Home - T Singapore

Documenting the Singaporean ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ Way of Dressing

By Bianca Husodo

 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Lim Swee Ee

“I’ve actually had a few people stop me in the street to compliment me on my outfit,” says Lim, who was photographed at Albert Centre’s Dry Goods Store in Rochor. “It always makes me feel so happy.”

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Barber Yus

“Yus pours all his creativity into styling his customers, saying that a true artist creates for the people,” says Loh. “This, he says, is the reason for his hair being so long and simple, having no creative energy left to fuss about changing and chopping his own.” Pictured here are Yus (left) and Bray (right) at the former’s own barbershop in Golden Mile Mall.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Saniyah

While scouting on a rainy morning at Geylang Serai, Rachel Loh and Bella Bray met Saniyah. “We noticed her outfit from afar,” says Bray. “I especially loved all the details in her accessories and the way her whole face lit up as she laughed.”

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Koh Kin Soon

When Loh and Bray met Koh Kin Soon in the Peoples Park Hawker during a busy lunch hour, they were impressed with how bold and colourful Soon was: her hair, her outfit, her rainbow fingernails. “I’m not dressed up for anything, in particular, I’m on my way to buy groceries. I just love rainbow colours,” she says.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Antonio Vargas

Vargas is a flamenco dancer, choreographer and teacher at Flamenco Sin Fronteras, Geylang. Loh and Bray visited his studio and home, spending getting to know him before photographing him. “Years ago, when I was living in London I’d have my suits tailored on Savile Row,” Vargas told them, “but over time I lost the desire to wear expensive clothes. To me style isn’t about how much money you spend on your wardrobe, it’s about how you wear it.”

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Ajunta

“These days I don’t waste my time thinking too much about what I wear. I love anything comfortable as I’m working outside a lot,” says Ajunta, who Loh and Bray encountered in Joo Chiat’s neighbourhood.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Chan May Lee

As Loh and Bray were interviewing another book subject in Chinatown, Chan observed from an ice cream stand while waiting for her order. Curious, she eventually approached the duo for a chat — and requested to be photographed too.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Liani

“Liani was busily shopping at Yishun market when we noticed her all-pink ensemble. We rushed over for a quick chat and some snaps before she had to get back,” says Bray.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Sivam

“I believe that I’m still relevant and working to this day despite my octogenarian age because I'm fashionably different and knowledgeable,” says Sivam, who Loh and Bray met at East Coast.

/
 
Inside “Unseen Singapore”: Gina

The duo first photographed Gina in Chinatown before running into her the following day near Bugis — so naturally, they photographed her again. “Both her outfits were so bright, and she was such a natural in front of the camera,” Bray remarks.

/

The book “Grey is the New Black: Unseen Singapore” opens with a series of images of quiet corners in Singaporean neighbourhoods, photographed as quiet subjectless tableaus. To anyone who’s lived long enough in Singapore, these scenes would look achingly familiar. In one, chairs draped with wet towels linger right by a drying rack covered in more wet towels in the garden-like front porch of an HDB flat. In another, unoccupied red plastic chairs in a quaint old coffee shop sit in stillness, as if in waiting.

Ask any Singaporean if there’s anything amiss, and the answer would likely be along the lines of “Where the aunties and uncles ah?” But continue flipping through the pages and there they are: a spread of 35 of them, the familiar occupants of these spaces. 

In Singapore, “auntie” and “uncle” are colloquial terms you can hear anywhere. At the receiving end of these titles — often used either endearingly or in a disgruntled manner — are typically the elderly. There’s indeed a certain distinctive quality to being a Singaporean senior. It’s hard to pin down what exactly these defining qualities are.

For over a year, the photographer and author of this book — Rachel Loh, 26, and Bella Bray, 25 — spent numerous days trawling the streets of Singapore in search of the ultimate quintessence of these terms.

