In The Mood For Cheongsam: Modernity & Singapore Women

Haven’t had a chance to visit the local national museums in years. This exhibition was a good excuse for me to do so, especially since I’ve got a weakness for exhibitions on textiles and designs.

Cheongsams, or 长衫 in Cantonese (literally long robes), originated from the Qing Dynasty. This term used to refer to both the garments worn by the men and women, but is now used exclusively to refer to only those worn by the female of the species. The exhibition focuses on the changes in design, material and quality in the making of these cheongsams and how these in turn reflect the various stages of progress in, as well as external influences on, the local society.

The flooding in of Western influences in a largely oriental and conservative culture marked a major turn of the cheongsam era from the 1940s onwards: the convenient objectification of the female gender where qipaos were designed with narrowly constricted waists and figure-hugging shapes, all of which abided by the ‘New Look’ of the West. Below is a set of cheongsams which belonged to a lady, the waist of whom measured a meager 21 – 24 inches. Just imagine how it was like, having to wear these outfits to work everyday (which she apparently had to do)!

The concept of black as an inauspicious colour was long overturned by women in the 1950s – specifically those who embraced modern thoughts and fashion. That, without doubt, put me on cloud nine. Back then, black was the new prosperity. If you observe the pieces below, the mark of wealth and good luck was in fact made even more prominent that the contrast this colour was able to provide to the gold and red embroideries – an eminent quality that other colours could never match up to.

The panel of display below highlights the iconic pieces worn by the late movie star, Lin Dai, who committed suicide at an unripe age of 30 (the similarity in age to myself got me rather perturbed). One can’t stop but wonder how she could have fitted into these cheongsams, if not for the fact that she owned a petite frame and a 21-inch waist. These pieces underscore the workmanship of the traditional costume back then – with the individually sewn-on beads and decorations – symptomatic of the high life that were out of reach to many adoring common folks.

This showcase of qipaos worn by the late wives of local politicians (政要夫人, as they are known in Mandarin) marks the highlight of the exhibition (from right to left: cheongsams of Mrs Benjamin Sheares Bridge, Mrs Wee Kim Wee & Mrs Ong Teng Cheong). Cheongsams are obligatory apparels that the wives of local presidents and high-ranking politicians must adorn. The particularity of the details goes right down to the matching set of jacket worn over the dresses, usually to symbolise power and status of the wearer, such as those belonging to Mrs Wee Kim Wee (middle). Nevertheless, these dresses were customised to reflect the likes of the owner, such as those with polka dot designs (left), supposedly the favourites of Mrs Ong’s back in the 1980s – 90s.

The last bit of the exhibition was a display of contemporary qipaos designs. My favourite would have to be the one at the extreme right below, with long sleeves (giving it a retro look), buttons on the wrong side at the front (left instead of right) and furry trimmings right at the bottom of the dress. It screams ‘Hollywood’ and ‘elegant’ without any aggrandizement.

For those of you who are already thinking of dressing yourself up with a piece of cheongsam, Zalora (Singapore) could be the place for you. Check out their latest series of cheongsams and get ready for Chinese New Year in a couple of months’ time!

Share This!
    This entry was posted in Singapore and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.