Think of Singapore and a canvas of rich, vibrant images springs to mind. A melting pot of cultures, beliefs and traditions, it's this ethnic diversity that gives the country its multi-faceted universal appeal. Nowhere is this eclectic blend more visible than in the fashion landscape of what has fast become the fashion capital of South-East Asia.
East meets West in Singapore
How would one describe the fashion market in Singapore? If sales and figures are anything to go by, this island city-state is leading the way in apparel sales and income in Asia. Annually, the clothing industry nets in profits of SGD4.4 billion (or US$3.6 billion) – that translates to a 2% stake of the fashion market worldwide.
Home-grown brands like Charles and Keith are just a sample of the world standard of Singaporean brands. It's a little-known fact that Singapore is the biggest supplier for international brands like Nike, Gap and Macy's - impressive for a country only half a century old.
Charles & Keith – proudly Singaporean
Changing Fashion Reflects a Changing Society
Over the course of those fifty years, fashion within the country has transformed greatly along with the changing times. From the late 1950s to the present, we explore the changing face of fashion in Singapore:
Finding Its Feet in the Fifties
Prior to Singapore gaining its full independence in 1965, the country fell under Malaysian rule and, in a broader context, the colonial rule of Great Britain. World War II came to an end in 1945 and, for several years thereafter, many countries struggled to rebuild themselves to their former glory. Singapore was no different. Dressing up in the latest styles was a luxury only afforded to the wealthy classes. The Straits Chinese, for example, were more exposed to Western culture and their clothing reflected it. This class consisted largely of Indian and Chinese business owners. Given their wealth, they had easier access to literature and education from the West, and soon adopted a more Westernised manner of living. Men dressed in formal white shirts and ties, pants, a coat and leather shoes.
A Straits Chinese family
The majority of people though were engulfed in poverty and still dressed in traditional clothing displaying their heritage – Malay, Chinese and Indian.
The city’s broad range of ethnicities can be seen in this picture from 1952 taken at Radio Malaya
When it came to women's styles, fashion made as big a jump in their wardrobes as it did in their rights. In 1948, women were allowed to vote and, by 1959, eight women were running for public office. Amongst other things, family planning was introduced in 1948 and in 1961, the Women's Charter was voted into legislation.
Similarly, huge strides were being made in fashion with Singapore becoming a hub for textiles in the region. The rise of the High Street as well as Arab Street now meant that women could buy Western-influenced clothing at affordable prices, with fabrics imported from America, Europe and the rest of Asia.
The biggest change came in the style of women's dresses. Instead of shapeless traditional wear, women in Singapore now preferred form-fitting dresses which showed off their feminine figures. It became high fashion to mix and match Western items with traditional pieces, adding a unique identity to whomever wore them. Also, as women were no longer confined to the home, they interacted with people from other cultures, creating an eclectic fusion of styles and designs.
Women’s clothing became more Westernised in the 1950s
A model wears a more form-fitting dress, as seen here at a fashion show at Straits Times Studio in 1959
Swinging into Style in the Sixties
The year 1965 marked the independence of Singapore. To motivate the citizens, the government made a concerted effort to encourage the working class to dress with style and purpose. The aim was for the workers to reflect the growth of the economy. Smart, Western styles were the order of the day. Traditional wear became reserved for diplomatic occasions and ceremonies. Conventional styles also received a Western make-over. A good example is the classic Chinese dress or cheongsam, also known as the qipao. Where it was once baggy in shape, ankle-length and with a high collar, the updated version became more form-fitting, including a slit on either side of the leg.
The classic cheongsam
Perhaps the biggest change during this decade was the creation of a proudly Singaporean dress style. Prior to independence, there was no sense of national identity. The immigrants that made up the country each dressed according to the style of their homeland. With freedom and independence came a more eclectic style made up of different cultures merged into a new, unique fashion.
