Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

South Asia and Southeast Asia


Jasleen Dhamija (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Chinese Dress in Singapore

Chor Lin Lee

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch4061
Pages: 412–418


Singapore developed into a multicultural pluralistic society by the second half of the nineteenth century, so it would be hard to imagine the Chinese community there to be homogeneous. Two distinctive Chinese communities could be identified, depending on their levels of familiarity with Singapore and hence Southeast Asia and the length of their association there—the Peranakan (native-born, or Straits Chinese) and the sinkeh (newcomers). The way women from these Chinese communities dressed was illustrative of their cultural leaning, social status, and, to some extent, their occupation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Singapore had become a highly modernized cosmopolitan port city. The colonial mercantilist and multiethnic migrant nature of Singaporean society meant that it was more open to cultural and trend influences from cities abroad. However, it took the localized communities of Eurasians and the Peranakan Chinese nearly three centuries to establish a lifestyle and sartorial habit that applied a tropical sensibility. The dress sense of the newcomers, who were attracted by the prospect of work and the wealth of this entrepôt from the nineteenth century onward, was instinctively governed by the need to adapt to the heat and humidity and the appropriateness to one’s ethnicity and occupation. In the latter aspect, individuals would follow closely the prevalent style in their hometown or country.

Singapore developed into a multicultural pluralistic society by the second half of the nineteenth century, so it would be hard to imagine the Chinese community there to be homogeneous. Two distinctive Chinese communities could be identified, depending on their levels of familiarity with Singapore and hence Southeast Asia and the length of their association there—the Peranakan (native-born, or Straits Chinese) and the sinkeh (newcomers). The way women from these Chinese communities dressed was illustrative of their cultural leaning, social status, and, to some extent, their occupation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Singapore had become a highly modernized cosmopolitan port city. The colonial mercantilist and multiethnic migrant nature of Singaporean society meant that it was more open to cultural and trend influences from cities abroad. However, it took the localized communities of Eurasians and the Peranakan Chinese nearly three centuries to establish a lifestyle and sartorial habit that applied a tropical sensibility. The dress sense of the newcomers, who were attracted by the prospect of work and the wealth of this entrepôt from the nineteenth century onward, was instinctively governed by the need to adapt to the heat and humidity and the appropriateness to one’s ethnicity and occupation. In the latter aspect, individuals would follow closely the prevalent style in their hometown or country.

After the British obtained the sovereign right from the Malay rulers to run and develop Singapore as their colony, the population of the island expanded. It was estimated that during the 1830s, about two thousand coolies from southeastern China arrived in Singapore during each of the northeastern monsoon seasons. Within three decades of the British arrival, the Chinese population there reached nearly half of the colony’s total size. Nevertheless, these were still predominantly bachelors, many of whom might be fortunate enough to return to China and marry a girl from their home village. The small number of Chinese women who came from the 1850s onward are surmised to have been largely young brides arriving at the new homes of their grooms with their first-born son. Dialect-group-based clan associations helped arrange marriages for bachelor clansmen. As a result, although they might have had to travel out of their home community all the way to Singapore, the majority of the Chinese women who came to Singapore to live could still stay within a dialect-based boundary and a shared way of life and dress. Their identity was even more reinforced in the face of occasional encounters with people from other dialect groups and traditions, as well as other ethnicities. The dialect-based boundaries were to become blurred under the pressure of housing shortages and the growing population in the city centre.

China, the Fashion Leader

China continued to be a major source of influence on the Chinese in Singapore, since, for a large number of them, China was the home country to which they would eventually return, hopefully with wealth to share with relatives and kin left behind in hardship. The tumultuous development and the series of humiliating experiences China had undergone since the mid-nineteenth century precipitated the rise of radical social and political movements, which eventually resulted in the collapse and end of the imperial system in China. The tide of change in Chinese society also reached the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Political transformation aside, writers and intellectuals from the traditional Chinese literati who now embraced modern and republican ideas, as well as the Chinese young people who were populating the universities of the great Chinese urban centers—Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai—were the trendsetters of the post-Republican (1911) era.

