The traditional Chinese cheongsam or qipao is one of the most graceful icons of Asian fashion. This slender, body-hugging dress with a high collar is made of silk or cotton, and is an elegant alternative to a cocktail dress. Depending on your budget and how much time you have, there are many ways to get your hands on a cheongsam.
The narrow streets of Chinatown are a good place to start. For mid-range cheongsams and other Chinese silks and fabrics, try the Yue Hwa department store. But if you want something truly special, check out Singapore’s cheongsam couturiers who make exquisite, one-of-a-kind cheongsams. Many such designers can be found in luxury hotels and wedding boutiques.
Baju kurung is the ethnic dress of many Malays in Singapore: a long flowing skirt paired with a long-sleeved, knee-length blouse. The traditional baju kurung is loose and airy, but contemporary versions have seen the inclusion of more fitted designs, runway-inspired trends, a range of colours and patterns, and trendy accessories.
Generally, baju kurung material is sold as skirt and blouse sets in fabric stores, of which you'll find no shortage in the Arab Quarter. Materials range from cotton to silk and brocade, and fabrics can be as simple or as decorative as you want them to be. Most women prefer to get them tailor made, so that they fit just right.
Also common in both Indonesia and Singapore is the sarong kebaya: a fitted, often embroidered blouse (kebaya) paired with a long woven skirt (sarong). Because of its versatility, the kebaya has been easily incorporated into designs by many international clothing brands, but you can still buy traditional kebayas in Chinatown, some places in Little India, and even online.
In Singapore, the kebaya is traditionally associated with the Perakanan community, though probably the most famous example of the sarong kebaya around the world is the uniform of female Singapore Airlines flight attendants.
For Indian clothes in Singapore, head to Little India of course. The upper floors of Tekka Market are the best place to start, with a huge variety of traditional Indian clothing of all types. Prices are reasonable, and you can try your hand at haggling for the best deal.
The traditional Indian salwar kameez (loose drawstring pants with a long tunic-style top) and churidar kameez (the same long tunic-style top with narrower drawstring pants) are commonly available and comfortable to wear (they’re also known as Punjabi suits in Singapore). Styles range from the simplest of cotton outfits to any design, colour and cut you can think of depending on how glamorous you wish to look.
Saris are also available in numerous small and big stores in Little India, and most are offered with extra fabric which you can use to get a custom-made blouse tailored. Although saris require more effort and skill to put on, many tailors will now design a ‘ready made’ sari to your measurements, so all you have to do is step into it and zip up.
To up the glamour factor, head to Selegie Road and you’ll see Indian boutiques filled with glitzy evening wear and bridal outfits – worth window shopping even if you don’t want to buy one. And if you want something simple to wear with jeans, many stores sell simple cotton kurtis, long or short sleeved tunic tops in bright colours, many with interesting motifs and accents.