Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore
Traveller Isabella Bird wrote of Singapore in 1879: ‘a city ablaze with colour and motley with costume…every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets’. One could see ‘Parsees in spotless white, Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers, and draperies, all white, with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs; Sikhs in pure white Madras muslin…and Chinamen of all classes, from the coolie in his blue or brown cotton, to the wealthy merchant in his frothy silk crépe and rich brocade, made up an irresistibly fascinating medley’. However, she described local European women as ‘an ungraceful heap of poufs and frills, tottering painfully on high heels, in tight boots, her figure distorted into the shape of a Japanese sake bottle, every movement a struggle or a jerk, the clothing utterly unsuited to this or any climate, impeding motion, and affecting health, comfort, and beauty alike’.
Before the early 20th century, Singapore’s various communities followed the dressing conventions of their cultures, which were an integral part of their identities. The 1910s witnessed major changes in fashions in the East and West – the First World War revolutionised Western women’s fashion and the founding of the modern Chinese republic in 1911 ushered in an era of modern fashion with Shanghai at the forefront. Singapore, being at the junction of the East and the West, showcased these fashion trends as reflected in local advertising of the same period. The ads also reveal the unique phenomenon of the ‘colonial outfit’ – Western dress adapted in design and materials for Europeans’ wearing in the tropical colonies. These outfits embodied practicalities as well as symbolic expressions of the wearer’s identity. In the post-Second World War era, parallel to Malaya’s independence and growing national identity, advertising and print media showed new style trends where indigenous costumes, in particular, the sarong kebaya, became in vogue and entered the hallowed halls of high fashion.
Fashion merchandise not only includes clothing but also beauty products and footwear. The advertising strategies used in selling these products offer an interesting study. Tapping on the human desire for love, the subtle or blatant promise of romance was used in the selling of cosmetics and fragrances. Household footwear brand Bata, on the other hand, marketed affordable fashion to reach out to different consumer groups and captured a large market share.