More women enrolled in modern schools and universities modeled after the U.S. and European systems. It was unprecedented for women’s voices to be heard to such an extent, not only at elegant social gatherings but also on campuses, where they were teachers, intellectuals, and writers, as well as student activists who led demonstrations into the streets. To support their newfound active and public role in the society, there was a conscious push for women to change their image in public spaces. The millennium-old practice of bound feet was condemned and voluntarily abolished; simpler garment styles with narrower sleeves and shorter blouses and skirts were adopted, worn with European leather shoes with strong heels; and hair was trimmed or bobbed. In the spring of 1919, when a group of female students took to the street, they did not wear the ensemble of a blouse and dark skirt that had been in vogue since the Republican Revolution but instead a version of the man’s long robe (changshan), which was based on the now-defunct Manchu magua. This new dress was immediately copied by socialites and prostitutes, as well as upper-class women in urban Shanghai. The student look was a progressive look for Chinese women, and it symbolized an era of new hope and aspirations.

In the following decade or so, Shanghai emerged as the modern leader and trendsetter of the Chinese world. There were critical factors that also contributed to the importance of Shanghai as a center for the Chinese world: the speed of steamships, which shortened the time required for mail delivery and travel; the invention of undersea telephonic cables that made communication more immediately effective; the proliferation of newspapers and magazines; and the invention of cinema. The growing communications exposed Chinese women to the changes occurring in the world of dress and fashion abroad. Among Chinese settled abroad, the male-dominated social life was beginning to include women, and these changes came to be reflected in mainland China. These women were European wives as well as sophisticated urbanite women from big, bright Chinese cities such as Shanghai and served as a constant source of the latest fashions. The ascendance of now-republican, hence modern, China would have a major impact on the highly varied Chinese community in Singapore.

Likewise, dress became a more urgent identifier, as many Chinese women were living in close proximity to Chinese women of other dialect groups, different social backgrounds, and, increasingly, various educational levels. Before, Chinese women would hardly have left their households, let alone traveled to other districts even within their own provinces. Local customs and ways of doing things back home suddenly became very important so that women could differentiate themselves from the Cantonese or the Hainanese, for instance. Shanghai and things Shanghainese nonetheless remained the main source of trends. The name of the city had become, by the twentieth century, notably in the 1930s, trendy and associated with high quality.

Peranakan Women

Despite a very tropicalized Southeast Asian lifestyle and a daily appearance in sarong and kebaya, the Peranakan Chinese observed Chinese rituals based on the agricultural and lunar calendar and on life-course occasions, such as weddings and funerals. In fact, Peranakan brides appeared in very elaborate wedding ensembles in the southern Chinese style. Worn by women of the upper class in most affluent Chinese cities, this bridal wear, generally called “Suzhou fashion,” required an extensive display of high-quality silk and the finest embroidery made in the silk-producing hinterland of Shanghai. Colorful bands filled with embroidery covered the seams of collars and the edges of the upper bridal garment and its sleeves, while the skirt was composed of pleats and panels, also embroidered. The wedding garments were so heavy and suffocating that the brides would wear special bamboo bodices underneath to allow air circulation.

Beginning in the twentieth century, brides or young women engaged to marry appeared in photo studios wearing what was called the baju Shanghai, the skirt and tunic ensemble that had been popular wear among fashionable Shanghainese women during the period after 1911 and the early 1920s. The long-sleeved silk tunics were reminiscent of the baju panjang (long blouse), since some of them were midcalf length, but the collars and the asymmetric fastening system as well as the embroidery suggest that they were specially made by Chinese seamstresses and tailors. The long skirts, often made from the same material as the tunic, would be pleated but without the central panel at the front, as on the wedding dress. As the name suggests, they were most likely the work of the prolific tailors of Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), who had by the first decade of the twentieth century already set up shops in Singapore. This tunic and pleated skirt ensemble seemed unique to the Peranakan Chinese young women, as seen in studio portraits. Peranakan Chinese women who were locally born were also known as nonya. The presence of a matriarch in sarong kebaya in these portraits reveals the families’ Peranakan identity. In addition, these girls had not adopted the fringed hairstyle of their mainland counterparts. Instead, their mothers and elder female relatives would have insisted on their hair being oiled, combed, and pulled very tightly into a bun, like that of all respectable nonyas.

