Saloma wore this dress to open the film Ragam P Ramlee, featuring her name sewn from 642 translucent red sequins and bedecked with 3,069 cylindrical beads. Photo by Halimaton Saadiah Sulaiman.
Saloma, Retro Fashion Icon exhibition runs until Oct 31 at Muzium Negara. Photo by Halimaton Saadiah Sulaiman.
Saloma was influenced by western-style dressing but she also kept to her traditional eastern values. Photo by Halimaton Saadiah Sulaiman.
Saloma wearing a polyester scarf that she styled into a top. Photo by Nik Hariff Hassan.

Saloma’s sweet singing voice lingers on today and her dedication to fashion is part of her charm, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup.

“LEGACY. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” goes the lyric from hit Broadway musical Hamilton. Almost 35 years after the death of legendary singer and actress Saloma, her legacy lives on.

We hear her voice every Hari Raya, while songs like Selamat Pengantin Baru from the film Madu Tiga, Di Renjis Renjis and Kenek Kenek Udang are on regular rotation at Malay weddings.

As I go through her discography on Spotify, I begin to realise how familiar her songs are. It had filtered through the P. Ramlee films I watched, and from road trips listening to Klasik Nasional FM with my parents and musically-discerning friends.

But coming from a later generation, I am more familiar with her connection to P. Ramlee than her career.

Their love story is legendary. It is said that she wished upon every shooting star she saw that she wants to be married to him.

And she did. They were married for 12 years until he died in 1973.

But who is Saloma? She was born Salmah Ismail in Singapore in 1935 and started singing at 13. Her stepfather was a musician, her older sister Mariam was the actress known as Mariani (she passed away in December last year) while her half-sister Mimi Loma is also a singer.

Clearly her life revolved around Malaya’s entertainment scene, which, in the 1950s and the 1960s centred at Jalan Ampas in Singapore. Her singing thrusted her into the spotlight but her looks, her tiny waist and daring fashion sense made her stand out from everyone else.

Red was Saloma’s favourite colour — as seen on this dress — although the colour is not obvious in the black and white photo.

To honour Saloma’s style, Muzium Negara is hosting an exhibition called Pameran Ikon Fesyen Retro Saloma (Saloma, Retro Fashion Icon). It runs until Oct 31 and admission is free.

This is the first time that her clothes are put on show and the exhibition features 65 outfits from the 1950s up to the early 1980s. It came from the 200 pieces of clothing that Saloma donated to the National Archives towards the end of her life, where it was kept in storage until today.

“People nowadays, especially the younger generation, are interested in stars from that era,” says Syahrul Ab Ghani, head curator of the National Textile Museum that handled the exhibition. “If we had shown this collection in the previous decades, I don’t think the public would have appreciated it.”

The clothes may not come from such a long time ago but certain aspects such as Saloma’s 21-inch (53cm) waist are unthinkable by today’s standards.

Then there are the clothes themselves. As a society, we tend to dress more conservatively than during Saloma’s heyday. Details, such as a front open slit on a sarong or a low-back tight-fitting kebaya would probably have not passed muster these days.

Syahrul says: “Polyester was very expensive back then because it had to be imported from Europe or the US, and Saloma wasn’t exactly rich. So she took a polyester scarf, fashioned it with a corset and wore that as a top!”

Although she was daring, she was never overtly sexy. The bust may have been perkier in those days — thanks to the popularity of pointy bullet bras — but she didn’t show any cleavage. And while she had a thing for holding up her sarong, her hemline hardly ever went up above the knee.

Syahrul says: “She was heavily influenced by western dressing and celebrities like Brazilian samba queen Carmen Miranda and Spanish singer Salome. But she still kept to her traditional eastern values.”

The exhibition features 65 of Saloma’s outfits from the 1950s up to the early 1980s. Photo by Halimaton Saadiah Sulaiman.

There were no stylists in those days, and fashion designers were rare and out-of-reach on an average singer/actress salary. So Saloma was very hands on with her personal style, and I say this literally, because she altered her own clothes and sewed the embellishments herself.

