'Are you Dolly, the Singapore Girl?'

'Are you Dolly, the Singapore Girl?'
PHOTO: The New Paper

She was among the first cabin crew on Singapore Airlines' (SIA) inaugural flights to London, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Not just that, Ms Dolly Tan was also one of the first poster girls who modelled French couturier Pierre Balmain's design of the airline's iconic sarong kebaya back in the 1970s.

The distinctive Singapore Airlines kebaya was one of the many items featured in the Unearthed: Singapore at 25 exhibition, a display that focuses on the country's early days post-independence, at the Asian Civilisations Museum. (See report above.).

"I never expected it to be such an iconic uniform," Ms Tan, now 69 and a retiree, told The New Paper.

"Today, people look at it and identify the ladies as the 'Singapore Girl'."

The kebaya uniform represents the birth of Singapore's own international carrier in 1972, after the Malaysian government announced the end of the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) alliance, a joint ownership by the two governments.

Ms Tan recalled the reaction to the new dress.

"We were all so excited when we heard that an international designer was the name behind our new uniform.

"Before it was standardised, we could wear a kebaya of any colour, just as long as it was the traditional kebaya," the veteran flight attendant said. .

While Ms Tan was happy with the new design, she admitted that the dress was initially uncomfortable.

"It looks like a traditional kebaya, but the cut wasn't the same and we were not used to it.

"It didn't have the slit or the inverted pleat and it really restricted our movement. It was so hard to walk," she recalled with a laugh.


Ms Tan joined MSA as an air-stewardess in 1965. She spent six years there and modelled in its advertisements, before it became Singapore Airlines.

She left in 1974, as a "chief hostess", an equivalent to leading stewardess.

Ms Tan then joined another airline for about three years before she became pregnant and left the industry.

But it was her work with SIA that left an indelible mark.

Her advertisements with SIA, which identified her name and appeared in newspapers and magazines, became so well-known that Ms Tan became a celebrity of sorts, with strangers calling her "Dolly the air hostess" when they saw her on the street.

"I wasn't famous or anything but after the ads were published, there were strangers who would approach me and ask if I was Dolly the air-hostess," she recalled with a smile.

"They would take a picture and then go off. It was funny at first but I got used to it after a while."

Since Ms Tan's time as cabin crew during the birth of SIA, the international carrier has expanded dramatically, now operating passenger services to more than 60 cities in over 30 countries.

"It's different now - cabin crew meet new colleagues all the time. Back then, there were fewer destinations so there weren't many air hostesses. We travelled together and became like family. The bond we had was strong and it made flights so much more fun and memorable," she said.

When asked what she would tell stewardesses today, she said: "The job is not easy but they need to remember that the passenger is always right so they have to deal with situations cautiously".

Her advice?

"No matter what, when you're dressed in the airlines' kebaya, always have pride because you are not yourself, you represent the 'Singapore Girl'," she said.

This article was first published on August 4, 2015.
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