Wealthy Peranakan families enjoyed extensive interactions with the larger cosmopolitan community outside their home environment. There was also the impact of siblings returning from studies in Europe, as well as intermingling with business associated from abroad. As a result, educated nonyas tended to adopt an international urban dress style because they would from time to time play host to guests alongside their male kin, father, or husband. The nonya wife of tycoon Lee Choon Guan (1868–1924), née Tan Teck Neo (1877–1978), who was the daughter of Tan Keong Saik, for instance, was often seen, in the 1920s, in the Shanghainese-style silk dress and blouse ensemble entertaining friends in their seaside villa, traveling, and appearing at formal functions. She seemed to wear sarong and baju panjang (long jacket) only as a young maiden and later as an adult and matriarch when at home. Later, when the changshan reignited the trend of wearing the Manchu robe (qipao) among sophisticated women in Shanghai, it was natural that nonyas in Singapore would regard this new dress, called cheongsam by the Cantonese tailors, as more appropriate for formal occasions than their sarong kebaya. Song Ong Siang, wife of another formidable Peranakan tycoon and author of One Hundred Years of Chinese in Singapore, attended in 1927 the opening of King Edward VII College of Medicine Building. Mrs. Ong’s hair remained coiffed in the beautiful and neat nonya style, but she had put on white stockings and wore European shoes, as her Shanghainese counterpart would. Certainly by the 1930s, nonyas in their twenties would wear cheongsam to pose for family portraits, leaving their mothers in sarong kebaya.

The wife of a Singapore millionaire, early twentieth century. It was common for women in wealthy families to adopt an international urban dress style that reflected their interaction with a wider, more cosmopolitan community. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-97963.

Non-Peranakan Chinese Women

Chinese women who came from families that were still very much connected to their hometowns in mainland China, and those with modern aspirations, looked to Shanghai for ideas on how to dress themselves in a modern way. By the 1920s, in addition to the wives of wealthy businessmen and young girls from wealthy and prominent families, there were Chinese women in Singapore who were white-collar workers, mostly teachers in Chinese schools. Others were wives of middle-class professionals who were themselves educated under the modern system. All these women faced the need to appear in public spaces: the affluent wives and daughters at dinner parties and social gatherings, and the teachers and white-collar workers at their workplaces, on public transport, and hence in the wider social milieu.

Without doubt, these women looked to Paris and London for cues on Western lifestyle choices and ways of dressing and to Shanghai for the Eastern options. The Chinese-medium education they received allowed them direct access through media and printed matter to the latest sartorial developments in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Equally trend sensitive and with spending power, Chinese women in Singapore tailed Shanghai’s whims and fancies with expediency. The cheongsam was naturally the preferred dress, which these women wore like a uniform, embellishing and accessorizing them the way the rest of world did. The many Cantonese and Shanghainese tailors who set up shop in High Street, North Bridge Road, and Bras Basah Road offered the women a good range of top-class workmanship as well as a wide choice of exclusive silk fabrics. Elsewhere, within one’s neighborhood, smaller tailor shops with perhaps a smaller repertoire could satisfy the need of those ladies with lesser means.


Beginning in the twentieth century, the Chinese community in Singapore began to feel the need to establish schools for the growing number of young people in the colony. The Peranakan Chinese had already opened English-medium schools for their children, while missionary schools had had an even earlier start during the nineteenth century.

Chinese-medium schools were first founded in the Chinese business areas, housed in buildings that were donated or constructed by prominent businessmen (towkay) who were responding to the tides of nationalism in China, which called for modernization and hence education for the young. Some of the earliest Chinese primary schools were organized within the first decade of the twentieth century by the clan associations, using donations from their respective dialect-based communities, usually spearheaded by the wealthier leaders. Classes were taught in dialects. It was not until 1910 that the Fujian Association opened its first primary school with Mandarin as the language of instruction. Girls’ schools emerged by the 1920s.

The absence of Chinese-medium tertiary education in Singapore meant that the primary and middle schools there modeled their curriculum on those in China so that graduates would be prepared and competent enough to enter the prestigious schools in Amoy, Shanghai, and Beijing. The school uniforms worn by Chinese girls were similar to those worn by their mainland peers. Most female students in Singapore were encouraged to keep their hair short, due to the heat and humidity. While most schools adopted the combination of a dark skirt and white blouse with three-quarter-length trumpet sleeves, the uniform of Nanyang Girls’ School, the first of its kind in Singapore, was a striking white ensemble. Over the years, while the blouses would have shorter sleeves or become sleeveless, the basic style of a slightly pleated skirt and a loose blouse became a timeless, classic uniform of many girls’ schools, including the English-medium ones. During World War II and the postwar period, it became fashionable for some Chinese girls’ school graduates to pose in cheongsam uniform in class photographs. The cheongsam trend was still strong as part of an educated and progressive image for women after the war. At the University of Malaya, cheongsam was obviously the unwritten dress code for women. For a young woman, wearing cheongsam signified adulthood and an appropriate form of self-presentation in public.

