Jackie Yoong

Imagine a woman slipping on a sexy qipao in the 1930s. She was making a fashion statement. Indeed, having deviated from the loose-fitting qipao of the Qing dynasty, the form fitting garment was in vogue.

One such qipao or cheongsam will go on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum’s (ACM’s) fashion and textiles gallery when it opens at the end of the month. While today’s visitors may view it as a traditional Chinese garment, the qipao is reflective of a time when China opened up to Western influences. The exhibition piece, in particular, was created with the French Devore technique, which was popularised in the 1920s.

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Challenging the idea of authentic Chinese dresses is precisely what the ACM is setting out to do. “Fashion trends come and go. At the museum, we historicise fashion,” enthuses ACM curator Jackie Yoong, adding that the opening of the permanent gallery is timely as the scope of fashion tends to be Western-centric. The gallery aims to focus on the intersections across cultures, with the inaugural exhibition delving into Chinese fashion, specifically from the dragon robes of the late Qing dynasty to the qipao and the Mao suit.

“The Asian dress reflects the change in thinking among people,” Yoong points out. “People look to outfits as a way to associate themselves with a particular sentiment. For example, you see the rise of the hanfu among some Chinese today as they wish to return to an imagined period of pure Chinese identity.”

Think about it. The next #OOTD picture you see on social media might just be a layered narrative of the times.

(Related: This is the modern cheongsam)