Following Singapore’s fledgling independence, its largely migrant population was not concerned about fashion. Dressing up was a luxury afforded only by the wealthy. The wealthy had access to education in the West and hence favoured their way of living and clothing. The poor, however, continued to dress in traditional clothing that was telling of their Malay, Chinese or Indian heritages. In that way, Singapore did not have a national costume or style then.
The nascent years of the 1960s decade, however, were a great time for women in Singapore: women were finally able to vote, the women’s charter was about to be passed into legislation, and fashion…was on the horizon.
The post-war years saw the newly minted social status of the Singaporean woman evolve to mould today’s fashion maven. For the first time, women were holding jobs and contributing to the economy. With their earning power, came spending power – and all in good time, given that an idea of the Singaporean lifestyle was just beginning to form then with the help of Western influence. Fashion preferences diversified as Singapore began to grow economically, quickly globalising as a hub for trade and broader cultural trends. These trends brought with them new tastes in fashion, phasing out the traditional loose-fitting Asian silhouette for the Western form-fitting style; cotton clothing making way for modern Western fabrics; magazines, as well as Hollywood’s and Hong Kong’s films becoming the quintessential guide for outfit coordination and beauty. Singaporean women were now an important group of consumers for the fashion and beauty industry.
Photograph of a young Chinese lady dressed in a cheongsam | c.1900-1930 | Lee Brothers Studio Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Portrait of a young bespectacled Chinese lady dressed in a simple cheongsam | c. 1900-1930 | Lee Brothers Studio Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Yet, traditional expectations of women dressing appropriately still loomed in society: the arrival of the miniskirt questioned the issue of modesty, but resourceful women found ways to adapt to the fashion trends and appease traditionalists. For example, the cheongsam was updated from its high collared, loose, ankle length form to a sleeker, fitted, sleeveless version with a high slits down both legs.
Separately, bold plastic jewellery such as earrings and necklaces stormed the scene in a myriad of bright colours. Wigs and hairpieces were worn frequently, twisted every way possible into knots, ponytails and bouffants. Cat-eye spectacles, and later oversized spectacles of various shapes and colours were also all the rage. Singaporean men at that time also took cues from Western trends – particularly, the hippie movement. Unfortunately, Singapore’s conservative nature landed men with long hair in trouble with the police, due to the association with hippies and drug-use.
A lady dressed in a long embroidered cheongsam | c.1984 | Direct Selling Association of Singapore Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Fashion show during centenary celebration dinner of Thai-Consulate General in Singapore held at Cathay Restaurant | c.1964 | Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
This decade saw the joint partnership of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines split in 1972, leaving Singapore to establish its own national airline: Singapore Airlines. For its overhaul, Singapore Airlines engaged French haute couture designer Pierre Balmain to design a new uniform for its cabin crew. In doing so, Balmain inadvertently created a national icon when he designed a kebaya in batik print to accompany a snug wrap skirt meant to be the sarong. The sartorial splendour of the sarong kebaya uniform, further accentuated by its hourglass shape and three-quarter sleeves, was an instant hit with the public, thanks to its femininity and fulfilment for the previous lack of ‘national identity’.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight stewardesses in their sarong kebayas designed by Pierre Balmain. The four different colours represents the difference in ranks -- (from right) blue for flight stewardess, green for leading stewardess, red for chief stewardess and burgundy for in-flight supervisor. | c.1990 | Singapore Airlines Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
Since Singapore’s independence, the creation of an outfit that married both the preservation our country’s ethnic influences and advent of modernity became an avenue to showcase national pride. Air stewardesses donning the uniform were christened the ‘Singapore Girl’ and the iconic image has stayed with the airline ever since. A wax figure of the Singapore Girl also joined the ranks of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London in 1994.
Singapore also caught the jeans fever when brands such as Levis and Wrangler arrived on our shores. Men and women alike were into bell-bottom jeans (today known as ‘bootcut’) that were slim pants that flared like a bell starting from the knees. Women were also introduced to the platform shoe craze that was taking the West by storm too.
Singapore’s passion for fashion reached a new high in the 80’s when Singapore realized its potential for success in the fashion industry. The government expanded business ventures to include annual exhibitions in Paris of Singaporean fashion designed by local designers. This prompted more designers to join the fashion industry, kick-starting a thriving scene for Singapore style. Concurrently, with the introduction of computers, technology played a key role as a medium through which fashionable influences from all over the world played out.
By then, fashion was fast becoming an economic powerhouse, so much so that shopping malls were being built with large departmental stores to cater to Singaporean styles. This underscored many things such as Singapore’s increasing affluence and standard of living; foreign interest in investment here (international brands) for the fashion industry; and further opportunities for homegrown brands to develop and showcase on an international stage.
The popular fashion of the 80’s saw indulgence in miniskirts, beaded necklaces, polka dots, neon leggings for women, big poofy hair, as well as bandanas and carefully manicured sideburns for men. It was all about bright colours and matching eye makeup, paired with crazy geometric prints and bold accessories.
A model from Singapore / Malaysia models local fashion wear in Netherlands | c.1985 | National Archives of Singapore
By this decade, traditional wear had taken a backseat, almost disappearing from the scene had it not have been for religious festivals, occasions and Racial Harmony Day.
Teachers and staff of Peicai Secondary School on Racial Harmony Day | c. 2015 | Ministry of Education’s Facebook Page
High fashion was quickly gaining clout in Singapore, already then priming us for today’s fashion capital status. Among its chic residents, big shoulder pads, blazers, a sweater to casually knot around your waist, and blouses or dresses with loud prints were the new must haves of the season. The reign of the mini skirt continued on into the 90s, while the men’s equivalent – the Bermuda shorts – followed suit as well.
The 2000s were very eclectic years that saw Singapore fashion emulating the West’s strange obsession with pairing denim on denim, skinny jeans, cropped tops, plastic bracelets and bands (remember Livestrong?), fringed clothes, fringed bags, fringed everything, fedoras, low slung baggy jeans that displayed the majority of a man’s boxers, shirts with sparkly rhinestones, cargo pants- you get the picture.
Although our climate doesn’t allow for us to indulge in fall or winter wear, Singapore has managed to hold its own on the global fashion runway. Attracting the attention of the likes of designers such as Diane von Fürstenberg and Victoria Beckham for our annual Singapore Fashion Week affair, and having ranked as eighth most fashionable capital in the world in 2011, and 14th most fashionable capital in the world in 2015 , Singapore continues to slay on the global fashion stage and appears to have staked its claim as a fashion powerhouse for the years to come.
By Gayathiri Chandramohan