Visited: Two Fashion Exhibitions

Both are small and thematically rather similar, but both are vastly different too, as one discovers the past in some detail, while the other looks at the present with a cursory glance

Foreground, an Andrew Gn gown at #SGFASHIONNOW

Republican-era and late-Qing clothing at Modern Women of the Republic

By Raiment Young

Fashion exhibitions don’t come by often enough. So when two are happening at the same time (till mid-December, and staged only eight kilometers or so apart), it seems like a bonus for those of us desiring to see superlative designs up close. These are not just exhibits of any fashion; these are, as the titles enthusiastically inform me, about our fashion—those that show what our women wore and what they wear through times of significant societal shifts. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore (一袭华裳) at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and #SGFASHIONNOW at the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) explore clothing that, between the eras they each highlight, show aesthetic differences, separated by some 130 odd years. Yet, it is the fashion of yore that seems to speak more eloquently and with far more refinement than those of today. Nonetheless, it is the latter that attempts to articulate what it is that defines Singaporean design now.

When I visit a fashion exhibition in a museum, rather than, say, at an atrium of a shopping mall, I always expect it to provide strikingly well designed and made fashion—not just clothes—and, above all, insight into what stitches these creations together, other than just the thematic thread. If I could be entertained too, that would be a bonus. Fashion in such a setting increasingly caters to visitors that are more exposed to popular visual culture than fashion as an artistic phenomenon. These days, even the most esoteric of sartorial subjects need to be presented with a popular spin. ACM’s approach to modern fashion in #SGFASHIONNOW is especially so, and, as a result, lacks emotional power for an exhibition that is supposed to arouse national pride. What’s even more apparent is the inadequate learning opportunity—to explain how the aesthetics, gleaned from Asian costumes, have been adopted today and why the results deserve a place in a museum exhibition. As Valerie Steele of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology wrote in the Fashion Theory (issue: Exhibitionism), an academic journal, “there is no reason why exhibitions cannot be both beautiful and intelligent, entertaining and educational.”

I am, of course, not deluding myself that these are the blockbuster fashion exhibitions in the same scale and breadth as those associated with overseas national museums, such as the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Perhaps due to limitations, mainly spatial, material, and budgetary, our latest two exhibitions are euphemistically described as “intimate affairs”. The flashier #SGFASHIONNOW has only eight dresses (and one headgear) to cover a scope that is far too wide and complex than the curators would have visitors believe, while Modern Women of the Republic packed over 90 costumes (specifically 13 outfits, including one bathing suit), artifacts and photographs (and a truly informing period fashion show) in a room considerably smaller in width and height than the space for #SGFASHIONNOW. From a museological perspective, the attempt on ACM’s part to show dresses with their historical place or artistic value is feeble. I’m not arguing if fashion is—or not—considered a true form of art; I would like to see if what we have, in terms of fashion as cultural treasures, deserving of museum space. Are these clothes, however well displayed, exhibition worthy?

#SGFASHIONNOW

The entranceway to #SGFASHIONNOW at the Contemporary Gallery of the ACM

It is heartening that one of the most respected museums in the region believes there is modern Singaporean fashion. The Asian Civilisation Museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW (yes, hashtagged and in all caps) exhibition is the “first display of contemporary Singapore fashion, exploring creative practice in Singapore in the context of Asia’s cultural heritage”, according to the exhibition’s publicity material. As it is staged in the ACM, the Asian component is crucial. Despite its trendy (with the hope that it’ll be trending?) name, targeted at the digitally-savvy who know what hashtags indicate, the exhibition looks at far more analogue approaches to dressmaking (except possibly one outfit with 3D-printed ornamentation). Perhaps this may allay the fear that the time-honoured will be superseded by the “now”—the past shrugged off by the present, dress history disregarded by contemporary fashion.

