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Fashion exhibition traces the rise of the modern woman, Singapore News & Top Stories

By on June 9, 2021 0

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

It is baggy and long, almost canceling out the wearer. The individual is less important than the symbols embroidered on the garment, mainly squirrels and grapes, which signify fertility.

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

If a sign of Western influence on Asian women’s clothing – the design dates back to Christian Dior in 1947 – it also attests to the need of contemporary women to be mobile.

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

Such comparisons can be seen 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 clothing.

Nearly 100 artifacts, including 13 impressive pieces of clothing, many of which are from private collectors, will be on display.

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

“Fashion, in addition to being a form of self-expression, is often a reflection of the times,” said the museum’s deputy curator, Ms. Tan Yan Ni.

“That’s why we chose fashion as a way 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 generate more discussion among Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today.”

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

A significant part of the exhibit focuses on an exploration of cheongsam, itself a reaction against the Qing Ao dynasty.

Thin and tight, it was considered a more modernized style of dress for the “civilized woman”.

However, the variety of cheongsams on display make it clear that there was no one type, with tailors and women tailoring collars, buttons, and seams to suit their changing 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 drab portraits.

Three cheongsams found in Singapore reveal how women here have adapted Chinese clothing.

A sleeveless green cheongsam with a matching lace jacket is reminiscent of the Malaysian kebaya. Another uses batik, a fabric from Southeast Asia, pairing it with a short Western-style jacket.

Curators have also included a section on Shanghai posters and fashion magazine covers, showing how models and actresses have gradually become fashion icons, rather than just merchant accessories to sell products.

A section featuring Ms. Teo Soon Kim, the first female lawyer to win a Singapore Supreme Court case in 1932, spreads the feminist message, enshrining women in a profession historically dominated by men.

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

For example, foot and breast bandage was abolished, as women’s education expanded, leaving more women in the workplace.

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

It should smell like cosmetics used by the older generation and be particularly evocative to them, the museum added.

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

The exhibition will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Entry is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents.

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