A guide to fashion in Asia
Marvel at Asian fashion pieces from the 18th to 20th century at the Asian Civilisations Museum’s Fashion and Textiles gallery, which explores how styles commonly associated with one region often incorporate styles from another.
The long-term exhibition presents recently acquired historical garments ranging from Chinese painted silks to Javanese batiks, and shows how fashion shapes identities and facilitates cross-cultural exchange.
Here is a guide on what you need to know about fashion in Asia, through the exhibition.
Who you are determines what you wear
The lavish historical garments on display convey how clothes were used to define social hierarchy in Asia. This luxurious embroidered floral silk kosode – the predecessor of the kimono – was usually worn by women as an outermost robe on important events such as weddings, as a show of wealth and status. It is imagined to belong to a high-ranking woman of the samurai class in Japan during the Edo period.
Embrace the Batik trend in the 19th century
Javanese batik was exceedingly popular in the 19th century due to its affordable price and creative manufacturing process. Javanese batik was in demand all over the region; it was exhibited in museums and colonial expositions not only in Batavia, but also in Paris and the Netherlands, inspiring European and American designers at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement. Paired with a kebaya, it was the outfit of choice for many Malay, Peranakan Chinese, European, and Eurasian women in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), Ambon, Malacca, and Singapore. Exhibits on display also compare traditional motifs with contemporary ones, and visitors can feast their eyes on pieces by Indo-European, Peranakan Chinese, and Javanese batik makers.
Clothing played a special role in life-cycle ceremonies and in gift exchanges
Clothing and textiles were not only treated as market commodities. Lavish garments were also given as gifts to establish a strict hierarchy of power in court pageants, with the monarchy at the very top. One example is the long-sleeved, straight cut sua khrui, a gold-embroidered ceremonial robe and a rank insignia which was gifted by King Chulalongkorn of Siam (present-day Thailand) to Admiral Andreas du Plessis de Richelieu to commemorate his long career in the Thai Royal Navy, where he served as its first and only foreign-born commander-in-chief.
Maritime trade and political power had a hand in affecting Asian fashion
From around 1670 to its colonisation by the Dutch in 1823, the Palembang Sultanate in Sumatra was a key part of the Indian Ocean trade. Of all the commodities that merchants brought to the marketplace, it was the Indian cloth that was highly coveted. The Dutch soon realised that getting control of Indian cloth was the key to accessing the valuable spices of the Indonesian archipelago, and forced a treaty on Palembang that gave them a monopoly over imports of Indian textiles.
Tailored cheongsams saw a revival in the 1990s
Cheongsams, became less popular as an everyday dress option in 1970s Singapore, but was revived in the 1990s as a type of formal wear for women in power. This sleeveless cheongsam with peacock motif, which was made in the 1990s, belonged to Madam Kwa Geok Choo, an accomplished lawyer and late wife of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Made of silk, this blue and brown cheongsam adorned with floral medallions comes with a matching shawl (selendang) and was worn by Madam Kwa to public functions and diplomatic meetings.
Learn more about Fashionable in Asia here.
(Photos: Asian Civilisations Museum)