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.

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The Modes of London, Shanghai and Malaya: Womenswear

A survey of fashion-related ads and print publications reveals that in the pre-Second World War days, Singapore imported fashion just as it imported most of its consumer goods. The latest trends of fashion capitals such as London, Paris, New York and Shanghai were faithfully followed.

From the items advertised by department stores, European women in Singapore closely observed the clothing conventions of the Victorian and Edwardian times despite the equatorial climate – corsets and elaborate costumes were worn. Thankfully, Western women’s fashion was revolutionised after the First World War, which led to much more comfortable and natural styles of the 1920s.

Shanghai in the early decades of the 20th century was the most progressive and cosmopolitan city in China. Referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’, it was at the forefront of various aspects of popular culture including, of course, fashion. Through movies, magazines and advertising, Shanghai fashion had a great impact on how Chinese women over the world dressed.

The post-war years saw the emergence of Singapore’s first local fashion designers who experimented and transformed traditional garments into high fashion. The indigenous Malayan female costume, the sarong kebaya, made a strong statement when designers gave it a modern twist.


Spiffy in the Tropics:

Early local advertising reveals that men’s fashion of Victorian and Edwardian era Britain were observed by Europeans in Malaya. From the variety of garments and styles advertised, there appeared to be an image-conscious male consumer base eager to look their best at various events in colonial society. As Singapore grew economically and became more cosmopolitan from the 1920s, ads convinced men to dress smartly for business or social life to command respect. Western menswear was also advertised in vernacular newspapers, suggesting that affluent and well-educated local men were also consumers of European fashion. Among local communities, men adopting Western dress were likely to be seen as being modern and progressive or demonstrating a cultural affinity to the British.

While British men’s fashions were followed, ads for ‘colonial outfits’ present a unique category of garments that were a by-product of Western imperialism. Made for comfortable wearing in the tropics, such clothing was used by Europeans travelling to the colonies in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The design of colonial outfits maintained ‘European-ness’, setting the wearers’ identity apart from locals.


Style on a Shoestring:
The Marketing of Bata

The advertising of household brand Bata tells a story of strategic marketing. Bata was founded in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) in 1894 by Tomas Bata, the son of a shoemaker. Adopting mechanised production processes from the start, Bata became Europe’s largest shoe manufacturer by 1905. It ventured into the Malayan market by opening a Bata store in Singapore in 1931. It bought Malayan rubber as a raw material for shoe production and exported its shoes to the local market. Before the Second World War, Bata acquired its own rubber estate and set up two shoe factories in Malaya and retail shops in various cities. These assets enabled Bata to produce low-cost shoes for the local market.

Bata’s advertising reflected its business strategy to sell shoes at affordable prices. To the well-heeled, trendy crowd, it marketed its shoes as fashion footwear with great value; to the masses, its rubber and canvas shoes were synonymous with economy and durability. Through its competitive pricing and aggressive advertising, the brand has captured a significant market share and is so well assimilated locally that many are not aware of its European origins.


Romance in a Bottle:
Advertising of Beauty Products

Ads for grooming products often reflect cultural ideals of beauty such as long, lustrous hair and smooth complexion. Quite often, they also appeal to the desire to be attractive to the opposite sex. As seen in early advertising, the implicit promise of romance was a common theme. Primarily targeted at a female audience, many ads for beauty products, in subtle or blatant terms, suggest that their use might captivate men and lead to romance.

The ads featured here mostly belong to long-established brands. While promoting skin cream, hair oil or fragrances that promise to raise one’s physical appeal, they spark the desire to find love and romance.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.