Vintage Fashion

Lovely ladies in cheong sam (second & third from Left)
pencil skirt (Left) and poodle skirts (second & from Right)
Shopping for clothes, especially in the festive season, should not be stressful but the teeming crowds and long queues for fitting rooms and at pay points, just saps the joy out of shopping.  I’m seeing red again this Chinese New Year because slacks, dresses, tops and jackets are created in every shade of red.  These are too over-the-top for me so I will instead, dress up my outfit with bright accessories like shoes, bags, belts and costume jewellery. 

It can be exhausting to be a fashion-follower because fashion trends change ever so quickly.  So I flip through fashion magazines or go window-shopping to get ideas and then update my style by finding a few affordable pieces to add to my wardrobe instead of buying everything new.  Even if Chinese New Year traditions dictate dressing in something new, I can wear just one new item to make my whole ensemble new!

Smartly dressed mum (standing second from Left) and
friends capture the elegance of the day
Recently I found a few old photos taken in the 50’s of my mum and aunts with their friends and saw some fashion ideas for a totally vintage look.  It struck me that these fashions are perennial looks that are reinvented by designers in recurring cycles.  As more celebrities have been seen wearing vintage dresses and longer skirts, I’m excited that these styles are making a comeback. 

It’s interesting to see the various types of skirts – flirty flared, narrow pencil or round poodle skirts – that are still worn at various lengths today.  In those days, their lengths were comfortably covering the knees or at calf-length.  The cheong sam, modestly cut in straight shifts instead of figure-hugging shapes, have side slits that are also no higher than the knees.

Peep-toes (Left), strappy platforms (second &
third Left) and espadrilles were
fashionable then and still in vogue now
The fabrics they wore in the 50’s featured stripes, dots, plaid, flowers and butterflies – designs that remain very much in vogue today.  My tailor says that the length of sleeves matter very much in the overall look and these ladies’ lovely outfits show off a range of long sleeves, half sleeves, cap sleeves or are sleeveless.  It’s also remarkable that the necklines, whether round, v-necked or open collars, are all sewn decorously close to the neck.

In a photo, mum and Aunty Wong, her former colleague, are wearing cheong sam sewn from the same fabric so I asked mum why.  I even wondered if the cloth cost less if they bought it in bulk but she told me that they bought it together in Singapore and had the cheong sam tailored in Johor Baru.  In those days, it was fashionable for friends to dress alike and take a studio group shot together to keep as a memento! 

While many celebrities wear ultra-high platform heels as a sensational fashion statement, you will agree that it’s definitely impractical for us to totter around on such impossibly high stilts.  I like heels but I notice that most Asian men feel vulnerable if I tower over them so I lose my heels in favour of lower footwear.  Basic black is highly wearable but I also enjoy wearing footwear in bright colours like red, blue or white.

Mum (Right) and her aunt
in Johor Baru's Istana Gardens
It’s fascinating that the footwear fashion of the 50’s seems to have come full circle because today we still have strappy platforms, peep-toe sandals and court shoes as well as casual espadrilles designed with fabric fastenings.  Flatties and wedge shoes are very much in fashion and smart two-tone shoes are also making a comeback.  Similarly, the elegant handbag and clutch purse designs from those days are still very trendy now.

At the dawn of the Dragon year, everyone will be stepping out in something bright and new so I’ve got every reason to dress up too.  I know I can’t go wrong if I wear an elegant cheong sam or a Chinese inspired outfit and dress it up with the right accessories.  Or maybe I should just raid my mum’s wardrobe to find a vintage outfit to borrow! 

I’m all for dressing with decorum.  I meet a wide spectrum of people at various events so I will dress according to the weather and the occasion, and always for the cultural setting.  The rule of thumb is to attract attention for the right reasons and not let  Moral Fashion Police, who are usually self-appointed, catch me for being guilty of offending any eyes and sensibilities!  Happy Chinese New Year!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 20 January 2012

Mark said:
I enjoyed reading your blog on fashions, Peggy.   Even though the photos are small and black & white, I can see you in your mum!


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