Across the waters in the United States and the United Kingdom, the hippie movement was taking over at this time along with its bright, colourful styles. In Singapore, the government took stringent measures to prevent this influence from reaching its shores, particularly the carefree lifestyle it promoted. Boys with long hair who were dressed in hippie fashion were even picked up by police. Realizing the popularity of youth culture in global trends though, retailers started catering specifically for young people in the Sixties, even in conservative Singapore. Stores like Trend boutique opened for the first time, targeted directly at young customers.
Singapore youth during the 1960s
In spite of the anti-yellow culture movement in Singapore though, parts of Western culture still managed to infiltrate Singaporean society. An example of this is sports culture. With greater Western influence, came exposure to global sports as well as its fashion – culottes, shorts and even swimwear made their way into Singapore style.
Sky-high Style in the Seventies
With the 1965 independence, came the breakup of Malaysian-Singapore Airways which became the newly-minted Singapore Airlines. This new airline required a whole new look and French fashion designer Pierre Balmain was called in to create a new uniform for its cabin crew in 1972. What transpired was an update on the traditional kebaya which infused the traditional Malay sarong with batik in bright colours. What was not expected was the popularity of this style among ordinary Singapore women, becoming somewhat of a national costume. With its hourglass shape, the kebaya had three-quarter sleeves hemmed in a printed border. The sarong was worn underneath which fit snugly as a wrap skirt. This image of the “Singapore Girl” has become so popular, she even received her own wax figure in London's Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in 1994.
The Seventies also saw the launch of jeans culture in Singapore as global brands Levis, Lee Cooper and Wrangler entered the market.
From Malaysian-Singapore Airways..
…to Singapore Airlines
Pierre Balmain with his new design
Fashion Goes Global in the Eighties
During the Eighties, the government began to expand its business ventures and realised the financial benefit that fashion could bring the country. The Singapore Trade Development Board (TDB) had invited designers and clothing manufacturers to exhibit their works in Paris. This resulted in Singapore Apparel, a big-scale fashion show arranged by the government and the TDB. Shopping malls also came into being, where international brands were sold alongside up-and-coming Singaporean designers. Orchard Street became known as a shopping district for tourists. Local designers also took fashion out of the country and built up a global audience. Singapore had well and truly entered the fashion market.
High fashion tailored for the office, as seen in Her World magazine, Singapore in 1987
C.K. Tangs, one of the first department stores to open on Orchard Road
National Pride during the Nineties
The miniskirt was high fashion during the Nineties, as well as casual, comfortable clothing like Bermuda shorts. The growth of computer technology now also meant that Singaporeans were up to date on global fashion trends, and not as outdated as before. It also gave rise to designers celebrating Singaporean heritage. An example of this is the “orchid” style of the early Nineties. Designers created clothing adorned in this indigenous flower - a sign of national pride. Today, these bright, floral styles have become synonymous with Singapore's identity globally.
In 1994, the first Great Singapore Sale took place. Aimed at locals and tourists alike, this annual shopping event has been going ever since.
Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, wearing an orchid-inspired dress, at the Singapore Botanical Gardens
The Future of Fashion
Considering the great strides that the fashion industry in Singapore has made over the past few years, it's no wonder that fashion has emerged as a burgeoning growth market. According to the Singapore Tourism Board, in the year 2000, tourists in the country doled out a whopping SGD2.5 billion on shopping alone. Of that amount, SGD1.07 billion was spent on fashion goods like clothing, shoes, jewellery, perfume and cosmetics. Cut to 2015 and that number has exponentially increased. In 2015, spending by international visitors in Singapore has already reached US $14.65 billion, says market research firm Statista. Just look at the growing popularity of fashion-focused events like Singapore Fashion Week. In 2013, attendance figures averaged at over 20, 000 visitors. This year, with the event already in its ninth instalment, numbers sky-rocketed even beyond that, no doubt attracted by the likes of celebrity designers Diane von Füstenberg and Victoria Beckham who opened and closed the event respectively. With its unique blend of old meets new, it's clear that Singapore has its eye firmly fixed on fashion.
Victoria Beckham at Singapore Fashion Week 2015
* Pictures courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore on Fashion, National Archives of Singapore, the East Indies Museum, Sotheby’s, Singapore Airlines, Charles & Keith, People.com, Vogue.com