 

 

There are indeed many facets to being a senior in Singapore. Loh and Bray, a pair of friends who met through Bumble BFF, decided to focus on one: their particular sense of style. Freewheeling, unrestrained and seemingly without a care in the world, aunties and uncles dress for utility, for themselves, for the hell of it. Unflinching uncles in baggy polo shirts, in a silent and intense round of Chinese chess at Chinatown, cigarettes held between their fingers. Or aunties queueing up in front of a closed 4D stall early in the morning, their floral shirts markers of their inherent kiasu-ness.

“Having lived in Singapore all my life, the things that have formed the identity of everyday Singaporeans when I was younger gradually became normal as I grew older,” writes Loh in the foreword. She never thought the way aunties and uncles dressed as anything noteworthy. “But as I interacted with them, I saw the pride in which they carried themselves and the way they dressed for themselves.”

Bray, an Australian who considers Singapore her second home, first came up with the idea for the project. It stemmed from “a constant feeling of boredom with what the fashion industry and the media portray as fashionable,” she writes. “I was sick of being told that to be ‘cool’, you have to be youthful and slim.” Individuality, however, is also something that fashion has always celebrated. And if that’s anything to go by, these aunties and uncles who dress for no one but themselves are perhaps the coolest of the bunch.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Unseen, Singapore (@unseen.singapore) on

 

In search of a diverse variety of seniors, Loh and Bray street-scouted in many different neighbourhoods, from Yishun to Queenstown, Chinatown to Little India. Hours could pass at markets or hawker centres, walking around in hopes of spotting stylish aunties and uncles. “There’d be someone walking through the hawker casually and we’d both look at each other and be like, ‘Wow, they’re great’,” recalls Bray. The pair would then approach their potential subject, compliment the way they dress and, sometimes, have long conversations. “We both conversed with them through a lot of hand gestures, Google Translate and my poor Mandarin, if they spoke it,” says Loh.

The resulting series mostly includes aunties in their shopping get-up, smilingly posing in their slippers, their market haul in hand or their totes securely kiap-ed under their arms. Bright bold colours and varying prints that run the gamut from swirling florals to the silver face of a tiger outline their varying looks. “We highlighted more aunties because we wanted to specifically celebrate women,” says Loh.

Fewer uncles made it into the book, but those who did are exceptionally well-dressed. One uncle, referred to as Barber Yus in the book is a barber at Golden Landmark Complex. In the photographs, he’s decked in a tonal outfit of whites and neutral beiges, his newsboy cap slightly askew, a long grey ponytail draped against the back of his shirt and legs nonchalantly crossed. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Barber Yus

A post shared by Unseen, Singapore (@unseen.singapore) on

 

So what exactly is auntie or uncle fashion?

“For me,” says Loh, “I think their defining characteristics no matter their style is their willingness to show their character even if something is considered not in style at the moment: either through a fun earring, their hair or something they might have worn when they were young and are still wearing it.”

Bray adds that it’s never about following trends. “It’s often bright, utilitarian or full of patterns, but the defining characteristics for me are comfort, practicality, sass.”

Documenting all this in a book is a means to dispel the stigma around the ageist misconception that the elderly don’t express themselves. Or that if they do, it’s considered “embarrassing or outdated,” explains Loh. “We also wanted to make sure that there was space for them in Singapore's fast-paced society. Most of the times we encountered them, we found them sitting alone in a corner and a lot of our conversations that didn’t end up in the book emphasised the way many have been left behind in society.”

Beyond the pretty pictures, a poignant takeaway from this documentation can perhaps be encapsulated in the words of Ajunta, one of the aunties in the book: “Age is just a mentality. If you think you’re old, you are.”

The “Grey is the New Black: Unseen Singapore” book was published in July 2020 and is now available online, and in-store at Times and Kinokuniya. Proceeds go to Happy People Helping People, a non-profit volunteer-run foundation supporting independently surviving elderly citizens.