To be sure, #SGFASHIONNOW is not about constructing fashion heritage. Yet, it is the past that the participating designers looked at, though not necessarily a specific time or clothing no longer worn, but to what CNA’s Jill Neubronner described as “twists on Asian arts and culture”, but mostly Chinese. According to the event’s publicity material, “the exhibition was conceived in collaboration with LASALLE College of the Arts’ School of Fashion and the Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF).” This is “ACM’s first tripartite partnership within Singapore’s fashion ecosystem” and, as Ms Neubronner noted, “the first time the museum handed over the central task of curating the exhibition to five students.” Perhaps the “firsts” explain why the result is somewhat abecedarian, and that my expectations, while not unreasonable for an exhibition staged at the ACM, were set foolishly high.

It is a curatorial challenge to put what fashion we have now in the spotlight. It is more difficult for students not advantaged by the breadth of knowledge of the industry here—past and present—to stage an exhibition with the potential in scope that is ultimately hard to realise. As it turns out, #SGFASHIONNOW is a “competition”, wrote student-curator Felicia Toh in Men’s Folio, to sell “curatorial ideas for #SGFASHIONNOW.” Five female students from the Lasalle’s BA(Hons) Fashion Media and Industries programme made the cut. According to Ms Toh, the exhibition brief was framed “to encourage new ways of thinking about Singapore fashion today, especially in the larger context of Asian fashion.” Designers selected—a total of eight—must “either practice in Singapore or are Singaporeans based abroad.” The students were only required to come up with four names (the rest were, as Ms Toh wrote, “pre-selected” by ACM), and they chose the relatively unknown Baëlf Studio and Studio HHFZ, Indian fashion label from the ’50s Stylemart, and the Crazy Rich Asian red-carpet sensation Time Taken to Make a Dress (TTMD). ACM picked, probably with input from TaFF, Singaporean-in-Paris Andrew Gn; TaFF darling, American-in-Singapore Carol Chen; true-blue Singaporean cheongsam maker Goh Lai Chan, and Malaysian-in-Singapore Ong Shunmugam. Collectively, they allowed ACM director Kennie Ting to realise his ”dream (of featuring) Singaporean fashion designers in the context of Asia and the World,” as expressed in the accompanying (unexpectedly laggy) e-book.

From left: Carol Chen, Studio HHFZ, and Ong Shunmugam

In his introduction to #SGFASHIONNOW, Mr Ting wrote that the exhibition “is the first that follows ACM’s 2020 repositioning as Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art. The repositioning allows us to champion #InnovationInTradition, and to extend the timeline of our curatorial focus to the contemporary day.” Clothing is commonly associated with decorative arts, hence ACM’s enthusiastic embrace of fashion, not necessarily design. Across the world, museums’ affinity for fashion is growing remarkably (this year alone, despite the on-going pandemic, there are at least 18 fashion exhibitions around the globe tagged “unmissable”). With #SGFASHIONNOW, ACM seems to focus on decoration than design, although both are just as important in applied arts. Boning that position, Felicia Toh’s schoolmate and co-curator Celestine Wong said in the CNA report, “What better way to showcase Singapore’s identity (than) through the lens of fashion and craftsmanship?” It is not certain if this angle was wholly the students’ or partially ACM’s, but it is a compelling one.

What is this “Singapore identity through fashion” that Ms Wong and others harped on? I had thought, prior to visiting the exhibition, that this “identity” would be an evaluation by dress through the application of design. But it is not. Despite having stayed at the exhibition for over an hour a few days after it opened on 25 June, I could not say what puzzled and disheartened me, in equal measure, until I read (and heard) those magic words: “craft”, “crafting”, and “craftsmanship”. In the article for Men’s Folio, Ms Toh wrote, “When we think about fashion and what defines our local identity in multicultural Singapore, the first line of thought is whether we have a national attire or a particular look that represents the country. In search of an answer, my team turned our attention to a tangible aspect of fashion—the craft of making clothes.” In his foreword to the e-publication, the president of Lasalle offered that, “the winning proposition is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s fashion identity through the lenses of craftsmanship and heritage, both tangible and intangible.”

