Hybrid Dressing at Ancient Port Cities

Did you know that the ancestors of modern and global Asians were far less conservative and far more experimental and unconventional in their fashion choices?

Guest speaker, Peter Lee, at the Soroptomists
International Iskandar Puteri, public talk event
The audience at the second in the series of public talks organised by the Soroptomists International Club of Iskandar Puteri (SI IP) had their notions challenged about Asian culture and transnational and intra-Asian connections when they heard what independent art historian, Peter Lee, had to say about hybrid fashion.

Singapore-based Lee, the honorary curator of the National University of Singapore’s Baba House and co-author of ‘The Straits Chinese House’ published in 2006, have curated numerous exhibitions on Peranakan culture.  His most recent work in 2016 included an exhibition at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum entitled, Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia (1500 – 1900).

Besides curating exhibitions at Singapore’s Asian Civilization Museum, Lee also curated an exhibition on, Singapore: Sarong Kebaya and Style, at the Fukuoka Art Museum and Shoto Museum of Art in Tokyo.

A section of the audience at the SI IP event
At the start of Lee’s talk at the recent SI IP event, an intriguing headline ‘Dressing Badly in the Ports’ flashed on the screen and it piqued the curiosity of the audience.

So were they really ‘Dressing Badly’?  Lee went on to explain how in the olden days, people often improvised their traditional outfits by experimenting with different garments and accessories, not necessarily from their own ethnic origins.

Using old photos and references to illustrate Asian cultural heritage in styles and fashion, Lee presented an interesting talk on Experimental Hybrid Fashion: Beyond ethnic and traditional costumes in port cities.

With the complex cultural life in port cities in mind, Lee used various interesting illustrations to discuss the contrasts between Globalising West versus Traditional Asia, Western Fashion verses Traditional Asian Dress and Hybrid verses Pure styles.

Using various ancient portraits and photos to illustrate how people used to dress, Lee took the audience across the continents from Europe, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore to Japan.

Lee showing a portrait that displayed a typically
elaborate gentleman's outfit in those days
These outfits were usually made of fabrics in a hybrid of Indian textiles like chintz and dyed cotton and Indonesian batik, often accessorized by jewellery that was strongly influenced by European designs with an Asian twist.

Lee quoted a Dutch writer who recorded detailed accounts of the showy attire of how women in Goa, India, used to dress in the late 16th century, when they went to church or called on others for visits.

The description was and I quote, “…they put on very costly clothing, and gold bracelets and bands on their arms, and costly gemstones and pearls, from their ears hang straps full of jewels and gems.”
Lee pointed out that the desire to look good was not limited only to women but the men too, enjoyed dressing up and adding accessories to their outfits.

On a journey to Pahang in the Malay Peninsular, Malayan writer of Indian origin, Munshi Abdullah, wrote and I quote: “I observed of the people that perhaps one in ten did any work; the rest of them loafed about in poverty and vice… about half of them had the habit of solely being concerned about looking smart, wearing fine jackets and trousers, but there was not one who wanted to find his way in life.”

One of the portraits presented was that of a wealthy nyonya lady, Ho Sok Choo, in Singapore dated 1920.  Lee brought the audience’s attention to the ostentatiously large design of her kerongsang, the traditional ornate fastenings of a nyonya blouse.

This was clearly custom-made with glittering gems in a filigree design that featured her initials, H, S and C, with one alphabet designed into each piece of the three linked pieces of this grand lady’s kerongsang.

When Lee introduced the word, sarong from a 1631 dictionary in Rome that described it as vagina, it certainly caught the audience’s imagination.  In Malay, sarong simply means sheath.  It was also the ancient word used to describe skirt cloths or tubular skirt cloths in Malay, Javanese and Balinese.

Besides the word, sarong, Lee also discussed how the word, kebaya, had evolved from its Persian-Arabian origin since the 7th century.

Lee’s presentation on the fashion choices in early port cities gave the audience new insights into how it was then up to the individual to dress in traditional outfits that were modified or matched with modern styles to create a style of their own.

At the event, SI IP Charter President, Nooraini Datuk Mohd Yasin, also presented a brief outline of the social and welfare activities that the club was doing in the community.

One for the album, [Left to Right] Peter Lee, Lisa Shedd,
Dato' Anusha Santhirasthipam, Nooraini Datuk Mohd Yasin
and Tunku Fatimah
These included an education centre for refugee children, helping single mothers develop more self-confidence through a range of training workshops and providing a shelter for girls and children rescued from prostitution.

Through the work of SI IP, Nooraini aims to empower women and advocates a stop to violence against women and girls while providing a safe and pleasant place for our children to grown up in.

While SI IP is one of the youngest clubs in Soroptomists International (SI), they have a number of plans in community work like greening the schools and parks, clean-up campaigns, advocating the stop of child abuse and creating a shelter.  Nooraini emphasized that all of these projects needed funds to help them carry out the work more effectively.

Their community effort is in line with the objectives of SI, a vibrant organization for professional and business women who are committed to creating a world where women and girls can be guided to achieve their individual and collective potential and have an equal voice in building strong and peaceful communities.

Also present at the event were president-elect of SI South West Pacific, Dato’ Anusha Santhirasthipam and SI national representative for South Western District, Nora Lam.

For information about the next exciting SI IP public event, please contact telephone numbers: 017 – 768 5643 and 012 – 735 4406.

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