To the China-born Chinese who settled in Singapore in various waves from the mid 1800s onwards, the Straits Born Chinese must have seemed quite a strange creature indeed. The latter's everyday attire and costumes being strongly Malay--except for wedding and other festive rituals-- was so markedly different from his newly arrived country cousin.
The Chinese who came here prior to the Revolution of 1911 were mostly male and they wore the old costume styles of China, both for ceremonial and everyday wear.
While the Chinese prior to Manchu rule wore long flowing robes (the costume of a sedentary race), during the Manchu dynasty their garments became "waisted robes slit to facilitate their movements on horseback." During this time too Chinese males wore their hair long, in a queue or pigtail, hanging at the back with a shaven forehead.
But the 1911 Revolution swept monarchy, queues and Manchu robes away and brought in a more severe style, the Sun Yat-Sen suit. This consisted of a plain military type tunic in khaki drill with a high collar and western-style trousers.
Not every man took to the Sun Yat-Sen outfit; what seemed more popular here among merchants and traders was the magua which is a short silk tunic with high collars and wide sleeves. This tunic or jacket was worn over a long silk gown. In China it was worn by both government officials as well as private citizens. By the 1920s and 30s, it became quite common to see Chinese men in magua with western style shoes and trilby hat.
However gradually, western shirts and trousers were adopted even by the conservative Chinese and their magua and gowns were only worn for ceremonial occasions, especially in the clan associations. By the 1950s, traditional Chinese attire was a rare sight.
Chinese women who came here prior to 1911 were still in their long gowns, big tunics (jackets) and trousers. The Chinese , like the Malays, were considerably more unisex in their dressing than their Western counterparts-- the ball gowns of European women being a total contrast to the trousers of their men.
Working class Chinese men and women have always worn trousers, a very loose cut garment called ku zi. Middle and Upper class women also wore skirts and these skirts were pleated and often featured an extra embroidered panel down the front called the wei qun.
Such style of clothing disappeared after 1911 to be replaced by a not always flattering hybrid of Chinese dress with western shoes and stockings. Chinese women here looked to Shanghai and later Hong Kong for fashion inspiration.
A garment which had Manchu origins but which Chinese women revived was the Cheongsam
In the free-wheeling seventies era and thereafter, the Singapore Chinese girl wore ethnic styles from every race and tribes--so long as these were given a fresh fashion interpretation, straight from the west.