Performing Femininity:
Aprons, Capes, and School Uniforms

September 1, 2021, 8:25pm

By Weiqi Yap

Dress is often celebrated as one of the most freeing mediums of self-expression. But in two short films in the Singapore Shorts ’21 selection, Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom by multidisciplinary collective A Stubborn Bloom,and Elsa by Jen Nee Lim, dress is instead employed as a gendered form of control . In both films, dress1 is preened, primped, indulged in, and played with. It is also choreographed, instructed, and imposed upon. Against the backdrop of Singapore’s education system, dress becomes a site of reinforced gender norms and ideals of femininity.

“Grow up into a beautiful woman”

In A Stubborn Bloom’s Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom, the audience becomes students of an instructional Home Economics class in 1970s Singapore. The 11-minute film is a highly stylised, highly staged charade of text borrowed verbatim from actual Home Economics textbooks used in secondary school classrooms in Singapore. With aesthetic nods to the saccharine visuals of Sofia Coppola, the film is unflinchingly committed to its visual mimicry. Dressed in coordinated outfits that recall the girlish dispositions of fashion labels Cecilie Bahnsen and Simone Rocha, the onscreen female subjects are rendered wordless—with the objects doing the talking. The props are as feminine as the domestic skills we are about to be taught: gingham tablecloths, shell pink nail polish, Cath Kidston aprons, candy-tinted Depression glassware, ornate doilies, and floral crockery. An honourable mention must go to the edible props, which get their airtime in the second half of the piece: shot with a soft, pastel gaze, marshmallows are flower-shaped, mixed vegetables are frozen in the shape of a koi fish, flowers are delicately placed on agar-agar, and—blink and you’ll miss it—the absurdity (and wry inedibility) of sequinned jelly and a cabbage tower pierced with maraschino cherries on toothpicks.

Still from Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom (2020), dir. A Stubborn Bloom

According to the textbooks of yore, young women “are beginning to take an interest in [your] looks, [you] care enough to spend more time in front of a mirror, [you] want to look beautiful more than anything else and will spend time experimenting with make-up, [you] will go to the hairdresser for a new hair style and some [of you] will be spending many hours in front of a mirror trying out new hairstyles.” As we watch and learn the proper ways to tie one’s hair, we see dress enlisted as a medium to reinforce normative qualities of femininity: neat, ladylike, and pretty. For the most part, the advice is pragmatic. However, gendered expectations of young women are cloaked in what sound like well-meaning suggestions. “Long hair requires more care and attention than short hair and unless you are very clever in dressing your hair, you are advised to stick to the shorter styles which are easier to manage.” Beauty becomes demonstrative and prescriptive, as instructions operate according to what is most practical and deemed appropriate, not to the discretion and liking of the hair-owner.

Still from Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom (2020), dir. A Stubborn Bloom

Antiquated views of femininity—young women as passive, obliging, and domestic—are reinforced by a subject dedicated to teaching girls how to housekeep, sew, cook, entertain, and host. The language is so distinctly feminised (“Sit in a proper way as a lady should do”, “You should pay attention to your health and grooming now so that you will grow up into a beautiful woman”), it makes one wonder what Home Economics for young men might have looked like in comparison, or if boys received the same syllabus at all. This 11-minute faux-tutorial does so well in re-staging these textbook instructions that it insinuates an acute awareness of just how outdated, and ultimately patronising, its original reference material is.

Still from Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom (2020), dir. A Stubborn Bloom

“That perfect girl is gone”

Femininity is, of course, anything but textbook. In schools, dress remains one of the most efficient tools to perpetuate the gender binary within the formal education system. School attire is designed to meet the textbook template of what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. Girls wear skirts, and boys wear pants. Girls have long hair (tied neatly with a black or navy hair tie), and boys have short hair (cut short to avoid touching the ears and collar). We see this quietly challenged in Jen Nee Lim’s Elsa, an eight-minute short about six-year-old Stanley, a fervent Queen Elsa fan who is about to enrol into primary school. In this simple but moving short film, we see dress shapeshift into different roles: as a child’s imaginative plaything, then as a symbol of rules and regulation.