The Female Elite

One woman in Chinese politics made cheongsam the power suit of Chinese women: Mdm Soong Mei-ling, otherwise known as Madame Chiang, wife of the Republican Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek (1929–1975). Despite an American education at Wesleyan Women’s College, Soong, the youngest daughter of Chinese financial tycoon Charlie Soong, learned to adapt herself to the Chinese way after returning to China in 1917. Heavily involved in a series of nationalist and patriotic activities and a popular socialite in Shanghai’s high society, Soong made a rather conscious effort to appear in public in cheongsam, which she wore with grace and elegance. An ambitious and dynamic woman who obviously thrived in the limelight, Soong’s charisma and personable style made her the president’s diplomatic representative. She negotiated on behalf of her husband with key Allied leaders during World War II: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Marshall. Her famous patriotic speech at the White House to appeal for U.S. aid and involvement in China’s war against Japanese aggression was a milestone in her political career. Together with her two equally powerful sisters, the elder Ailing and Madame Sun Yat-sen (Qingling), who was the widow of the founding father of Republican China and later became a top party member of the People’s Republic of China, she established for millions of young Chinese women the image of the modern stateswoman as well as that of a career-minded and serious Chinese female.

Madame Chiang made a natural habit of wearing the ankle-length cheongsam, which she wore with great deportment and poise whether at state functions, family parties, visiting the poverty-stricken countryside of wartime China, or showing support for the servicemen fighting in the war. She wore large farmer’s hats for outdoor events and had a series of smart boleros made of velvet to which airforce wings and decorations would be added as a show of solidarity with the Republic’s dwindling airforce. When visiting Gandhi in 1942, Soong sportingly draped a sari over her cheongsam for photos. Braving the winter in January 1946 to represent her husband in Changchun in the northeast in a series of postwar negotiations with the Soviet Union, she shrouded her delicate cheongsam with a fur coat and shapka fur hat. Nevertheless, Soong’s style was never too ostentatious or figure revealing. Instead, it was always sensitive to the mood of the hard times her country was undergoing. To complement her austere dress, Soong always wore her hair neatly coiffed in a bun, and embellishments to her cheongsam were minimal—jadeite or amber buttons with matching earrings, or simply a brooch. Her court shoes were seldom very high, so that she could walk in quick and big strides; sometimes her ailing husband had difficulty keeping up with her.

Soong Mei-ling, more widely known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek (wife of the Republican Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek), at the White House in 1942. Despite spending some time in the United States at Wesleyan Women’s College, Soong made a conscious effort to appear in public wearing the cheongsam, as she does here, after returning to China in 1917. As a consequence, Chinese women in Singapore saw the cheongsam as a formal dress for the educated and elite. Getty Images.

Soong’s formidable and austere image probably set the standard for generations of elite women in the Chinese world and their peripheral communities. Certainly, all women associated with the state and government in Taiwan and Hong Kong are expected to appear at official functions in cheongsam and not vary too much from the Soong Mei-ling style. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Chinese women in Singapore saw the cheongsam as a formal work dress for the educated and elite. Women of Chinese ethnicity who held official positions seemed to appreciate the image created by Soong and her cheongsam. For example, the wife of Singapore’s second president, Benjamin Sheares, and Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, wife of Singapore’s longest-serving prime minister, consistently wore cheongsam in public. Most of their cheongsam were sleeveless summer cheongsam, so these women wore jackets of matching materials for the most formal state functions, often those hosted for visiting heads of state and dignitaries. Perhaps following the example of Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew, austerity cheongsam tailored in Shanghainese and, later, Hong Kong style became the formal dress of the wives of Chinese ministers in Singapore.

