The ‘Modern Woman’ Through the Lens of Fashion at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall

It’s the end of a Saturday night. The outfit you painstakingly wrestled from a closet of truly uninspiring clothes is stained with half-a-pint of beer. In a drunken stupor, you shimmy from the outfit and toss it unceremoniously into a nearby wicker basket. The stench of beer presently suffusing the room is now sole testament to the unspeakable antics which took place that night. 

The central question is this: can you imagine that one day that very outfit will speak to future generations about the culture of today?

Well, the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) certainly could, and they brought that vision to life. The stunningly refreshing exhibit, Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore, has one purpose: to use fashion as a lens through which we may follow the journey of the modern woman in China and Singapore since the 19th century.

In the study of history where lengthy treatises and leather-bound books with peeling spines are commonplace, fashion as a medium for historical reflection is revitalising yet unsurprising. The change in dressing styles over time reflect not just a change in aesthetic but also in society and politics; it is the perfect lens through which to view and understand historical changes.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall Fashion Exhibition: Outfits
The new collarless ‘civilised new outfits’ which allowed freedom of movement, were analogous to the new freedoms of women at the time.

In this photograph featured in the exhibit, the collarless garments worn by the women—called ‘civilised new outfits’—are examples of developing beliefs made tangible in fabric. It was felt that as collars would restrict movement of the neck, it should be abandoned by modern women with progressive views. It is almost perfectly analogous to the new freedoms enjoyed by women in the past. 

In other words, the fashion of a time embodies the culture of that time. For this reason, Ms Tan Yan Ni, the assistant curator at SYSNMH, believes that fashion can be a valuable tool in understanding the role of women throughout history.

With close to100 artefacts and photographs organised in three sections, the exhibition will bring us on a journey following the history of the concept of the modern woman spanning around eight to nine decades.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall Fashion Exhibition: Cheongsam
The cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress, became infused with Western elements—such as waist and bust darts—as China became more influenced by Western styles.

Starting in the 1890s to the 1930s, the exhibition uses fashion to trace social and political change. In the time just after the institution of the new Chinese Republic, political turmoil and uncertainty were rife. Society was being remade and understood in revolutionarily new ways. For example, questions were raised on how ‘ideal womanhood’ was to be understood. 

The government at the time made great strides towards abolishing outdated practices such as the binding of women’s feet and breasts. The rise of female education also began to redefine the role of women in a more modern society.

The second section follows the early incarnations of the modern woman in the 1930s to 1960s. The proliferation of print media during the period embedded into women’s minds a consciousness for fashion. Not only were new ideas tested, but by piquing the customer’s curiosity and stoking their desires for the latest styles, fashion magazines and advertisements placed an idea of modernity into many aspects of daily life.

Swimsuits, which were once considered scandalous by the Chinese, became a regular appearance in print media and beauty pageants.

Finally, the third section focuses on modern women in the context of Singapore. In the 1950s to 1970s, there was growing economic empowerment among women, especially after many gained financial independence by joining the workforce. Feeling their new freedom in public life, women became more conscious about how they presented themselves. This concern led to a sharp growth in Singapore’s beauty and fashion industries, which continue to thrive to this day.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall Fashion Exhibition: Workforce
The inclusion of women in the workforce provided them with a newfound sense of economic freedom and financial independence.

This eye-opening exhibit will certainly leave you pondering more deeply about the modern woman and her role in our modern society. Is there a better way to mark 2021 as the Year of Celebrating SG Women? I think not.

You can view this exhibit yourself from 12 June to 12 December 2021 at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. It will be open from 10AM to 5PM, Tuesday to Sunday. Singapore citizens and permanent residents will be able to attend free of charge. For more information, you can visit the SYSNMH website!

Visuals courtesy of National Heritage Board

*Article has been amended with updated information.

Theodore Jasper

We are your regular corporation sole with perpetual succession. Is that pretentious enough? Though so.

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