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My mother the model


Only when I opened the camphorwood chest and really started to delve into my mother's past did I discover that she had been a model in Singapore.


It was something she had kept very quiet over the years. And yet the 'New Look' ultra-romantic fashions of the '50s that she modelled, which promised to transport women from their daily humdrum into a magical world, were a launching pad for my mother's journey.


In her letters to my father my mother mentions that she was taking on ‘a little modelling’ to help towards her passage to England. Just below the letters in the chest, the next layer down, are what my mother calls her ‘modelling albums.’


Here is May as the ‘face of Lancôme, Singapore,’ a recurrent advertisement – ‘preferred by the elegant women of the world.’ Here she is in Her World, ‘Singapore’s most established monthly women’s magazine with the highest readership.’ Here she is in the Straits Times. She is model for L’Oréal and Dior. She is a popular ‘mannequin’ at the Singapore Model Academy. And she is a member of ‘Joan Booty’s Mannequin and Charm/Glamour Club.’

In these shots, my mother flaunts dresses rather than simply wearing them. Soft silk falls away in folds, or is double-skirted, trumpeting opulence as well as femininity. Tailored suits, neatly cut to end mid-calf, taper in and hug her form, broadcasting professionalism. Her tops are low-cut, sleeveless, strapless. Or, in stiffened, taffeta, they have tightened half-sleeves. Her hats are precarious and outrageous. Modelling evening dress her hair is worn up, held in place with jewellery such as a rose or a tiara. She is adorned with pearl necklaces and orchid-shaped earrings.

And the shoes. Well, the shoes are something else. They are absolutely not the ‘flatties’ my father wanted her to bring to Bath. They are unbearably pinched and dangerously healed.


At the time, May owned a single pair of high-fashion shoes. For in spite of being the embodiment of Singapore glamour, she could not afford to own anything of what she modelled. She was the main breadwinner in her family, and she gave most of what she earned to sustain them. But one pair of shoes May could not resist. These were dark green suede and each heel -- fantastically, crazily -- consisted only of a solid brass hoop. She can often been seen wearing them in the model shoots and on the catwalk.

Fifties fashions promised to set women free and fulfil their dreams. Indeed, in some of the modelling shots, May looks to me like some of the heroines she would have seen as a child on the stage of The Worlds. Modelling helped create a route out of a poor childhood. But they also allowed her to imagine another life for herself. For May would come to make these designer clothes her own.


As she could not afford to buy what she was modelling, May copied the designs and made her own clothes, or had them made cheaply by local tailors. She was very proud of a spotty dress she sewed for her eighteenth-birthday party.


This photograph of my mother seems to me the transitional image, between my mother as a poor child and my mother the model. She is more naturally herself than in the mannequin shots, but she is also in the process of becoming someone else, no longer the child who could barely afford a visit to the funfair.


In the largest sense, my mother mapped her own designs. Her later journeys, alongside her clothes, were self-made, but she had to use the material that was available to her in her world.


Such, indeed, was the 'Dior' suit that she was wearing when she arrived at Tilbury Docks to meet my father. She had sketched, designed, and sewn this suit herself, and the sketch is also in the camphorwood chest.


The wool was the colour of the uncertain English skies that greeted her.

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