At the other end of the social scale, when made from mass-produced synthetic brocade with symbols of Chinese auspiciousness—dragons, phoenixes, chrysanthemums, peonies, swallows, and the longevity character—and with thigh-high slits, the cheongsam became the uniform of female waitresses in Chinese restaurants and hotel lounges. In this case, cheongsam are tailored to accentuate the female body’s curves and to exoticize Chinese femininity. For a while, until the early 1990s, there seemed to be no middle ground between the polarity of the austere and the sexually charged images of the cheongsam. For the majority of Chinese women in Singapore, the cheongsam was not an everyday dress and was reserved for formal and special occasions, including the Chinese lunar new year and weddings, during which Chinese customs, the symbolism of which has long been forgotten, are observed and practiced.

In 1991, Maggie Cheung Mun-yuk was dressed in old-style Shanghainese cheongsam made of luxurious art deco silks for her role in Centre Stage, a portrayal of the ill-fated starlet and screen darling Ruan Lingyu, set in the entertainment world of Shanghai in the 1920s. The film won Cheung three awards and brought a middle territory for cheongsam between the bars and state podiums. Cheung’s willowy silhouette and stylized makeup, as well as the film’s rich texture, evoked a great sense of nostalgia for prewar Shanghai and a renewed interest in cheongsam. When Shanghai Tang perfected its retail lines of ready-made Chinese clothes, the mystery of compulsory customization and hence the challenge of finding a Shanghainese tailor were dispelled, and the cheongsam was able to regain territory lost during the late 1970s and 1980s.Ten years later, when Cheung appeared in cheongsam again, this time in In the Mood for Love as a secretary working in a Chinese shipping company and living in a congested rented room under a Shanghainese landlady, her cheongsam was extremely figure hugging, and she wore it with heavy 1960s-style makeup, with the crooning of Nat King Cole as the backdrop. The director of the film, Wong Kar Wai, and the production designer, William Chang Suk Ping, achieved through Cheung’s new cheongsam a cult status for the dress, which also brought in alternative variations of cheongsam that steered away from its classic 1930s style.


From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the convenience of sea transport enabled Chinese men in Nanyang to marry women from their hometowns. New Chinese brides would henceforth begin their new lives in the tropical Nanyang. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, many Chinese brides arriving from the provinces of southern China—Guangdong and Fujian—would discover the niceties of dressing for the climate. Many of them were marrying into large households where there were other wives. These other wives, although bearing Chinese names, would not necessarily share the bride’s language or home culture. In fact, these women were very likely to be nonyas.

Because southern Chinese women hardly wore skirts from the nineteenth century onward due to the popularity of wide pants, it was very easy to tell them apart from the nonyas, who wore sarong kebaya. The southern Chinese women were also distinguishable by their pointy bound feet under the wide trousers, although many of the less-well-off girls were not required to undergo the painful process. Occasionally, some women might pose for their studio portraits wearing long, pleated skirts. However, by the 1930s such elaborate skirts had become ceremonial wear, and more of the women who had not switched to wearing European dress or cheongsam would retain the trouser and blouse ensemble. Called the “blouse and trousers,” this was the basic form and the fundamental concept of clothes for southern Chinese women. While the Hokkiens and Teochews call it sa ko, the Cantonese pronunciation of the term, samfoo, became the more popular version of the name. This term was also used in Hong Kong to refer to this ensemble. In fact, to women in Hong Kong, sa ko, or samfoo, means “one’s attire.” As the term also denotes a certain attitude toward the definition of clothes, women who are comfortable in these coordinates are seldom seen wearing alternative garments, such as skirts or dresses, and certainly not cheongsam. The “blouse and trousers” also indicates a specific social and cultural background of the wearer, who is more likely than not to be undereducated, hence dialect speaking, or of the working class.

Young children as well as teenage girls of Peranakan families would be seen in beautiful samfoo ensembles made of light-colored silk. Occasionally, young girls dressed up in miniature nonya sarong kebaya for special occasions. Otherwise, women’s daily clothes were functional and cooling. The peculiar choice of clothes for nonadults in the Peranakan Chinese families could be attributed to the fact that by the twentieth century, this group had become an affluent community that preferred to be identified as localized Chinese instead of leaning too heavily on their partial Malay or Indonesian roots. In addition, frequent business contacts with markets in China likely opened up a variety of dress options. As it was crucial to dress in one’s best for important occasions, including photography sessions, Peranakan Chinese children tended to appear very stylish, wearing whatever fashions were current in Europe as well as in Canton or Shanghai.