Indeed, craft, from the Old English word cræft, appears repeatedly. Yet, design is the main theme of the exhibition. Interestingly, nothing in the exhibition notes satisfactorily defines craft. In the curatorial statement, “modes of craftsmanship” is described as “running the gamut from tailoring and embroidery to laser-cutting and 3D printing”— also a line used by Ms Toh in the Men’s Folio article. After spending time with the exhibits, it appeared to me that surface embellishments are what the student-curators’ mean by “craft“. Of the eight outfits shown, only one is without decoration, not even trims, not even a single pankou (盘扣 or knotted buttons)—a girlish riff on the cheongsam by Hu Ruixian of Studio HHFZ. Andrew Gn is surprisingly the most minimalist of them all, offering not his usual embroidered flourishes, but an unadorned caped bodice with ultra-long fringing. The most embellished outfit is offered by the design duo Jamela Law and Lionel Wong of Baëlf Studio, who use 3D printed fractals that look like terra-cotta bits to recreate, on a clear TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane, as used in shower curtains) dress, the symbolic images of Jing opera (京剧 or Beijing opera) costumes (did I also sense Schiaparelli X Dali’s ‘Skeleton’ dress from 1938, especially in the back?). Decoration, it seemed to me, is the draw here.

From left, Goh Lai Chan, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Stylemart, and Baëlf Design

Craft, at its most elemental, is skill. But not just any ability that is the result of watching TikTok videos past midnight. Craft is earned skill. You say, for example, the craft of the carpenter or, closer to fashion, the craft of an embroiderer. But that does not mean that these craftspeople are designers. Many skilled practitioners of the crafts of fashion, from pattern makers to plumassiers, are not. The processes and systems of fashion are, of course, dependent on these skills. As Mr Gn said in an accompanying video shown on site, “you need great craftsmen”. With technological advances in the making of clothes and attendant decorating techniques (as seen in the Baëlf Studio exhibit), a one-size-fits-all definition of “craft” is limiting. Yet, to me, “craft” invariably calls up history, tradition, handwork (now debatable since machines have won over the hearts—and hands—of many practitioners), and, without doubt, a high standard of quality. Nick Offerman, the co-host of the NBC show Making It, considers “craft” as “the skill developed, applied, and made manifest through practice and discipline in the fabrication of a work of art.” He was speaking as a wood worker, but he could have been expatiating for fashion designers.

In the curatorial statement of the e-book, we are told that “Hu Ruixian at Studio HHFZ and Carol Chen push the envelope to craft thoughtful pieces.” Even with considerable effort, I failed to see the crafting (nor the thoughtfulness) of the submitted work, just as I struggled with the answers to the ‘whys’ of the designs (but the exhibition is not about that). Despite what I assumed to be the two designers’ bespoke operation, there were glaring irregularities when it came to achieving some semblance of craftsmanship. The addition of Ms Hu’s qipao seemed like an afterthought. It could be because of the size of the mannequin (which is a deplorable excuse, given the museum setting), but hers is the most ill-fitted outfit. Many details that should have been exemplary crafting were curiously absent. It was puzzling to see how large the armholes are, how puckered the seams run, how the base of the collar can’t rest flatly on the neckline and along the shoulder, and how the pocket bags of her extended side pockets threatens to emerge to consume the top edge. Could this be a new way of crafting?

When I looked at Carol Chen’s “Empress Jumpsuit” (an obvious and inexplicable two-piece), I was, similarly, unable to see the craft in the work. The token-Asian metal zardozi embroidery that caused so much puckering on the fabric aside, what stared shamelessly at me was the shockingly ill-fitted trousers. From the front, the waist won’t sit properly. The is no smooth waist or edge, and the crotch point takes after the shape of the pudendum. From the rear, problems with the crotch length and depth, and the hip line yield odd vertical drapes and a V-fold at the crotch. (As with the Studio HHFZ qipao, it is possible that the pants was not made for the mannequin, but it is puzzling that ACM, with the intention of strengthening its fashion division, would not have the resource to get the rightly-sized dummy for the exhibits.) I’ll give the flat-chested top a miss. In all, there is barely engineering of form, forget about manipulation of fabrics. Ms Chen, of course, has the freedom to “craft” as she pleases, but, to me, a museum deserves higher qualitative standards. I am not saying I did not appreciate the emotions or, possibly, the stresses that go into the making of Ms Chen’s two-piece. Perhaps I did not understand what she was attempting to do, but because there was such a lack of the very thing the exhibition was promoting—craft—that irritation took the place of intrigue.