Still from Elsa (2019), dir. Jen Nee Lim

As adults, it is easy to dismiss the blockbuster virality of the Frozen franchise. But as Stanley prances, twirls, and sings passionately along to the lyrics of Elsa’s hit anthem, Let It Go, we see an unabashed indulgence in imagination and fandom for a character he clearly loves. Communicating this through dress, Stanley’s makeshift version of Elsa’s cape is a towel tied around his neck, and his replica of her iconic braid is another towel, this time draped over his shoulder. The start of school sets an impending deadline on his vicarious Disney persona. This is most clearly presented in a scene halfway through the film, when Stanley is buying his school uniform. As he tries on a school shirt, we hear the vendor telling his parent, “This is boy’s cutting. I’ll give you the girl’s,”, only to be corrected by his parent that he is a boy—and is, in fact, wearing the right uniform.

Still from Elsa (2019), dir. Jen Nee Lim

In ‘My School Uniform’,2 a 2016 photo book published in celebration of SG50 documenting the school uniforms of various Singaporean secondary schools, it emphatically adopts a utopian view of school uniforms. “In uniform, everyone is equal,” reads the Introduction. “Uniform attire promotes equality and a sense of community. […] What they wear and how they carry themselves are outward projections of an institution’s values, beliefs and traditions.” In its idealistic projections of identity and self-expression, though, the school uniform is equally a gendered site of discipline, control, and instruction. We see Stanley going for a haircut—one he clearly is reluctant to get—the day before school starts. Towards the end of the short, Stanley is seen pinning Frozen hair clips in his now-short hair as he plays with a Frozen-themed music box. The gaze here is furtive and allows one to see that Stanley’s affinity to Elsa, and by extension, his femininity, is anything but fictional. The figure of Elsa becomes more than just Stanley’s chosen subject of adoration and admiration. More crucially, she is a prop that represents a young boy’s supposedly uncharacteristic love for Disney princesses; and an imaginary space for Stanley to directly juxtapose the gendered expectations of school.

Still from Elsa (2019), dir. Jen Nee Lim

The template of girlishness is not found in dress. Clothes and gestures are not inherently girlish, boyish, or otherwise. Ideas of gender are perpetuated through institutions that utilise dress as a tool of instruction. The malleability of our formative years pairs squarely with the transformative potential of dress—and our societal systems know this. Dress is often one of the last frontiers of agency. As children, what we wear is picked out for us. Women are told what to wear (and what not to wear) even long after we are old enough to decide for ourselves—as we have been so demurely taught in Home Economics with A Stubborn Bloom. These films show us what dress looks like when it is well-behaved. As we gaze along with Stanley at the slow-spinning Elsa in his Frozen-themed music box, feminist journalist Susan Faludi’s metaphor of the music box ballerina feels apt:

“The feminine woman is forever static and childlike. She is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow.”3

Notes

  1. I use the term ‘dress’ here according to Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins and Joanne B. Eicher’s definition of dress as any form of bodily adornment: garments, accessories, jewellery, hair, makeup and other items that relate to the body. See Eicher, J.B. and Roach-Higgins, M.E. (1992) ‘Definition and Classification of Dress’ in Barnes, Ruth et al, (eds.) Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 15.
  2. Quek, Yixian. (2016) My School Uniform, Singapore: Basheer Graphic Books, pp. 7.
  3. Faludi, Susan. (1991) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, London: Vintage, pp. 92.

About the Writer

Weiqi Yap is a fashion writer, researcher, and curator with a background in fashion journalism. Graduating from the London College of Fashion with an MA in fashion curation, her research interests lie in fashion museology and exhibition histories. She runs @fashionondisplay, where she posts regular musings on fashion exhibitions and display. Her writing seeks to expand and challenge our perception of fashion and dress in a Singaporean context, and has been published in Vogue Singapore, The Fashion Studies Journal, Buro. Singapore and SHOWstudio.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.