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The Modern Woman | 20th Century Singapore and China

This exhibition Modern Women of The Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore was ongoing at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall since June this year, and I just managed to visit in its closing week! It ended recently two weeks ago, but I wanted to share some highlights from the exhibition because I found it such a nicely put-together display of fashion and photographs from twentieth-century Singapore and China!

Modern Women of The Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore; 一袭华裳:现代女性与服饰变迁

The opening space shows a preclude of what’s to come, with a display of cheongsams and Shanghai-nese advertisements and posters.

Modern doupeng cheongsam with embroidered appliqué, Singapore
Han women’s ao (blouse-jacket) with floral and “boys-at-play” motif, late Qing dynasty, China
Embroidered silk women’s robe with rabbit fur, late Qing dynasty, China

The above two exhibits are examples of women’s dress from the late Qing dynasty, featuring traditional floral motifs. I also found the “boys-at-play” motif and the embroidered scene of literati gatherings in each of the respective pieces quite unexpected and very interesting!

Republican period blouse with stand-up collar and black skirt, early 20th century, China

We now come to the Republican period in China (1912–1949). After the 1911 Revolution, Chinese women’s dress changed to embrace a new “liberalisation” of fashion. According to the exhibition didactic, women wore more fitted and tailored styles that were influenced by Western dressing.

The print of this blue blouse is apparently influenced by the Art Deco movement of the 1920s! I’m a huge fan of Art Deco, by the way!

Photograph of a local Chinese woman wearing a ma mian skirt, early 20th century, Singapore
Photograph of two Chinese women wearing their “civilised new outfits”, Singapore

The term “civilised new outfits” references the changes in China post-1911 Revolution, when women wore a simple outfit of a blouse and skirt. These outfits were less “fussy”, didn’t have the elaborate patterns and motifs of yore, and offered more mobility. Women in Singapore also picked up on the style as a fashion trend, embodying the image of “modern women” in this period.

Both: Studio photograph of two Chinese women in cheongsams, left: 1930s, right: undated

I was so amazed to see the woman riding a horse in the studio photograph on the right! On closer look now, I realise it’s a fake horse prop, but it’s still so cool to see how fun and relaxed these women looked, unlike in typical stiff studio photographs.

Nanyang Monthly (1961), Singapore

That’s the old National Gallery (former Supreme Court)! I love the woman’s outfit and the fact that she’s driving!

Photograph of Chinese women playing a finger game, early 20th century, Malaya
Studio photograph of a woman wearing a ma jia and short skirt, 1920s-1940s, Singapore
Studio photograph of a Chinese woman, 1920s, Singapore

These studio photographs were my favourite part of the exhibition. The fashions show a nice mix of Chinese and Western styles popular in the 1920s era, but what struck me the most was the way these women were just having fun! Look at those relaxed poses and hand gestures — it feels so modern somehow.

Cheongsam with a ren-front, 1920s-1940s, China

The ren-front refers to the Chinese character 人 (ren), meaning people, person, etc., as it resembles the two strokes of the character by extending diagonally across both sides of the cheongsam.

Brown batik cheongsam with matching cropped jacket, 1960s; red and black striped cheongsam, 1952–1964; green sleeveless cheongsam with matching lace jacket, 1950s-1960s, all from Singapore

These cheongsams from the 1950s and 1960s were supposedly worn to work — how fashion-forward!

Brown batik cheongsam with matching cropped jacket, 1960s
Sleeveless samfoo blouse with pink and blue floral prints, 1960s, Singapore

The term samfoo is Cantonese, literally to mean shirt and pants, and were usually worn as casual wear or as simple work wear. This sleeveless samfoo puts a modern spin on it — and honestly, I love the print of this!

Qi pao ma jia (Long robe with vest)

I found one more exhibit on the second storey of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, where their permanent galleries are located. This example of a two-piece qi pao ma jia with a robe and vest was apparently one of the earliest forms of cheongsam.

There was one more cheongsam right at the entrance of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and it’s yet another beautiful piece.

To end off here, I wanted to say that this exhibition also finally cleared up my confusion about the history / etymology of the qipao / cheongsam! One of the exhibition panels describes “the awakening of women’s gender consciousness”, when some women in the early 20th century protested via dress (!) by wearing men’s clothes like the changpao (long robe).

And that’s how the qipao (manchu robe) came about, when fitted versions of the changpao, made for women instead, became popular among Chinese women in the 1930s. In Singapore, the Cantonese term cheongsam (long shirt or dress) is more commonly used to refer to this form of dress. And there we have it!

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