Five (only four shown here) out of eight outfits sport the round qipao collar. None was perfection. Clockwise from top left: Ong Shunmugam, Time Taken to Make a Dress, Studio HHFZ, Laichan

Another way with crafting? Or, at best, dressmaking loosely tethered to craft? There would be those for whom this is merely a matter of semantics and that I am nit-picking, but the distinction is important. Why? I do not think visitors to a fashion exhibition wish to see—for (another) example—tailor’s chalk marks or, in the case of Baëlf Studio’s adorned plastic outer, ink (or pencil?) lines still evident in the seams. Or, are we to believe that such an oversight can bear the true weight of craft? It is understandable that many of our designers are not availed the skilled individuals to provide the artisanal aspects of dressmaking, or those with the eyes to ensure and maintain the refinement associated with supreme tailoring and needlecraft. We do not have a network of specialist tradespeople and craftsmen, who make up the proverbial fashion ecosystem. In his video message recorded in Paris, Andrew Gn explained why he chose to be based in the City of Lights, “You need great craftsmen,” who provide the “savoir faire—the know-how of all the ateliers and all the workshops in France.” Conversely, many designers here have to depend on their own not-necessarily-well-informed judgment on what is skilled execution. And this may fail, or vary, since what is considered skill is, as in the case of beauty, in the sight of the beholder.

Mr Gn’s submission (also a donation) of a strikingly plain, white, silk crepe gown is perhaps a master stroke. Admittedly, the modest dress was, at first glance, a tad disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable for anyone to want to come to see Mr Gn’s beautiful, often custom-designed fabrics and his delicate handwork (I know I did), but this exhibit is one of the least typical, selected from his spring/summer 2012 collection Let there be Light. Yet it is through this stark design of a gown with a fringed, waist-length-in-the-front-and hip-length-in-the-rear cape over the shoulder, purportedly based on the Manila shawl (a square-folded-into-a-triangle covering derived from the Filipino pañuelo), but could easily be a Chinese xiao pijian (小披肩 or capelet), that we see the exemplar of symmetry, precise tailoring, and first-rate finishing. Without doubt, simplicity allowed me to take in the fineness of the work or the “craft”—mostly elusive at #SGFASHIONNOW. I did wonder if perhaps the exhibits’ high-profile, headlining representation is more important that actual craftsmanship. Two are clearly picked for their exposure on the red carpet, rather than their craft: Ong Shunmugam’s derivative caped qipao, worn by designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s pal Paige Parker at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 (when the latter attended as executive producer of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice) and the unstirred bandung neo-qipao that Crazy Rich Asian cast member Constance Lau donned at the film’s Hollywood premier in 2018.

When clothes are placed in a museum, they must hold up to scrutiny. They are worn on mannequins, I believed, to be studied and, in turn, admired. #SGFASHIONNOW offers little that are technically challenging or decoratively spectacular, or uncompromisingly well-made. Before we can begin to understand or interpret the clothes, to wigwag between the extravagant and the not, we have to be first convinced that they are crafted with great élan. And then we can begin to ask ourselves where we stand today as a nation from the standpoint of dress. I reminded myself that this exhibition is partly the work of students. I then wondered what they really took away from this in terms of techniques and workmanship—craft? And how has #SGFASHIONNOW added to the discourse about good designs that show our island as a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity—those that can truly gin up excitement? The eight exhibitions are positioned in the gallery with no scenography, each framed within vitrines with four sides (only one glassed). They looked to me like glorified store windows, which is ironic since window-shopping is increasingly so other-era an activity in our COVID-impacted world. But perhaps that’s intentional: the showcase as spotlight. Still, you can’t level up what won’t be next-level. Even with the risk of getting this bent of shape, I won’t deny that I was dismayed that this is what ACM and its collaborators see as national pride.

