Growing up in Singapore during the 70s and 80s, I can still remember accompanying my mother and sisters to the textiles market behind Old People’s Park, Chinatown or the imported textile merchant shops in Arab Street to source for the ‘right’ fabric for a very specific outfit. It used to be so much fun browsing through the different types of textiles, laces, textures, colours, motifs and design, sometimes, matching accessories were purposefully created to complete the look and give the outfit an individual style. We have a sewing machine at home and we produced some simple pieces like pyjamas, blouses, shirts, day dresses etc. Very often, we recycled older garments especially our favourite pieces, repairing or made alternations for a better fit. However, the more elaborate designs for special occasions would be sent to our neighbouring seamstress. The numerous visits and fittings where individual bespoke outfits were made, so most unlikely to bump into anyone wearing an identical or similar design. These outfits might have been adaptations from the high fashion styles, but they were personal interpretations made to fit and suit their own comfort and style. Such home tailoring services remained very popular throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Very much inspired by homemade qualities, I started working with these home tailors/seamstresses in the 90s to explore my own designs. I was and still intrigued by the personalising the individual piece of garment with vivid fine details, such as an orchid petal collar, sleeves inspired by the birds of paradise or pleats interpreted from the Modernist artworks. In my opinion, these garments were expressive works of art, just like YSL’s Mondrian sheath dress in 1965. The textures and drapes of the fabrics, delicate shades of colours, sense of proportion and silhouette, most of all, every piece embraced the personal sentiments, its essence is the story behind the creation. Some may call it ‘vintage’ because of its timelessness and practicality, however, shouldn’t personal style be always a classic, reflecting personal taste and enhancing one’s look, transcending time and popular trend?
Once, I bumped into a CWA (Country Women Association) exhibition when I just moved from Sydney to Canberra in 2007, I saw some of the most exquisite domestically produced garments, crafts and textiles collection by Australian women during the 1930s-50s. Amongst them, my favourite was a cocktail number in soft peach chiffon with the most intricate pearl floral beadings, worn with a hand-made self-fabricated waist piece. I was completely mesmerised by the aesthetics of the good old homemade qualities. Until now, images of these rare exhibits still linger on my mind, because personal style and individual taste speak volumes in these artistic creations. My point is do we still care for the personal touch or individual style? Do we still have time to make beautiful things for our loved ones or ourselves?
In the 2000s, with the rise of fast fashions, the availability of affordable ‘off-the-rack’ styles give us excuses to indulge in cheap fast-fashion thrill. The thought of buying cheap clothing that colour fades, seams start to rip, holes in the armpit and goes out of shape after a few wash feels awful. Especially in the times of climate crisis, garments that are deliberately made to be worn only a few times, you can imagine what goes into the production. The most concerning is that we increasingly find ourselves focusing on the commercial value of what we wear such as its brand, price tag which comes with social prestige, styles that are influenced by mass cultures, instead of how much we personally value the garment because of its uniqueness in style, quality and comfort.
In 2020 and the years to follow, we really need to review the way we value our garments, to do our part in helping to solve the existing environmental issues, such as the impact of clothing in landfills, wastage and pollution from the garment manufacturing industries. A more sustainable and responsible way to consume fashion is to recycle and use what already exist. Just like the good old days, when we have a much smaller wardrobe with every piece is functional, versatile, and invest in quality garments that last for a long time. We don’t just wear a certain outfit to make bold fashion statement but rather it is the way we put the whole look together, we own the style that is significant to our own identity. Following the advice of Marie Kondo, clear out the sentimental clutter by getting rid of items that do not ‘spark joy’ in our lives and keep the number of items that we absolutely love to a minimum, and treasure them. When we get tired of wearing a garment, we use our creativity to refashion it into something new, or simply send it to be recycled without any wastage in the process. For example, donating garments that we do not wear anymore to charitable organisations, second-hand boutique or vintage shop, so that other people can have the chance to continue to use them.