Cheongsam



The cheongsam (“long dress” in Cantonese), also known as qipao in Mandarin, is a dress style typically worn by Chinese women. The cheongsam was at the height of its popularity between the late 1920s and 1960s, when it was the standard dress for many Chinese women residing in China’s urban cities as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.1

Description
The cheongsam is a sheath dress with a high cylindrical collar, side slits and an asymmetrical opening in the front that stretches from the middle of the collar to the armpit and down the side.2 The opening is traditionally secured with knotted buttons and loops known as hua niu (flower button).3


Cheongsams can be made using a variety of materials to suit various seasons, occasions and budgets. Materials used for making cheongsams include satin, silk, brocade, velvet, lace and cotton. Cheongsams for daytime wear are normally simple in design with only piping and prints for decoration. Evening wear cheongsams have far more elaborate designs and are usually adorned with sequins and bead.4 For work, the cheongsam is sometimes paired with a matching Western-style jacket.5

The lengths of the hems and sleeves of the cheongsam have changed with fashion trends, although the fit of the dress has generally become tighter over the years.6 The trend towards closer-fitting clothes that show the wearer’s figure reflects the growing influence of Western values among Chinese women.7 For the best fit, most cheongsams were traditionally custom-made for the wearer. Shanghainese tailors in particular were renowned for their skill in making cheongsams.8

Historical development
The cheongsam is believed to have evolved from a long robe worn by Manchu women during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in China. The long gown was cut in a single piece that hung straight down to the ankles. There was a slit on either side of the gown but other garments worn underneath prevented the legs from showing.9


Prior to the cheongsam, Chinese women generally wore two-piece outfits consisting of tops paired with either skirts or pants. The cheongsam was not immediately popular due to its resemblance to the men’s one-piece gown known as the changshan (long shirt) or changpao (long robe).10

The earliest cheongsams were loosely fitted and had a low hemline that reached the ankles.11 A group of female students in Shanghai became one of the first women to wear the cheongsam when they started donning the outfit in 1912. In a bid for gender equality, these students wore the cheongsam as a modification of the men’s long robe. The students’ version of the cheongsam was made of cotton, plain in design and loose-fitting with bell sleeves. This experimental style of dress piqued the interest of other women and it soon became a trendy outfit.12

The cheongsam first became popular in late 1920s Shanghai, which was then an influential fashion capital.13 The cheongsam spread from Shanghai to places with large Chinese communities such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Shanghai calendar posters that featured beautiful women dressed in cheongsams also helped to boost the popularity of the dress.14

Cheongsam in Singapore
Wealthy Chinese women in Singapore soon caught on to the cheongsam fashion trend. From the 1930s onwards, even Peranakan women began to wear the cheongsam rather than the nonya kebaya for formal occasions and family portraits. Soon Chinese women working as schoolteachers and in white-collar occupations also took to wearing cheongsams, which were mostly of simpler designs.15 It was also during this period that the cheongsam became the outfit of choice for Chinese female students when taking graduation photographs. Many of these students wore the dress to mark their education status, modernity and association with the Chinese female elite in other countries. The easy availability of good quality cheongsams from the many Cantonese and Shanghainese tailors in the business district, or from tailor shops in the neighbourhood, also contributed to the popularity of the dress.16 By the 1950s and 1960s, most working Chinese women in Singapore had at least one or more cheongsams in their closets.17

The shape of the cheongsam underwent changes with the changing role and status of women in Singapore society. With political, economic and social changes occurring rapidly in post-war Singapore, more women found themselves working outside the home. Many of these working women adopted the cheongsam as their work attire and adapted it to project the modern and progressive values that they subscribed to.18 The cheongsam’s hemline thus became higher, often ending at mid-calf length, and the high stiff collar was shortened. In addition, zips and press studs replaced the traditional Chinese knotted buttons.19 Influenced by the nipped-in waists of Western dress, the cheongsam became more figure hugging. The side slits also grew higher to show off the wearer’s legs and figure.20

From the 1970s onwards, the popularity of the cheongsam began to decline. The younger generation of Chinese women increasingly preferred the affordable, mass-produced Western clothes and saw the cheongsam as impractical and old-fashioned.21 Despite its fading mass popularity, prominent women in Singapore such as Mrs Lee Kuan Yew (the former Prime Minister’s wife),22 Mrs Wee Kim Wee23 and Mrs Ong Teng Cheong24 (both former first ladies) continued wearing the cheongsam on formal occasions.25 The cheongsam was also the favoured formal dress of war heroine Elizabeth Choy.26