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore

Entrance to the Modern Women of the Republic exhibition

Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is a sumptuous tribute to an era of swift societal and sartorial change, witnessed in the late 19th century, through the time when we were a British colony or, as the National Museum of Singapore prefers to put it, a “Crown Colony”. The exhibition opened last month at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, also known as Wanqing Garden (晚晴园). It was renamed by the Teochew rubber magnate and revolutionist Teo Eng Hock (张永福, Zhang Yongfu), when he bought it in 1905. Modern Women of the Republic sets Chinese national and diasporic fashion styles in a colonial-era villa with considerable vigour. It was in this pleasant intimacy and contextualised space that I happily spent more than an hour, one weekday afternoon, looking at the clothes women wore that were beginning to be described as “modern”.

Wanqing Garden was built in 1902, the same year the YMCA here was established, and forty four years after one little Spicer & Robinson opened at Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place). Inside the first-storey main gallery of the nearly 120-year-old mansion, the exhibition was, interestingly, also set up as a department store, Wanqing Co. Ltd (晚晴百货公司), with a suitably retro store front and posters flanking it. In that sense, Modern Women of the Republic’s standing would not be disadvantaged from being compared to store windows, and those complete with visual merchandising, as we know it today that truly captures the viewers’ attention. Unlike #SGFASHIONNOW, this exhibition looks at everyday clothes. Or, those that were custom-made to be worn—possibly for special occasions, possibly not; but unlikely for the red carpet (except, perhaps, one showstopping gown by Goh Lai Chan, the showstopping gown-maker). More than 90 artefacts and accompanying archival photos (including 14 outfits, almost double that of #SGFASHIONNOW) were assembled to tell how modernisation necessarily meant shedding clothes of considerable bulk—hence obscuring the body—for those that are form-enhancing.

Without dramatic scenography, but the very grandness and elegance of the villa, the exhibition creates a walk-back-in-time experience, made more emersive through the well-considered range of mediums, from actual clothes to dainty footwear to kindred accessories to vintage photographs. To be sure, I have seen more compelling and striking exhibitions of similar theme in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but Modern Women of the Republic’s partially local context makes it more meaningful. It covers the periods between the late 1800s to the 1970s (with the exception of that showstopping gown—a very present-day creation), telling the stories of modern-fashion adopters and their influence, such as Teo Eng Hock’s daughter Teo Soon Kim (张舜琴) who was Singapore’s first female barrister (and Hong Kong’s when she moved there later) and a proud adopter of the cheongsam (Romanisation of the Cantonese 長衫 (or long shirt) as everyday dress despite her clearly Western education (she graduated in the UK).

A trio of cheongsams from the ’50s and ’60s, two worn with jackets

The oldest outfits in Modern Women of the Republic are from the late Qing period—those that are precursors to what we can identify as today’s qipao (旗袍 or Manchu robe). In the first, entrance-facing showcase that welcomed visitors, a winter jacket lined with rabbit fur and an embroidered ao (袄) blouse-jacket (the mianao [棉袄 or padded cotton jacket] is still worn today) decorated with fertility symbols and motifs reflect a grander and possibly more decadent age when compared to a Republic-era blouse-and-skirt ensemble hung next to them. The latter would have ushered the arrival of Western dress and casual clothes: simplicity of line and print (as opposed to embroidery)—here, it is Art Deco in style. Although the blouse has narrower waist and sleeves, they embody the looser silhouettes of the 1920s, which, in Europe, who have been the beginning of the modern fashion era as well, spearheaded by designers such as Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and, most notably, Gabrielle Chanel. It was a joy to me to be able to examine these clothes up-close, to see that collars that stood, stood; the seams that are flat, stayed flat, as well as the exquisiteness of the embroideries. Craft here was indeed well and alive.

In the exhibition, I was especially fascinated by a small-screen,1929 film footage of a fashion show in Shanghai, the only video offering among 90-plus objects on display. The simple outdoor presentation was staged in what appeared to be a well-manicured courtyard, featuring Chinese models who emerged from an arched entrance in the rear onto what was a very short catwalk (compared to what we often see today). The women appeared unlike what novelist Eileen Chang (张爱玲) described in her 1943 non-fiction, Chinese Life and Fashions—“the ideal Chinese female, petite and slender, with sloping shoulders and a hollow chest, made herself pleasantly unobtrusive, one of the most desirable qualities in a woman”. These feminine ideals, ironically, had to be concealed under layers of clothes during the Qing rule. The models in the video had unyoked themselves from the restrictions of that time, but not feminine grace; their deportment and confidence heralded a new socio-cultural era.

