Who’s in the mood for cheongsam?

By coincidence, I found out that the National Museum is holding an exhibition called ‘In The Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity & Singapore Women’, from 28 March to 27 June. According to the promotional materials the exhibition makes used of the cheongsam to tell the story of the changing social roles of Singapore women from the turn of the century to modern days. Since I’m such a big fan of the dress, how can I skip this?

I was pleasantly surprised that admission is free for the exhibition. After checking it out I realized the reason for that. It’s rather small, with not many cheongsams on display. I hate to say this but most of the dresses on display are not exactly fabulous in materials or print. I’m not sure whether it’s due to the limitations of designs or technology (at least during the first half of 20th century) or that the museum can’t get it’s hands on the really beautiful cheongsams. Another thing the museum should take note of is that when showcasing clothes, please provide better lighting. I’ve no idea why dim lights are used when it makes checking out the materials an eyesight-challenging task. I’m sure brighter lighting will not cause the materials to deteriorate.

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In the early 20th century, there was no one-piece cheongsam dress. Instead women wore loose blouse and skirt ensemble such as these on display. I guess it’s because of the conservative nature of the Chinese society then that the ensemble basically covered the entire body length. But this outfit was considered modern then.

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From the two-piece, the cheongsam evolved into a one-piece dress. Again to reflect the conservatism of society, the womanly figure was hidden behind the long and straight material with no waist. The design and buttons are also rather simple.

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But in the 1920’s, the cheongsam started to reveal the waist, as women begun to feel empowered. The print got bolder and buttons were slightly more elaborate. Interestingly the collar got shorter.

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Come 1930’s, especially during the go go days in Shanghai before the war, Chinese women started to follow the footsteps of their western counterparts and pushed the boundaries in the cheongsam design. There were dresses made from translucent silk materials, and the waist got accentuated. Sleeves were also shorter.

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Other fancy materials such as those with burnt-out floral motif were used, which looks pretty luxurious. As you can see from below picture, the cheongsam comes in short-sleeved or sleeveless, fitting cut which shows off the curves. They also have higher collar than those in the previous picture. These are very likely worn by high society ladies or those in the entertainment line.

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There’re also cheongsams on display that were worn by a famous Hong Kong star in the 1960’s, Lin Dai (林黛), who was both an actress and singer. I’m not sure why her dresses are included since I thought the exhibition is about Singapore women, and Lin Dai was no Singaporean. Anyway I thought the below cheongsam with black floral print on white background is rather contemporary, and I like the simplicity.

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The dress below is covered with sequins and strictly for formal occasion. I’m sure you’ll be struck by how wasp thin the waist is; apparently the star had 21 inch waist during her heydays. Women in those days wore a corset or go on a diet to achieve an ultra small waist figure.

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The exhibition showcases cheongsam collections from former prominent high society ladies of Singapore. Below is a blue sleeveless ankle-length cheongsam with a water-colored floral motif that belongs to Mrs Irene Lim.

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There are also cheongsams belonging to prominent wives of political holders, such as the late wife of Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, wives of the late Presidents, Benjamin Sheares, Wee Kim Wee and Ong Teng Cheong (only Mrs Wee is still alive). Only a few pieces from each ladies are on display, and to be honest, most of them don’t look very exquisite. The only one I have a liking for is this sleeveless cheongsam with yellow daisy motif and scalloped hemline, that belonged to the late Mrs Sheares. I think it’s a very pretty dress, but my husband commented that it reminded him of a table cloth.

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A few pieces of cheongsam-inspired dresses from current international fashion designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier are also on display. I feel the designer collection is a little pathetic. Maybe the museum can’t get women to donate the dresses ‘cuz they cost a bomb. But how about encouraging women to loan their cheongsams for this exhibition? I wouldn’t mind loaning a couple of them. Anyway I only like this black cap-sleeved cheongsam with floral motif by Vivienne Tam. I think the rest are either rather dowdy looking or not elegant as befitting a cheongsam.

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Even though the designer collection also features a couple of cheongsams from local designers, the representations are really paltry. Those on display are seriously too over-the-top, and look like something for a cabaret show. My husband said they are good for the lunar 7th month ‘getai’ (歌台) shows (the loud singing and entertainment shows that are staged during the Chinese ghost month in Singapore). Honestly there’re a number of very good modern cheongsams created by local designers which are not showcased. This exhibition doesn’t do justice to the cheongsams of the modern Singapore women. I’ve to say I’m pretty disappointed with it.

The museum shop is also selling cheongsams and cheongsam-inspired blouses. Below is a dress from Ong Shunmugan, a local designer. God knows why her dresses are not on display.

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