Working-Class Chinese Women

For a great majority of the Chinese women who came to Singapore to seek a better fortune, life continued to be filled with hardship. Most married women who came after the 1920s were wives of husbands who ran small hawker-style businesses, offered their skills as craftsmen, or worked as hard laborers. Married women took care of household work and looked after all those who stayed home—children and older relatives. The movements of the housewives were quite often limited to shopping within their neighborhood, fetching water from public sources, and visiting a nearby friend or relative. Some women had to supplement their spouses’ income by doing odd jobs, such as sewing, mending, washing clothes, and making snacks to be sold. In short, although the women did not have to toil in the sun or use sheer physical strength for their work, most of their tasks were physical. The blouses they brought from their rural hometowns, which were made with narrower, three-quarter-length sleeves, and trousers that were also narrower and ended just above the ankle, suited very well the various female working postures—squatting, bending, and standing. Those whose husbands were vegetable or livestock farmers inevitably became assistants on these farms, which used to exist in the central and northern parts of Singapore. Having to perform physical tasks on the farms, these women could not dream of wearing anything but the samfoo.

Maggie Cheung as Li-zhen wearing a cheongsam in a film still from In the Mood for Love, directed by Wong Kar Wai, 2000. The film helped to achieve cult status for the dress. Getty Images.

Work clothes, or daily wear, which had to sustain the physical movements of these working-class women, were made of cotton fabrics from their respective sources. Using these materials, which were dyed blue or black, women usually made their own clothes, embellishing them with specific details that denoted their cultural origins from the different locales in southern China, which included Hakka, Hainan, Teochew, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

Two distinctive groups of women came specifically to Singapore not to be married but to seek work. They came from poverty-stricken areas of Soen-tak (Shunde) and Samshui (Sanshui) of Guangdong province. Both groups of women went through rituals and vows of celibacy and hence lived in enclaves within the Chinatown area, where they rented bed cubicle spaces in congested shophouses. Visually they were also distinctive, for they wore their samfoo in very specific colors.

The Soen-tak women worked in wealthy and middle-class homes as housekeepers, often running the household on the matriarch’s behalf, multitasking between cleaning, cooking, and serving. They kept their hair long in a single braid and wore white blouses with three-quarter-length sleeves and black loose pants. Popularly known as ahmahs, or ahmah jie, or simply majie (variants of “mother-sister”), they were also responsible for a good number of non-Cantonese Singaporeans eventually becoming proficient in their dialect, as the mahjie were monolingual, with a spattering of market Malay vocabulary in order to communicate with their European employers and other staff members—the chauffeurs, gardeners, and servant boys—who spoke Malay. Their unique style of dress also earned them the term “black-and-white” servants from the Europeans, who usually equated their uniform with quality service. This also meant that women who were not from the Soen-tak group, or did not wish to be mistaken as lowly domestic help, refrained from wearing similar clothes.

The Samshui women were a unique group of female laborers who specialized in working at construction sites, assigned specifically to carry wet cement and to lay bricks. While most Chinese women would shun the sun, these women found their particular calling by working like coolies. Their uniform was a distinctive sight in construction areas—they made their own utilitarian samfoo with narrow sleeves and trousers from a bright blue cotton material, worn with a sash criss-crossed at the chest strap on a load they would carry on their backs. They wore a red headdress, like no other Chinese women.

Later, in the 1960s and early 1970s, as much of the rural and swamp areas of Singapore were being transformed into industrial districts and the manufacturing industry was taking form, thousands of women found work in the factories sewing, operating machines, assembling parts of electrical products, and packing finished products. In the 1960s, it was very common for women to dress themselves in samfoo to work, for, although their colleagues were largely women, most of them had to negotiate public spaces shared with males, in the street, on public transport, and in the canteen, all of which would expose them to unnecessary and undesirable trespassing of their own spaces. Samfoo allowed these women the greatest flexibility in movements and protection against unexpected compromising postures, such as bending, squatting, climbing stairs, or being in elevated areas. Dresses and skirts offered no such protection, and furthermore, they required women to expose their legs, which many working-class women were reluctant to do.

