As far as icons go, none are more enduring in the airline industry than the “Singapore Girl”. Since the sixties, the Singapore Girl has been an embodiment of the airline’s quality of service and grace.
The kebaya was first worn by Malayan Airways’ flight attendants in 1968 and is described in the book SIA: Take-off to Success as “a modified sarong kebaya rendered in batik cloth [which] was the standard for Malayan Airways, with their flight attendants laying the groundwork for the service that Singapore Airlines would become known for.”
The airline subsequently commissioned French couturier Pierre Balmain in 1974 to adapt the uniform. The designer himself recognised the impact of the kebaya and did not want to change it too much. As he explained, “I approve of your sarong kebaya, I think it’s very graceful, and if any alterations are to be made, they should only be to make the dress easier to wear.”
For See Biew Wah, the flight stewardess chosen to model the kebaya for Balmain, the whole process was steeped in mystery, even though she is now well-known for being his model. “I got a call from my cabin crew manager to meet a designer from Paris. Couture hadn’t really come to Asia, so I didn’t really know who [Balmain] was. At first I was quite nervous, but I figured it was just part of another assignment.”
Biew Wah headed to Paris (“The airline didn’t even fly to Paris at the time!”), and was brought to the House of Balmain. “Every morning for a week I would walk to the designer’s maison, and at lunch time I would sit outside and people watch,” she says of the experience.
“At the time, we were not yet known for service – but half the battle is won just by wearing the kebaya.”
At the time, Balmain was also designing outfits for Queen Sirikit of Thailand, “For me, this showed that he understood Southeast Asian designs,” says Biew Wah. The designer had Biew Wah carry herself as though she was working, to get a real feel for what kind of movement the kebaya allowed for.
After a week in Paris, Biew Wah went back to Singapore. “I never wore the finished product – I couldn’t have! That was far too precious! That’s now in safekeeping by the airline.” For Biew Wah, the kebaya has represented so much more than just a uniform for a job.
“Before becoming a flight stewardess, I had spent time in the United States, which left me bitten by the travel bug. “I thought this job would give me the opportunity to go back [there]!” she says with a laugh. “But really, the kebaya is something so dear to my heart. I’m very attached to it. At the time, we were not yet known for service – but half the battle is won just by wearing the kebaya.”
A career for life
Lim Suet Kwee, who is now head of cabin crew performance, has been with the airline since 1986 when she first became a flight stewardess. At that time, she couldn’t have known that she would eventually be chosen to model for the airline’s first Madame Tussaud’s wax figure and be the face of the airline throughout the nineties.
“It’s always a girl’s dream to fly with Singapore Airlines,” says Suet, “but I didn’t have the courage to apply until a friend suggested it.” She remembers what training was like in the eighties, and how different things were back then. “The passengers, the hardware, these were all very different,” she recalls. “But at the same time, [the] service will never change,” she says, noting that training now is still as rigorous as it was back then.
“The passengers, the hardware, these were all very different. But at the same time, service will never change.”
Like Biew Wah before her, Suet was also part of the “assignment pool,” referring to flight stewardesses who also worked ground events. Her sitting and subsequent wax figure for Madame Tussaud’s was another closely guarded secret that was only revealed to her after she arrived in London. “After that, they took hundreds of pictures of me, and it was still very secretive – I couldn’t even tell my husband!”
Her role in the assignment pool made Suet a recognizable face for the airline all over the world. In the late nineties, she decided to step down and spend more time with family, but after a year and a half away, she found herself back as a “flying mother,” doing short daily routes that allowed her to be home with her family later. “When I returned and did my first flight, putting the uniform back on made me realise how much I really missed the whole experience. I was so excited to be flying again,” she recalls.
For 50 years, the kebaya has never changed – and this has made it as much a part of the airline’s reputation for service as the women who wear it. “I still feel so proud when I see today’s cabin crew wearing that uniform,” says Biew Wah. “It’s still so recognisable, you’re basically living the brand.”
Find out more about the sarong kebaya in this video featuring lesser known facts about its form and functionality:
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