When The Past Makes Perfect Sense

There are people who are into vintage. Then there are people who don’t just adopt the look of a different era (or eras) but make it their POV. Rachel Tan meets the three women who heart the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

There are people who are into vintage. Then there are people who don’t just adopt the look of a different era (or eras) but make it their POV. Rachel Tan meets the three women who heart the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

My Reading Room

Lou Peixin, 24, @hellomisslou 

Singer and songwriter of what she calls “classic vintage pop” (think swing + doo-wop + modern pop), and co-founder of online store Baju Mama Vintage.

Good times 

“When I was 17 and in Raffles Junior College, I joined its jazz band. It sparked my love for the music, which led me to discover the period when it was at its best – post-war America. The late ’40s to ’50s was an amazing time: everyone had some money; the women, dressed to the nines in old-Hollywood- glamour style, were elegant and sophisticated; and jazz was very over-the-top with large orchestral string arrangements. 

That period was also a time when relationships and things were not tossed away because they were broken. People took time to fix or mend them. This kind of past is worth bringing back. 

In the ’90s when tanned skin and blonde hair were big, burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese stood out for me with her porcelain skin, jet- black hair, red lips and elegance. To this day, she is one of my inspirations. 

The songbird

I continued with jazz during uni with the NUS band and met a lot of musicians there, which got me singing professionally at weddings, events, bars and restaurants. My first single, More Than Just That Bass, will be released in the first week of August. My EP was recorded with Mikal Blue, a producer who has worked with Colbie Caillat, Jason Mraz, and One Republic. I found him in the album credits of some of my favourite artists, e-mailed his manager, sent him my songs, and he liked them. Then I flew to LA to work with him. 

Make one era work in another 

To make retro look good today, I’ve learnt to take the best of everything from those periods and combine them with what works now. My everyday hairstyle is a 1940s victory roll and an updo. It sounds diffi cult, but I’ve had a lot of practice and call it my lazy hairstyle. I curl the front portion and clip the back in 10 minutes. It’s the same for my everyday makeup – winged lined eyes and a red lip, which are very classic yet very striking. 

Over the years, I’ve added more steps: a bit of shading, contouring and blusher if I want a more dramatic look. 

I find easier ways to get vintage clothes, too. I buy off-the-rack cheongsams and samfoos from Golden Scissor Cheongsam at People’s Park, which alters them to my size. 

I am a huge fan of Lee Ming (@leeeeming on Instagram), a stylist based in Malaysia. She successfully works the Hollywood glamour look with her Chinese culture. From her, I learnt that the retro hairdos which work best in our humid weather are updos. 

Local burlesque artist, Sukki Singapora, who is half-Indian and looks like a young Jennifer Beals, also inspires me.

Do vintage, not be it

I recently gave away clothes that don’t make me feel 100 per cent comfortable and confident. I don’t want things nipping me in strange places and showing off what I don’t want to show off. 

I also want to only have things that I can wear over and over again, because I don’t subscribe to the idea that you only look good if you have a different outfit every day. 

I usually don’t spend more than $300 a month on clothes, and $200 on any outfit. So where my vintage wear comes from is important. Etsy, a Brooklyn online store, is a dream come true, offering both handicraft and vintage. Local and overseas thrift stores are a goldmine for stuff that’s a few dollars apiece. Wherever I go, I search for vintage stores. Perth and the US have amazing ones. 

The only thing I don’t mind spending more on is well-made leather shoes. I like the vintage-style leather flats from Charlie Stone Shoes, a one-woman enterprise from Australia. She makes very cute, very colourful, and comfortable Bettie Page-style shoes. 

From wearer to seller 

I started an online vintage store with my best friend Maryam (whom I met in secondary school) in January last year. While vintage- shopping in Hong Kong on a grad trip, we turned to each other and said, ‘We are both good at styling, we can both do makeup and hair, and we are obviously quite intelligent people, so why don’t we start a business together?’ We launched bajumamavintage.com, and it has grown a little, and has some dedicated customers.”

Heng Qiwen (Gwen), 28, @gwenstellamade, 

health-care professional at a public hospital

Vintage from Thieves’ Market, in Grease and Sydney

“I have always liked old stuff. My dad used to take me to the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market when I was young. The first time I watched Grease, I really liked the songs, the clothes and everything about it. But it was only during my university years in Sydney that I discovered thrift shops, learnt more about vintage style, and immersed myself in the vintage scene. I even took up rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly dancing classes in my final uni year. Everyone in the dance classes wore the most fabulous vintage-style clothes, and that was what really inspired me to continue to pursue this style. 

While the ’50s and ’60s are my favourite eras, I do also like the ’40s and the ’70s. I love the style of Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin (but only for her wicker bags). 

