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Museum Musings: Modern Women of The Republic – Fashion and Change in China and Singapore

From 12th June to 12th December 2021, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) will be presenting its latest special exhibition, Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore, which uses fashion as a barometer of societal change to shed light on the changes in women’s status, roles and lifestyles since the late 19th century. The exhibition will display close to 100 artefacts and photographs, focusing on Chinese women’s clothing and accessories from China and Singapore that span almost a hundred years. 

Calendar produced by Shaw Organisation for month of February

Fashion was a means of self-expression for women from as far back as the late Qing period, through post-independence Singapore, and even till today. Whether it was loose-fitting robes, form-fitting cheongsams or “civilised new outfits”, the stylistic evolution of women’s clothing reflects social and political changes that took place over the century and also shapes what we now know as the “modern woman” and her roles in society.

This cheongsam features handmade buttons made out of silk fabric and a diagonal ren-front which extends to the under-arm on either side and resembles the Chinese character “ren” (人, “human being”). The period from the 1920s to the 1940s was regarded as the golden age of the cheongsam. Collection of Mr. Hok Pui Leung and Mrs. Sally Yu Leung.

By examining the changes in women’s fashion during this period, SYSNMH hopes to trace the rise of the “modern woman” in China and Singapore. It also hopes to examine the various factors that shape our understanding of what constitutes a “modern woman”. It does this over three separate sections – from charting political changes in society from the 1890s to the 1930s, to covering the evolving notion of a modern woman from the 1930s to the 1960s, and finally to exploring how fashion empowered working women in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

Photograph of Soong Ching-ling with her mother (early Republican period). Reproduced with permission from The Museum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Cuiheng China. Soong is wearing an ao (blouse-jacket) over pants, an attire typically worn by Han girls in the late Qing dynasty. During the early years of the Republican period, women continued to wear Chinese-style outfits as they were still regarded as bastions of tradition and culture.

The exhibition begins in the 1890s to 1930s, with Charting Change Through Fashion. The early years after the founding of the new Chinese Republic were fraught with political turmoil and uncertainty, accompanied by anxieties about what constituted “ideal womanhood”. The government of the time made big strides towards abolishing practices such as the binding of feet and breasts, whilst female education developed and ignited the concept of the “modern woman” and her role. This section traces changing fashion trends at that time which sheds light on the social and political changes that took place during the creation of a modern society.

Embroidered wedding blouse and skirt set worn by Tan Kah Kee’s daughter on her wedding day (1928) Malacca, Malaya. Courtesy of National Museum of Singapore, Gift of Mdm Chan Poh Choo

This set of wedding clothes was worn by Mdm Tan Lay Choo, the sixth daughter of prominent community leader Tan Kah Kee. The top with large trumpet sleeves had elements of the then fashionable “civilised new outfit”, while the skirt had Western-style buttons. The butterfly and flower motifs embroidered on smooth satin embodied wishes for the couple to enjoy a harmonious and fruitful marriage. This bridal ensemble was tailored by tailors in China and sent to Malacca for the wedding.

Photograph of Soong Ching-ling with her mother (early Republican period). Reproduced with permission from The Museum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Cuiheng China

In this photo, Soong is wearing an ao (blouse-jacket) over pants, an attire typically worn by Han girls in the late Qing dynasty. During the early years of the Republican period, women continued to wear Chinese-style outfits as they were still regarded as bastions of tradition and culture.

Advertisement poster for “Gold Bar Hatamen” brand of cigarettes (1930s) The model spots fashionably permed hair, wears a fitted cheongsam, and is seated in front of a Western-style dressing table. She espouses the ideal of the “modern woman” in her confidence and her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. Collection of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

In the second segment, the 1930s to 60s are covered in Imagining the Ideal Modern Woman. The proliferation of print media from the 1930s onwards encouraged the growth of fashion consciousness and experimentation amongst women then. Fashion magazines, advertisements and pictorials continuously sparked consumer desires, tested society’s acceptance of new ideas, and embedded the idea of “modernity” into all aspects of daily life. 

Advertisement for Gold Spot brand of cigarettes in Lat Pao (1930). Singapore. Reproduced with permission of Special Collections, National University of Singapore Libraries

This cigarette advertisement portrays a man and woman socialising in public while enjoying a smoke. The woman is wearing a blouse with puffed sleeves and a short pleated skirt. The legs of the woman are fully exposed from knee down, which would have been considered scandalous just a decade before. The advertisement also illustrates society’s new attitudes towards love and courtship.

Nanyang Radio Weekly (1952) Singapore
Collection of Mr. Su Zhang Ka

Take for example the depictions of women in weekly magazine Nanyang Radio Weekly, with covers that often featured popular stars and radio personalities. This issue on display features Huang Xia, a popular 1950s getai star in Singapore, in a one-piece strapless swimsuit. The Chinese previously considered swimsuits as scandalous because they were skin-tight and revealing. From the mid-20th century, swimsuits became more acceptable in Singapore as they were featured more regularly in the print media and beauty pageants.

Nanyang Monthly (1961) Singapore. Collection of Mr. Yung Sai-Shing. Featuring a woman dressed in fashionable clothes with her car parked in front of the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. The car symbolises women’s increased social mobility and independence. 1961 also marks the year when the Women’s Charter was passed in Singapore.

In the third and final section, Dressing Modern Working Women in Singapore, the exhibition examines the growing economic empowerment amongst women, with more joining the workforce and gaining financial independence from the 1950s. As they took on their new and more public roles, women became more conscious of how they groomed and presented themselves in public, and this led to a boom in the beauty and fashion industries in Singapore.

Photograph of female workers in Tancho Corporation Limited factory at Little Road (1967). Singapore. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Much of this can be attributed to the early day of independence and the high rate of unemployment. To counter this, the government turned to export-oriented labour-intensive industries and successfully attracted investments through a slew of free and open economic policies. In this photograph, the female workers are packaging the Japanese product, “Tancho Hair Cream”. They are spotting fashionably permed short hair which is a practical choice for working women at that time as such a hairstyle is relatively low-maintenance.

Beige Western-style dress (1970s). Singapore. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Fashion increasingly became a part of the social consciousness, with this Beige Western-style dress similar to the “New Look” design popularised by Christian Dior in 1947. Its cinched waist flatters a woman’s figure and accentuates her femininity. The rise of Singapore as a hub for textiles in the region in the 1960s also meant that local women could buy imported fabrics and Western-style clothing at affordable prices. As Singapore became increasingly exposed to Western culture and fashion trends through films and television, such one-piece dresses with an A-line skirt became highly popular among young working women.

Publicity poster for Tan Lee Che Chiu

Says Ms Tan Yan Ni, assistant curator at SYSNMH: “Fashion, besides being a form of self-expression, is often a reflection of the times. This is why we chose fashion as a medium to tap into broader conversations, to discuss women’s multi-faceted and ever-changing roles across history, and how their contributions are integral to the political, social and economic development of a society.

“It is also timely for us to explore this topic as 2021 is the Year of Celebrating SG Women, and we hope to spark off more discussions amongst Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today.”

– Ms Tan Yan Ni, assistant curator at SYSNMH

Modern Women of The Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore runs from 12th June to 12th December 2021 at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. More information available here

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