Review of ‘Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its international sources’ at the Peranakan Museum

On Sunday, I went to the Peranakan Museum to see ‘Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its international sources’. I had blogged about this exhibition, and how it is likely that its staging is intimately tied to certain demands that the donors/lenders – Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee – would have made prior to agreeing to the donation/loan (click ‘here‘).

As expected, this exhibition felt really like a space-filler. It occupied both floors of the temporary exhibition space, and it exhibited nothing but kebaya, with each ensemble worn by a headless mannequin; dozen upon dozen standing in the galleries with nothing else to catch your eye. The basic storyline is that Peranakan ladies wore different styles of kebaya depending on where they lived, and that the styles changed with the times. Don’t get me wrong; it was great to be able to see up-close the textiles without the reflective-showcase-glass to contend with. But with so many similar outfits on display one after another, it was surprisingly easy to get ‘museum-fatigue’ in this otherwise small exhibition. This is much like ‘Angkor-fatigue’; how many temples (or kebaya) can you view before they all start to look the same??

The main things that were missing were large blown-up photos of these outfits being worn in their day. Even though there were a few large, life-sized photos of ladies-in-kebaya at the entrance of the exhibition and the stairwell, these were sadly the exception rather than the norm. Most of the photographs on display were small ones appearing sparingly on the small text panels. These small photos did almost nothing to help me imagine the lives of the ladies who wore them day in, day out decades ago. This is after all ‘fashion’, and nothing brings fashion to life like the people/models who wear the clothes.

Another two things missing – since we are focused on ‘looking’ at the clothing up close – are (1) ‘manufacturing techniques’ and (2) ‘conservation details’. For (1) ‘manufacturing techniques’, the exhibition could have informed the visitors how the clothes were manufactured, and how the patterns and prints were produced. This information would have helped me appreciate a lot more about how these clothes were made before they were purchased by the ladies. For (2) ‘conservation details’, the visitors were reminded time and again by signs saying ‘These textiles are very fragile. Please do not touch’, but yet there were no details why they are ‘fragile’. I am sure a lot of ‘conservation’ effort must have gone in to the preparation of the clothes before they could be displayed, so it would have been great to receive a few practical tips about how they were prepped for the exhibition and how amateur collectors can also safe-keep their private collections.

Last thing that I thought was conspicuously missing – at least for temporary museum exhibitions in Singapore – was the interactive computer programs that complement many of the National Heritage Board’s exhibitions. I did not notice any computer terminals at all, which was a shame. Such terminals could be used to display vital information that would help contextualise the clothing, such as archival audio/visual clips of Peranakan women wearing the clothing, or videos of seamstresses/batik-craftswomen working on the clothing.

Overall, I suspect that this exhibition suffered from a lack of funds that could have otherwise made it an interesting show. The many, many mannequins on display and the lack of large blown-up photos and computer terminals with dedicated kebaya information appear to me as a direct result of cost-cutting/saving measures. As a result, I failed to get an adequate idea of how these clothes were used, even though I know how they were worn; under what social conditions were they worn? did the wealthy wear something different from the poor? who designed and tailored them? how were these ideas of fashion handed down from generation to generation? Perhaps, like I had blogged earlier, it is because this exhibition was hastily put together for the sake of appeasing the donors/lenders (and their son, Peter Lee, who was appointed ‘curator’ of his parents’ stuff)?

I saw many beautiful kebaya (and sarong) in this exhibition, which was great as I am a textile-fancier. But seriously, the watered-down information on display did not tell me much more than what I had already known about them. This kebaya exhibition, in hindsight, ‘shows’ a lot of the textiles worn by Peranakan ladies, but it misses the chance to showcase the ‘life’ of these exquisite clothes.

P.S. The rest of the museum is great; there are computers to click, drawers to open, headphones to listen to. I especially like the kids’ activity area on level 1; great fun design, and with helpful staff to guide the kids through the stuff to do.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Review of ‘Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its international sources’ at the Peranakan Museum

  1. Anonymous

    I am looking for a kebaya pattern as were worn by my grandmother, who is a peranakan lady. Where can I obtain such a pattern, please? Thank you.

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