asian civilisations museum fashion and jewellery galleries

While museums are currently among the institutions deemed as non-essential during this circuit breaker period, that should not blind you to the fact that the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has just launched two new permanent galleries that are quite the milestones with regards to their specialties – the Fashion and Textiles wing (2,055 sq ft), for example, is currently the only permanent space in Singapore dedicated to its namesake, while its counterpart (1,636 sq ft) is the first in the world to spotlight South-East Asian jewellery.

Both are located on the third-floor, accompanied by a third – the refreshed Ceramics gallery. Together, the three galleries have on display over 300 artefacts and precious objects that tell diverse stories of Asian history and culture and how they’ve shaped identities over vast periods of time – for example Jewellery gallery curator Naomi Wang parsed jewellery and other bodily decorations over a period ranging from the Neolithic era (12,000 years ago) up to the 20th century.

In the Jewellery gallery: a late 19th century Sumatran headdress fashioned out of gold and copper. This style of headdress is unique to the village of Solok on Sumatra and is only worn by women during weddings and other important ceremonies.

Intrigued, I asked Jackie Yoong, the curator behind the Fashion and Textiles gallery, why the museum decided on these new spaces now. “For me personally, I think that fashion and textiles are very important to show in museums. What we see today at the ACM, we are taking an important I think step in Asia and in Asian museums. But you would, I think, see that around the world in museums in the West, there already is that movement of putting fashion and textiles back into into the space of museum as a worthy material medium,” she said.

In the Fashion and Textiles gallery: the qipao over the years – starting from early incarnations in the 1910s and 1920s (far right) to shapes and silhouettes more familiar to us today

“I think that’s very important because in the history of museums, there is an unspoken hierarchy (of which art forms are the most important and “worthy”). So what you’ve imagined when you step into a museum for a long time are paintings and sculptures. And when it comes to Chinese art, you’re thinking about jades and bronzes, and that’s where I think fashion and textiles is really special because it has that very close personal relationship to the individual,” she added. “And also a lot of times these garments or these textiles has a very special relationship to the voices of women.  A lot of times, museums in particular have come from a background of  looking mainly at paintings and sculptures with a bias that favours men. So I think in that sense I think it’s very exciting that we have this gallery here.”

A highlight of the fashion and textiles gallery are these shoes worn by Chinese women meant for foot-binding. The ideal then, says Yoong was three inches in size, though smallest on display in her gallery measures about five inches. She says the shoes upholstered in leather in particular (the black pair in the foreground) are very special, as the person who wore them (in the 1920s) was considered to be very ahead of her time, due to the fact that leather was hardly used to make these shoes.

The first exhibition at the Fashion and Textiles gallery focuses on Chinese attire from the late Qing dynasty (1800s) to the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and will present some 40 items broadly centered around three iconic garments throughout the period – the dragon robes worn for court appearances, the qipao and the Mao suit, along with variations that show how details such as the silhouette, fabrics and even dyes change in these garments over time.

Over at the Jewellery gallery, Wang has worked hard to expand the meaning of jewellery beyond its conventional connotations. The 164 objects on display range from a grass headdress to a 1.3 metretall necklace meant to be worn by horses during special occasions. There are also jewellery meant for every imaginable part of the body, including modesty plates carved out of materials such as gold, tortoise shell and mother of pearl, to shield one’s private parts – worn not so much for practicality but to serve amuletic purposes.

The exhibitions at the Fashion and Textiles gallery will change on a yearly basis, due to the fragility of the medium – fabrics, unlike the metalwork over at the jewellery department, cannot be showcased under strong lighting for an extended period of time.

Below, some examples of what you can expect at both galleries and their respective curators’ thoughts:

On why it matters that we have these galleries

Jackie Yoong: “It’s significant because really, because it’s the first time we have space that’s dedicated to exploring fashion and textiles as a material medium, to understand our past and also our society. A lot of fashion studies now is very much Euro-centric, so it’s a lot about what people in the West wear. So what we try to do at ACM, particularly in this gallery is to really put an Asian perspective to fashion and textiles. So in a way what we try to do also with this first display that you see is we try to bring across in a way what Asians wore to help people appreciate the classic attire but also at the same time to appreciate the variety, and also how with the passing of time, the fashion sensibilities have changed. I think in particular, what we also want to highlight very much in the fashion and textiles gallery, as well as you see throughout our galleries is the idea of Asian cultures being very much hybrid. So when you talk about something being Asian actually, a lot of times we have incorporated influences from the west and vice versa.”

On going beyond the traditional notions of what constitutes jewellery

Naomi Wang: “I think what we try to do is as well to present audiences, the concept of jewellery and try to break expected notions of what jewellery could be. For example, material diversities. When we think of a jewellery gallery, we often think of precious metals like gold or precious gems like diamonds. But different communities in Southeast Asia also looked at things like coral, feathers from birds such as the kingfisher – all these are also equally important luxury goods that were part of this global trade.  So we what we’re trying to do is also maybe introduce a larger vocabulary on what we view as what could be beautiful and what could be precious. One of my favourite pieces we have on show is a grass headdress worn by the Orang Asli people (indigenous natives of Peninsular Malaysia). And what we’re trying to say is that the impulse to decorate is so intrinsic to the human experience that before heat was invented to work on precious metals like gold, people already using surrounding flora and fauna to decorate your body.”

This interview has been condensed for brevity. All photos courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum.