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Traditional costumes of Singapore

By: deliatoh on 14 Apr 2011
The Singapore fashion scene has much more to offer than the “slippers, singlets and shorts” arrangement. Our vibrant, multicultural heritage has brought many beautiful traditional costumes that are still worn, and commonly seen, throughout Singapore, especially during the festive seasons. Let's take a look at some of these still-popular and in-demand ethnic costumes in Singapore today.

Peranakan costumes

The Nyonya Kebaya (right)

The Peranakan race is much like the mixed-blood child of Chinese and Malay parents. Having originated from Malacca and Indonesia, they are ethnically Chinese, but have adopted Malay ways of life and culture to better identify with a Malay-dominated society. Males are known as Babas and the females, as Nyonyas. The Kebaya is a traditional costume worn by the Nyonyas which consists of a translucent, figure-hugging top worn over an undershirt, and a batik-designed sarong. The top is typically decorated with immaculately embroidered flowers and patterns that serve to demonstrate the gentleness and conscientiousness of the Peranakan woman.

In the early colonial days, Kebayas were hand-sewn by Peranakan women as part of their dowry. The more kebayas they had sewn at their marriage age, the better it reflects on their upbringing and sophistication, hence the better their marriage prospects. Today, the most authentic and exquisite specimens of this exotic garment can be found in the Katong area (the Peranakan district in Singapore).

The Singapore Airlines stewardesses, also known as the Singapore Girls, wear the sarong kebaya as their uniform. The sarong kebaya is a distinctive Peranakan traditional dress similar to the nyonya kebaya. For years, this has allowed the Singapore Girl to be a reflection of Singapore's ethnic culture.

Chinese costumes


The Cheongsam

The Modern Cheongsam

The Cheongsam is the Cantonese pronunciation for ChangShan, or “long garment” in Chinese. Although typically thought to be a traditional Chinese costume, it actually originated from the Qing (Manchu) dynasty. Both men and women during the Qing dynasty wore a long, 1-piece dress that hangs loose from the body, and it was designed specially to conceal the body-shape of the wearer. Today, the Cheongsam worn by women is flattering to the body, and comes in many varying lengths, colours and designs. It is commonly worn during Chinese New Year and Chinese weddings in Singapore.

Indian costumes

The Sari

Indian Sari

The Nivi-style Sari

If you've been to Singapore for a significant period of time, you may have noticed many Indian women dressed in their traditional garbs, draped with a long, flowing and glamorous-looking piece of cloth. This piece of unstitched cloth is known as the sari. Worn over a top known as the choli and completed with accessories and ornaments, the sari originated from the Indus Valley civilisation and is very popular in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

There are a variety of ways of draping the sari to exemplify the body, but the most commonly seen way of doing so in Singapore is the Nivi style, which involves wrapping it around the waist and tucking in inside the skirt, while draping the remaining cloth over your shoulder and allowing it to hang around the waist level.

The following are the names of the other ways you can experiment with draping your sari: Bengali and Oriya style,
Gujarati, Maharashtrian/Konkani/Kashta, Dravidian, Madisaara, Kodagu, Gobbe Seere, Gond, Malayali.

The Dhoti Kurta

The Dhoti Kurta

Dhoti Kurta

The Dhoti is a bottom traditionally worn by Indian men, consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth skilfully wrapped around the waist and legs. The top is known as a Kurta, which is a loose garment that becomes wider towards the bottom. This arrangement, collectively known as the Dhoti Kurta, is commonly worn by men in Northern India for formal occasions, but have recently been used in many other settings.

Malay costumes

The Baju Melayu

Baju Melayu

The Baju Melayu is the name for the traditional Malay garment. It is worn by men and consists of a shirt for a top, sarong, worn over a pair of trousers, complete with a cap known as the songkok. The songkok is a religious hat which originated in the 13th Century with the rise of Islam in Muslim countries.

The Baju Kurung

Purple Baju Kurung

Baju Kurung

Malay women sometimes don the baju kurung with the tudung, which serves the cover the hair and neck of a woman for conservative reasons. The early baju kurung, which originated as the Silk Trade grew more prosperous in the 13th Century, was looser and longer and gradually evolved to look more graceful and sophisticated as it is today.

There are 2 versions of the Baju Kurung: namely the Baju Kurung Telok Balanga, and the Baju Kurung Cekak Musang. These two variations are differentiated by the shape of their collars: the Telok Balanga does not have a collar, while the Cekak Musang has a collar with two buttons sewn on it.

Today, the Baju Kurung is extremely popular and worn by many Malay women even in their daily lives. 


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