I was held rapt by the young host of the show, introducing the different looks, presumably the rage of the time, in English! She did not say in great detail what the making of the garments entailed or provide commentary on the genesis of the styles, but it was apparent to me that the clothing was targeted at women (possibly foreigners too) who were trend-aware or who were ready and had the means to adopt these clearly fashionable looks. These are variations of the qipao and what is known as “civilised new attire” (文明新装), prevalent during the early 20th century. Following the May Fourth Movement (五四运动) of 1919, the anti-imperialist and political shifts that were considered momentous for China at that time, students (mainly young women) began wearing what was considered simpler, and garments that were usually in plain weaves, and were visually clear departures from those of the ancien régime. The “civilised new attire” was so popular that even older women adopted it, looking, amusingly, like schoolgirls.

‘Cantonese style’ cheongsam from the early Republican period

The difference between the past and the present is best exemplified by how the clothes are displayed. For the Qing jacket and the ao, horizontal rods are passed through the arms and hung, offering the same effect when similarly stretched out on a Qing garment rack, so that the unmistakable T-shape of the tops—the prevalent silhouette of imperial fashion then—is discernible. Exhibited this way, the immense amount of silk used and the full embroidery can be taken in and admired. I estimated that the Qing tops require at least 4.5 metres of fabric (assuming it is 0.9-metres in width or 36-inches), while the qipao that came after the 1950s would require no more than half of that. The change in fashion era that came with the fall of Imperial China is further contrasted by having the shapelier and lighter (and even shorter) qipaos (or blouses and skirts) worn on mannequins. Women by then were more than ready to don single-layer garments that were cut closer to the body and were shorter, too. The qipao, by now, had nearly obliterated the memory of the “civilised new attire”.

Modern Women of the Republic spans eighty-odd years. With just fourteen outfits, it is not possible that the changes accompanying each decade can be represented by at least one dress. In place of the gaps, the curators have availed photographs and other printed materials to offer an impression of the corresponding styles. Descriptions unfortunately tend to be brief, providing a scant picture of the stories and the crafts behind the exhibited garments. I would have liked to know (even if I could not see), for example, what the layers worn under the Qing ao were that made women look bulky, thus “suppressing their individuality and restricting their freedom”, as noted in an accompanying publication of the exhibition, which is, oddly and regrettably, just as skimpy. Or, the style of embroidery that are on some of the pieces, even when they look rather Cantonese (粤绣 or yuexiu) to me. Perhaps I was expecting scholarship when the curators had something more prosaic in mind. Or accessible?

What really sticks out in Modern Women of the Republic is the inclusion of cheongsam master Goh Lai Chan’s very 21st century gown. Yes, that showstopper. Its lonely appearance in a glass cabinet, placed in a corner, stood incongruously with the clearly less glamorous exhibits across from it. Mr Goh’s chilli-red piece is a qipao fashioned as a floor-sweeping doupeng (斗篷) or cloak, a Western-style garment believed to be introduced to China during the Qing dynasty. As a reinterpretation, he added a qipao collar to it, shortened the front hem to the knee and into an inverted V, on which surprisingly crude embroidered flowers are appliquéd over and weighted down by two short tassels: the sum serving as a headdress-like bouquet, under which a pleated skirt cascades to the floor. But what was annoyingly glaring to me was how shockingly messy the sleeves are set (creating unsightly puckering along the armholes) and how the shoulder refuses to rest flatly. As I glanced further down, two impertinent lines smiled at me: bust-darts that are warped and end in the front with two cheery dimples! Mr Goh’s gown should be lauded for being on-theme, but, sadly, it also reflects what #SGFASHIONNOW desperately tries to illustrates: “craft”, or the sheer lack of it.

#SGFASHIONNOW is on at the Asian Civilisation Museum till 19 December 2021. Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore is on at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall till 12 December 2021. Photos: Zhao Xiangji