The cheongsam made a comeback in the 1990s as the preferred dress for women in power. The cheongsam was regarded during this period as a symbol of Chinese culture, which in turn was seen as part of the ‘Asian values’ that were then being promoted by the Singapore government.27 The cheongsam also came into the public eye for other reasons. The cheongsam had become an inspiration for Western and Chinese fashion designers and began to appear regularly on fashion runways. In addition, the appearance of cheongsams in popular Chinese films such as Center Stage (1992) and In the Mood for Love (2000) increased the visibility of this traditional dress.28

Modern varieties
The modern cheongsam comes in a variety of styles, shapes and materials. These contemporary versions include: cheongsam tops emblazoned with pop art prints that are paired with Western-style skirts, pants and jeans; evening and bridal cheongsam dresses made from French lace and Italian silk; and cheongsams that defy the traditional body-hugging form with an A-line cut.29 Despite these fashion updates, the modern cheongsam generally keeps its iconic look by retaining distinguishing features such as the mandarin collar, asymmetrical opening and side slits. These modern cheongsams are most often worn during special and festive occasions such as wedding dinners and Chinese New Year.30

Cultural significance
The cheongsam has become a marker of Chinese identity.31 This is especially the case for older Chinese women, who regard the cheongsam as a dignified and elegant formal dress that reflects their ethnic roots. Younger Chinese women, however, tend to see the cheongsam not so much as an ethnic marker but more as a fashion statement. As such, they prefer modern varieties of cheongsams that have been modified to suit their busy lifestyles while at the same time helping them to stand out from the crowd.32




Author
Stephanie Ho



References

1. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 59. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
2. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 80. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
3. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 62. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
4. Costumes through time: Singapore. (1993). Singapore: National Heritage Board and Fashion Designers’ Society, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING q391.0095957 COS-[CUS])
5. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 46. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
6. Costumes through time: Singapore. (1993). Singapore: National Heritage Board and Fashion Designers’ Society, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING q391.0095957 COS-[CUS])
7. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 57. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
8. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, pp. 124–125. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
9. Scott, A. C. (1958). Chinese costume in transition. Singapore: Donald Moore, p. 83. (Call no.: RCLOS 391.00951 SCO)
10. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 59. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
11. Costumes through time: Singapore. (1993). Singapore: National Heritage Board and Fashion Designers’ Society, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING q391.0095957 COS-[CUS])
12. Hua, M. (2010). Chinese clothing: Garment, accessory and culture. Beijing: China International Press, p. 145. (Call no.: R 391.00951 HUA-[CUS])
13. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 59. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
14. Szeto, N. Y. Y. (1997). Cheongsam: Fashion, culture and gender. In C. Roberts (Ed.), Evolution & revolution: Chinese dress 1700s–1990s. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, p. 62. (Call no.: R q391.00951 EVO-[CUS])
15. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, pp. 22–24. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
16. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 28. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
17. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 35. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
18. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, pp. 40–44. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
19. From Manchurian qipao to modern cheongsam. (1992, December 28). The Straits Times, p.18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Costumes through time: Singapore. (1993). Singapore: National Heritage Board and Fashion Designers’ Society, p. 83. (Call no.: RSING q391.0095957 COS-[CUS])
21. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
22. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 79. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
23. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, pp. 104–106. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
24. Lwee, M. (2009, January 17). Cheongsam updated. The Business Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 79. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
26. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 86. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
27. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
28. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 135. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])
29. Loh, N. (2009, January 23). Fitting Choice. The Straits Times, p. 99. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. From Manchurian qipao to modern cheongsam. (1992, December 28). The Straits Times, p.18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Chua, B. H. (2010, August 19). Postcolonial site, global flows and fashion codes: A case-study of power cheongsams and other clothing styles in modern Singapore. Postcolonial Studies, 3(3), p. 282. (Not available in NLB holdings)
32. Lee, C. L., & Chung, M. K. (2012). In the mood for cheongsam. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, p. 142. (Call no.: RSING 391.00951 LEE-[CUS])



Further resources
Clark, H. (2000). The cheongsam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: R 391.00951 CLA-[CUS])

Finnane, A. (2008). Changing clothes in China: Fashion, history, nation. New York: Columbia University Press.
(Call no.: R 391.00951 FIN-[CUS])



The information in this article is valid as at 23 September 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Chinese costumes
Ethnic Communities
Women
Heritage and Culture
Chinese