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New fashion exhibit shows how women's roles changed in Singapore and China

The exhibit at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall opens on Jun 12 and features close to a hundred artefacts ranging from garments to posters.

New fashion exhibit shows how women's roles changed in Singapore and China

The exhibition titled Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore will be held at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. (Art: Jasper Loh)

There are many factors affecting how women dress themselves. Be it a new job or a lifestyle change, women’s clothing continue to accurately represent a country’s political, social and economic advancements.

And according to archival documents, women experienced the most significant changes from the late 1880s to the 1970s – at least in Singapore and China.

A new exhibit at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall is putting the spotlight on women and their key contributions to society by way of fashion and more.

Titled Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore, it opens on Saturday (Jun 12) and runs until Dec 12.

“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,” explained Tan Yan Ni, an assistant curator at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

A car was used in the backdrop to reflect women’s increased independence and social mobility. 1961 was also the year that the Women’s Charter was passed in Singapore. (Photo: Collection of Mr Yong Sai Sheng)

“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 among Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today,” Tan added.

Here's what you can expect from the three-part showcase.


Amid the uncertainty and turmoil faced by the citizens from the 1890s to the 1930s, the Chinese government called for a ban on the practice of foot and breast binding.

As the country embraced more freedom, more local tailors in China started to employ Westernised design elements on the cheongsam for a more fitting effect.

The women’s jacket-blouse features the “boys at play” motifs to reflect their preference for boys. (Photo: Collection of Mr. Hok Pui Leung and Mrs. Sally Yu Leung)

Known as the golden age of the cheongsam, the period from the 1920s to the 1940s was also the time the idea of a “modern woman” and her role was formed.

In a poster for a cigarette brand, the model wears a fitted cheongsam set in a Western-inspired dressing room – depicting the ideal life of a “modern woman”. (Photo: Collection of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall)
Dubbed the “civilized new outfit”, the structural blouse with satin embroidered details was worn by businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee’s daughter on her wedding day in Malacca in 1928. (Photo: Collection of National Museum of Singapore)
The front opening of the cheongsam, called jin in Chinese, boasts many variations such as the straight slant front and pipa front. (Photo: Collection of Mr. Hok Pui Leung and Mrs. Sally Yu Leung)


The exponential growth of print media the likes of fashion magazines and editorial ads from the 1930s to the 1960s had inevitably led to women having increased appetites for consumerism.

Think bold experimentations and evolving new concepts of modernity in the everyday life.

While the Chinese used to deem body-hugging swimsuits as “scandalous”, they became widely accepted in Singapore as they were often featured in the press and print collaterals.

A 1950s getai star Huang Xia in a strapless swimsuit covered the front page of the popular magazine Nanyang Radio Weekly. (Photo: Collection of Mr. Su Zhang Kai)
Though the bikini was introduced in 1946, it was only after World War II that more elastic materials like nylon and latex became popularly used in clothing. (Photo: Collection of National Museum of Singapore)


The final part of the exhibition shines a spotlight on how fashion empowered working women in Singapore's early days. 

As more women joined the workforce and became financially independent from the 1950s to the 1970s, they became more aware about their appearances. This gave rise to the increasing popularity of the fashion and beauty industries.

Thanks to increased exposure to films depicting Western-inspired fashion and trends, feminine designs like a cinched waist and an A-line skirt were highly sought after by young working women as imported fabrics were made affordable.

Made popular by French luxury fashion house Christian Dior in 1947, the one-piece dress accentuates a woman’s figure with modern sensibilities. (Photo: Collection of National Museum of Singapore)

And if you’re one for small details, look out for a special scent permeating the memorial hall (Hint: It should smell like a perfumed cosmetic product). A clever tie-up with Swiss perfumery Givaudan, it was created with the intent to throw visitors back in time.

The exhibition, which runs from Jun 12 to Dec 12, will be open from 10am to 5pm from Tuesdays to Sundays at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

Source: CNA/ss