The pants evolved from the loose traditional style that required folding and tying with a string, to a pajama type with drawstrings, to a version that narrowed at the ankle, popularized in the 1960s. The top blouse stabilized eventually between the short sleeves of the 1930s and cap sleeves from the same period and lasted through the 1970s. A symbol of the working-class women, the samfoo, in the early 1960s, was a kind of campaign costume for female parliamentarians and politicians campaigning for votes from the Samshui women, mahjie, and numerous housewives in lower-middle-class households. Female members of the People’s Action Party wore samfoo in the party’s uniform white while marching alongside the male members, defining a new sartorial vocabulary to articulate the political agenda of the party.

Samfoo and Older Women

Among older women, there were varying degrees of seclusion, which stemmed from an old-world notion that women from decent family backgrounds should not be seen outside their household without a good reason. If they had to venture out, these grandmothers presented themselves immaculately in a set of samfoo: a light-colored top (usually light blue) and wide trousers of black damask silk. Their hair was oiled and combed into a neat bun fastened with a comb or hairpin, though by the 1960s and 1970s, many used oval plastic barrettes to cup the bun. During the days when servants were available, the routine of these women would include coiffure with the help of the servants. However, as servants or maids who were also skilled in hairdressing and valetting became rare from the 1970s onward, some traditional grandmothers either did their own hair in less-elaborate ways or obtained a permanent wave that set their hair in tight curls and so kept it tidy.

Under the light blue blouse, traditional grandmothers normally wore a short-sleeved, round-necked, collarless cotton shirt with large pockets on both sides of the front flaps. At home, they would be seen only by close kin in this so-called underblouse, which could be fastened with gold buttons. To go out or to receive guests, the women wore the light blue shirt over the cotton underblouse, while the pockets held keys and cash. When the women had to retrieve cash or change, which they were seldom required to do, they reached under their blue blouses and retrieved the correct amount by touch. They would, of course, have counted the exact amount of cash they had brought with them.

The world of the grandmothers shrank toward the beginning of the 1990s, when it became difficult to have such garments tailored for elderly body shapes. In fact, the younger cohort of grandmothers wore an ensemble that remained true to the concept of samfoo but was made as Western-style separates—dark-colored pants and a short-sleeved, front-buttoning blouse. These younger cohorts were in their fifties and sixties during the 1990s, and this particular dress style became known as “auntie fashion,” easily available as ready-to-wear merchandise in neighborhood shops in housing estates. Still a marker of their class background and the no-skirt mentality, this new version of the samfoo remained the preferred outfit of a large group of working-class housewives and laborers in Singapore.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Anderson Patrick. Snake Wine: A Singapore Episode. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Find in Library Bun Chan and Tong Chee Kiong, eds. Past Times: A Social History of Singapore. Singapore: Times Editions, 2003.

Find in Library Chang Eileen. “ Gengyi ji.” In Liuyan, 67–76. Taipei: Crown Publishing, 2001.

Find in Library Jackson Beverley. Shanghai Girl Gets All Dressed Up. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.

Find in Library Khoo Betty, ed. Costumes through Time: Singapore. Singapore: National Heritage Board and Fashion Designers Society, 1995.

Find in Library Liu Gretchen. From the Family Album: Portraits from the Lee Brothers Studio, Singapore 1910–1925. Singapore: National Heritage Board & Landmark Books, 1995.

Find in Library Liu Gretchen. Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000. Singapore: National Heritage Board & Editions Didier Millet, 1999.

Find in Library The Peranakan Association. The Peranakan. Quarterly Newsletter of the Peranakan Association. Singapore.

Find in Library Shanghai shizhuang tuyong. [Drawings with Colophons of Shanghai Fashion]. Taipei: Guangwen Shuju, 1968.

Find in Library Shen Congwen. Zhongguo gudai fushi yanjiu [Researches on Ancient Chinese Costume]. Hong Kong: Commercial Press, Hong Kong Branch, 1981.

Find in Library Shi Yonggang, and Lin Bowen. All About Lady Chiang. Hong Kong: Ming Pao Publishing, 2004.

Find in Library Steele Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Find in Library Wilson Verity. Chinese Dress. London: Bamboo Publishing in Association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.

Find in Library Zhou Xibao. Zhongguo gudai fushi shi [A History of Dress in Ancient China]. Beijing: Zhongguo Xiju Shubanshe, 1984.