Fashion Traditions of Asia

There’s not much traveling being done these days — I’m writing as nearly everyone in the world has been told to stay indoors due to COVID-19 — but I thought it would still be fun to share the jewels and baubles newly on display at Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum.


Minangkabau bride, Western Sumatra

Unfortunately, the museum’s brand new third floor gallery of textiles, jewelry, and ceramics opened just two days before the Singapore government announced that all non-essential institutions would be closed for a month. So the new space had hardly any visitors — and I had to go sporting my own new piece of fashion:


The new third floor space is titled “Materials and Design: Fashion and Textiles, Jewelry, and Ceramics.” Currently, all of the fashion and ceramics on display are Chinese, but the jewelry truly cuts across this continent. And there are all sorts of different kinds of pieces, including this tortoiseshell comb from the Sumba people of the Lesser Sunda Islands  …


… a very different kind of comb from Lampung in southern Sumatra …fullsizeoutput_682e

… western-style brooches from Java …


… an elaborate golden headdress from Borneo …


… a diamond-studded belt from Singapore (made in South India) …


kerongsang (pins that traditionally held women’s blouses closed) from Singapore and Java:



… and even a necklace for horses from Uzbekistan:fullsizeoutput_6852

Not everything in the jewelry room was made to be worn — this Javan kala mask would have been mounted on a kris (knife) scabbard …


… while this Singaporean tiger’s tooth would have been carried as an amulet to ward against evil:


The museum takes special care to show visitors how various pieces of jewelry would have been worn. Sometimes, this takes the form of life-size photographs with the jewelry mounted on top, as with this model of a Peranakan bridal ensemble:


Other times, historic photos are displayed near the jewelry, as with these enormous ear ornaments from the Karo Batak people of northern Sumatra …


… which were so large that one of the ear pieces would have been attached to the woman’s cloth headdress for extra support:


By far the most fascinating piece of jewelry to me was this fingernail guard, made in Java for a member of the Chinese Qing royalty …


… who would have worn it like this:


While the jewelry takes up a good amount of space on the third floor, the fashion and textile gallery is considerably smaller. At the moment, it houses an exhibit called “Fashion Revolution: Chinese Dress from Late Qing to 1976.” Here, you can see history as it played out through fashion, starting with traditional robes of the early- to mid-1800s:


The late Qing dynasty was also the tragic era of bound feet for women …


… and of platform silk shoes:


Fashion trends began to shift in the late 1800s, especially as China began to open up to the West. Once synthetic dyes came to China in 1871, robes evolved into new color schemes (this lilac was a favorite of the controversial Empress Dowager Cixi):


You can see the move toward a more global economy in the embroidered scenes of steamships and westerners…


… on this late Qing dynasty jacket:


At this same time, some dress wear became more flamboyant …


… and new trends (like high collars) began to mix with tradition (like images of phoenixes and lotuses):


By the 1920s, Imperial rule had crumbled, and clothing became even more westernized (here, the top is sheer and is embroidered with Art Nouveau designs):


Women began to wear the qipao (cheongsam), a long, robe-like dress that became a staple of Chinese fashion from the 1920s through the early days of Mao:


Late 1920s Art Deco qipao


1930s velvet qipao

Eventually, Mao came into power, and that ended the fashion fun!


The new third floor galleries at the museum also include a new Chinese ceramics room that features everything from Tang dynasty tomb figures to mid-Qing dynasty vases with good luck bats …


… to 20th-century teapots (yup, this is a teapot):


by Lu Wenxia and Lu Jianxing

There’s a lot to see in this room, but I’d exhausted myself taking in all of the fashion finery, so I’ll have to return to the ceramics another time.

I love the Asian Civilizations Museum — it’s one of my favorite in Singapore. And it’s always worth a stop to play at the giant silver marbles outside:


If you’re tired after your visit, I recommend a walk across the Singapore River on the Cavenagh Bridge to the Fullerton Hotel, where you can have a lovely (and very expensive) cup of tea. I also indulged in this egg-inspired confection …


… which had a pineapple gel and coconut mousse inside:



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