has also been developed so people can take a selfie and have their photo superimposed on vintage Shanghai posters, which they can then share on social media.

The exhibition will be open from 10am to 5pm from Tuesdays to Sundays. Admission is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2021, with the headline 'Fashion exhibition traces rise of the modern woman'. Subscribe