As the 11th most prominent fashion capital of the world, Singapore is a single rank short from sharing the top 10 domain with the likes of New York, Paris and London. It’s a slide from 2011’s 8th spot, and a considerable slump from what the city-state was famed to be prior to the turn of the 21st century.

In retrospective of Singapore’s illustrious fashion history, we dived into the bygone gold that is early post-Independence local glossies, archival manufacturer’s lookbooks and several ultra-rare Vogue Singapore copies. Here, we prove that Singaporean style of yore — a sartorial melting pot of diverse East-meets-West cultures — was decades ahead of its time. Before these 2018 hits came to be, this little red dot did it first.

singapore fashion history dismal lookbook
Left to right: A page from Singapore Master Tailors Association’s 1980 lookbook and one of Balenciaga’s Spring 2018 menswear campaigns.

DISMAL-COOL LOOKBOOKS

The ’80s was a time when Singapore fashion blossomed into a golden age. Back then, home-bred designers were celebrated beyond these shores, local supermodels were booked for major runways and campaigns and the made-in-Singapore label was highly revered. Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Calvin Klein were a few of the many designer houses which chose to manufacture some of their ranges in the country.

High demand drove a spike in the inception of Singapore-published lookbooks conceived by local tailors, textile and garment manufacturers. Shot with analog cameras, the images had a singular old-school lustre: Dewy focus, stark lighting, anchored with typical flat backdrops — not unlike the typical awkward family portraits. Recently, Balenciaga revisited the sombre ’80s aesthetic via Spring 2018’s viral menswear campaign.

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singapore fashion history
Black-and-white photos by veteran photographer Joyce Choo for Vogue Singapore’s August 1995 issue (left); and 2018 Insta-girls doing what they do best (right).

THE IT-GIRL UNIFORM

The debut of Vogue Singapore in December 1994 was a milestone. The Condé Nast top dog was, and still is, fashion’s unofficial yet hallowed bible. Its arrival, hence, served as a nod of acknowledgement to the country’s thriving, buzzy fashion scene.

Though Vogue Singapore’s short-lived existence of just 29 issues is relatively unknown to the Insta-generation, its August 1995 edition presented an editorial spread — lensed by veteran Singaporean photographer Joyce Choo — which seemed to be prescient of the selfie-adept batch. Western influence, particularly the ’90s hip hop wave, inspired the pairing of midriff-baring crop tops and wide-legged pants. They would have seamlessly fitted right into any Insta-girl’s #OOTD, no doubt.

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singapore fashion history
Left to right: Alice Scott-Ross, Puan Sri Rosalind Foo and Iris Apfel. (Photos: Vogue Singapore and Iris Apfel’s Instagram)

SILVER-HAIRED STYLE DOYENNES

If right now we name Iris Apfel, Lyn Slater, Maye Musk and Linda Rodin as our age-transcending icons, Singapore had its own pool of seasoned style savants back in the ’90s. Two of them were the late Alice Scott-Ross and Puan Sri Rosalind Foo.

Profiled on Vogue Singapore’s feature in 1995 as the country’s style-conscious leading ladies, they were said to be in “their seventies and eighties” at the time of writing. Scott-Ross was the daughter of Sir Tan Cheng Lock, the co-founder of the Malaysian Chinese Association. She became a pioneering female property developer in Singapore, responsible for the construction of Hilton Towers in the ’70s. Her personal style was a fusing of salt-and-pepper coiffure, rouge lips on a pale complexion, and high-collar Victorian blouses often gilded with jewels.

Foo came from a similar privileged milieu. As the granddaughter of Wong Ah Fook — a wealthy Cantonese building contractor who owned massive land tracts in Johor and Singapore, who established many companies including the Great Eastern Life Assurance — Foo was able to go overseas to study fine art despite the rarity of young Asian females moving abroad on her own. She returned and pursued a career in journalism, working as a fashion and society columnist for the Malayan Tribune. Foo’s sense of style and her equally sprightly yellow Alfa Romeo roadster were known as her signature quirks.

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singapore fashion history bucket hat
Left to right: Bucket hats, as worn by Judy Chin in Ladies Magazine’s October 1966 issue and Prada’s Fall 2018 runway look.

THE BUCKET HAT

Ugly chunky sneakers are to footwear as to bucket hats to headpieces. The unlikely fashion icon made its latest comeback in iterations of PVC on Chanel’s Spring 2018 runway as well as nylon and knit on Prada’s Fall 2018 runway. Not their first, they’ve swung in and out of fashion since its inception in the early 1900s.

Thanks to its nifty 360 weather-proof brim, the floppy Irish fisherman cap was adapted into a round-topped military version for the British Army — worn by troops posted in Singapore during its colonial epoch. When Singapore became independent and the British soldiers were sent back, the nascent city-state settled into its newfound freedom and began to forge a national identity.

In 1966, the bucket hat reappeared as a blithe beaded accessory on the inside-front of Singapore’s first post-independence Chinese beauty-centric publication, Ladies Magazine. Considering its gauche functionality that doubled as the ultimate blank canvas for cultural connotations, the possibility of a veiled political statement revelling in Singapore’s new chapter was likely.

 

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singapore fashion history menswear
Left to right: A look from Singapore Master Tailors Association’s 1980 lookbook, a runway number  from Gucci’s Spring 2018 collection, another look from Singapore Master Tailors Association’s 1980 lookbook, and 2018 LVMH Prize nominee Bode’s Spring 2019 look.

EXPRESSIVE MENSWEAR

When Alessandro Michele reignited Gucci with his magpie oddity in 2015, it dawned a new era of OTT menswear. Still, it wasn’t after this year’s #MeToo movement swept across various industries, fashion included, that conversations around the toxic nature of men’s socially expected stoic masculinity swirled like never before. Designers took note, reflecting the change of tide with no-holds-barred menswear offerings for Spring 2019.

Of course, the era most mined for apt inspiration would have to be the ’80s. Gender-bending pop culture icons Prince, Michael Jackson and David Bowie reigned supreme, ushering in the watershed mainstreaming of open-ended masculinity. During the same period, Singapore’s fashion landscape had a rapid metamorphosis. It transformed from a colonised kampong to an exotic shopping mecca for early jet-setters. Fashion became a national fixation. And the cultural sway of its Western counterparts moulded Singapore’s fashion pendulum. The result? The never-before-seen melding of flamboyance and menswear.

(Main image and featured images: Joyce Choo for Vogue Singapore)