Making your own retro saves money

I took a dressmaking class when I was 20 because I wanted to make unique retro clothes for myself, and true vintage clothes are quite expensive. It’s also hard to find off-the-rack things that fit well, so making my own clothes is a good way to make sure that the clothes fit me better. 

The six-to-eight-week course was held once a week at Bishan Community Club, and it taught me the basics of garment-making. My first project was a blue floral shirt, which I made using my friend’s sewing machine. I eventually got one of my own in Sydney with allowance money I saved up, and I still use it now; I lugged it all the way back to Singapore! 

I usually spend under $100 to make a dress. A yard of fabric costs roughly $10, and for a dress with a poufy ’50s-style skirt, it takes up to four to five yards. I get my clothing patterns mostly from Spotlight, but if I want real vintage ones, I get them online. 

Wicker bags are my obsession 

I’m a big fan of ’50s- and ’60s-style wicker bags. I like hunting for second-hand ones in thrift shops or online. The one I am carrying in the picture was just $4. I got it at a thrift store in Sydney many years ago. It was just a plain bag, but I loved the handle and the shape. So I got some lace and ribbon from a craft store, stuck them onto the bag with a hot-glue gun, and it made the bag a whole lot cuter. 

Engaged in ’50s style 

I made a Hawaiian shirt for my fiance and matching Hawaiian shorts for myself for our tropical engagement party last month in Texas. Designer Alfred Shaheen, who popularised Hawaiian shirts, sarongs and dresses in the ’50s, inspired us. A vintage Alfred Shaheen dress can go for more than US$200 (S$277).”

Anis Razali (Darah), 25, @ohdarah,

visual merchandiser at Forever 21

A family of vintage lovers 

“I was dressing like a Japanese Lolita – it’s a doll- like look with Victorian and Edwardian influences when I was 13 – until my mother inspired me to dress in ’50s vintage-style. She used to sport a full-blown Marilyn Monroe hairdo because she really liked the actress, and even owned a few dresses inspired by that infamous white dress. I inherited my mum’s sundresses and my grandma’s floral kebayas, and started wearing them. 

I also used to watch old movies with my dad. He is a big romantic at heart and has always loved old music and movies like Roman Holiday and Gone with the Wind, and would make the family watch them with him. 

My Look: ’50s Betiie Page pin-up + ’60s Happy Days meets 2017 urban 

I started experimenting with this ’50s-meets-’60s style at 15, and it became an everyday look – even on lazy days – three years ago. 

I like to mix things up by adding some urban elements like sneakers so the look isn’t too cookie-cutter pin-up girl, and is still practical for my physically demanding job. 

I DIY my own vintage – and make a business out of it

I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so the idea of making my own clothes has always been very appealing to me. I think it is also a very ’50s thing; you have to make do with what you have. At 12, I picked up some rudimentary sewing skills from my mum and hand- sewed my first skirt: a lace- trimmed, black and white, polka-dotted dirndl skirt lined with neon pink tulle, which I was so proud of that I wore it all the time, and still wear now. 

I picked up more sewing skills when I studied fashion merchandising and marketing at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. And it has helped me in my small gig of making clothes for others. I have made customised floral crowns, dresses, skirts, and even wedding dresses for my customers. I can do them with my eyes closed – it’s that therapeutic for me. 

I even made my own wedding dress. I was a pin- up bride in an off-the- shoulder, full-skirted, ’50s-style number. I spent less than $100 on the materials. 

The best DIY hair colour 

I bleach and colour my hair myself or with the help of my husband, and sometimes either of my two brothers. It is time-consuming but inexpensive. I use the brand La Riche Directions from the UK because it’s cheap (less than $10) and, most importantly, vegan. 

Old curtains are good for ’50s-style clothes

They are usually made of heavier, hard-to-wrinkle materials, so they’re easier to work with than regular cotton, and generally don’t require ironing – always a plus. I use them for full skirts, wiggle dresses and flared dresses. I have tried drafting pointy bras, but haven’t been successful yet. 

Waist-train for a smaller midsection

A tiny waist was the ideal body type in the ’50s, and although I do not think a small waist is necessary for the pin-up look now, I like the look. So I have been seriously getting into waist training: for a year now, I have been wearing a corset almost every day – the steel-boned kind, not the Kim Kardashian latex kind. 

Do research before you get or wear one. You can’t just buy one and put it on, because a corset needs time to mould to your body. I got mine second-hand from a US brand called Timeless Trends. The cheapest ones usually go for around US$60-$80 (S$83-$110), but custom ones are US$300. 

Wearing a corset also weakens the abdominal muscles because it takes the place of the core muscles to keep the torso up. So I do planks and squats to strengthen my core and the rest of my body.”