Part of the conservation aspect that Syahrul’s team did for the exhibition is to count the number of beads and sequins that are on a particular outfit. One dress that Saloma wore to open the film Ragam P Ramlee featured her name, sewn from 642 translucent red sequins. It is bedecked with 3,069 cylindrical beads.

She had sewn all that herself. Sadly the film is in black and white, and the visual is low quality by modern movie standards. So you can’t see very much of those details on screen. I wonder if she knows then and still find all that embellishment worth the effort.

“One of the ways that we know she did her own beading work was because it wasn’t up to professional standard. It looks good in the front, but the sewing was absolutely messy at the back,” says Syahrul.

“It’s the same with her alteration. A tailor who knows what they’re doing would sew the darts by first taking measurements on the left and right to make sure that they line up. But hers didn’t! I was shocked when I saw that,” he adds.

What she lacked in technical skill she made up in ingenuity. One example is her embellished sleeveless top with a chevron motif. If you look closely, you can see the Javanese batik cloth that she used as a pattern guide, peeking out from under the sequins.

Saloma had sewn the sequins on this top based on a Javanese batik motif. Photo by Nik Hariff Hassan.

Saloma was a trendsetter as well. She started the tight-fitting “kebaya ketat” style with its wide neck and low back. There are several examples in the exhibition, made from sheer polyester fabric and paired with tight-fitting sarongs. She’d wear it over a black corset.

And for extra pizzazz, she would sew fabric to the back of her dress as a train or on the collar, to give the dress (and the wearer) more interest. She had a tutu-like belt that she wore as a neckpiece. Syahrul says that she even broke off pieces of costume jewellery to add on her clothes.

Saloma was a daring dresser but she also had the personality to carry it off. Her outfits and by extension, her top-to-toe immaculate appearance — hair, makeup and high heels — reflected the demands of her career and the lengths she’d go for it.

“We received a lot of support from Saloma’s family for this exhibition. They were touched because she’s always been in P. Ramlee’s shadow, when in fact, she can stand up on her own,” says Syahrul.

“Nowadays, people see her as a pretty face in his films but she was never big on acting. Singing was her forte. And whether we realise it or not, she’s made a huge impact on the entertainment industry,” he continues.

“We received a lot of support from Saloma’s family for this exhibition. She’s always been in P Ramlee’s shadow, when in fact, she can stand up on her own.” — curator Syahrul Ab Ghani. Photo by Halimaton Saadiah Sulaiman.

Bringing clothes to life

CLOTHES meant for display are usually put on mannequins, and that’s fine for retail outlets and shopping malls. But museums exhibiting costumes with historical value need to show these outfits more realistically.

Because the purpose of museums is to educate and impart a glimpse of the past, the clothes have to look like it did on the original wearer as much as possible. So for the outfits of legendary singer and actress Saloma, a standard mannequin just won’t do.

“What we want is to show off the clothes the way that is done in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. So for the first time, we’re employing an invisible 3D mounting technique,” says National Textile Museum curator Syahrul Ab Ghani.

This 3D support mount is hollow, and the process starts by making a mould using measurements from the clothes. Padding is added, and then the whole thing is covered with black fabric, inside and out.

“We used a curved needle like the ones in hospital surgery. Hot glue gun, needle, hot glue gun,” says Syahrul as he points to the injuries on his hands. “My staff accidentally pierced a needle into her skin and we had to pull it out with a plier.”

Museum staff preparing a figure for the exhibition. Photo courtesy of Syahrul Ab Ghani.

Some outfits are displayed on a mounting stand using ready-made torsos. But they had to alter these as well because the torso doesn’t come with Saloma’s 21-inch waist. Once trimmed, padding is added until it fills into the clothes.

Syahrul and his team of 20 spent four weeks to prep the collection.

“We had to test all the materials we use to ensure that it is not harmful to the clothes or react badly to our environmental conditions. On average, one person would work on two outfits. Everyone has to sew, even my director has to sew,” he says.

Trimming a ready-made torso to make it fit the outfit. Photo courtesy of Syahrul Ab Ghani.

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