The cheongsam, also known as the qipao, is a form-fitting dress that dates back to Shanghai in the 1920s. It immediately became a fashion craze, with movie stars and schoolgirls alike wearing it. The growth of the contemporary Chinese woman in the twentieth century is reflected in the history of this iconic garment.
A modern-day emblem of Chinese fashion
The cheongsam, a modern-day emblem of Chinese fashion, has a history that dates back to globalization and the advent of feminism in China in the early 1900s. Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China's closed society opened its doors to the rest of the world, ushering in a period of rapid globalization and modernization. As a result, women gained more independence and began to wear men's long robes (known as qipao, which were worn by Manchu noblemen during the Qing Dynasty) as a feminist statement.
From there, it evolved into a more form-fitting dress with a Western-style silhouette while retaining the traditional Chinese collar, buttons, and hem, as well as the silk used in the garments.
The cheongsam, like martial arts, owes much of its appeal to Hollywood's film industry. Since the 1900s, films with "Asian themes" have become increasingly popular, presenting various cultural entities associated with Asia (China being the most frequent), martial arts, ethnic clothes, and philosophy, to mention a few. What I found fascinating was the crucial difference in importance between clothing and everything else.
Symbol of Chinese Identity
Focusing on the cheongsam, the collar and buttons are what distinguish it as a symbol of Chinese identity, and despite many alterations throughout history, the upper half of the cheongsam (the collar and button design) has always remained the same since it preserves the garment's cultural identity. Ethnic clothing, unlike other cultural elements, openly symbolize the culture's identity and allow the wearer to embody that identity. Characters in most films depicting features of Chinese culture wear some type of cheongsam.
The cheongsam's story begins in 1912, with the downfall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. Chinese intellectuals began to revolt against conventional norms in the mid-1910s and early 1920s, asking for a democratic and equal society based on Western principles, especially women's freedom and education. Foot-binding, the unpleasant practice of tying a young girl's feet together to prevent her from growing, was made illegal.
Beginning in the 1920s, when women were allowed to enter the school system as teachers and university students, they abandoned the extravagant robes of the past and embraced an early variant of the cheongsam, which evolved from the androgynous men's garment known as the changpao. Shanghai, a bustling port city with a sizable international population, was in the forefront of this fashion movement.
The early 1920s cheongsam had a looser fit than today's cheongsam, with long, wide sleeves. In metropolitan locations such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, it swiftly became the go-to costume for urban ladies. Traditional silks were gradually replaced by more affordable, modern materials as the garment evolved. Traditional embroidered florals remained popular in terms of design, but geometric and art deco motifs also acquired traction.
Emphasizing the femininity and sexuality
The cheongsam evolved in the 1930s and 1940s, emphasizing the femininity and sexuality of the urban Chinese lady. The dress became tighter and more body-hugging, with some daring designs including thigh-high side slits. It was fashionable to wear the gown with high heels. Different fastenings, pipings, and collars, as well as short-capped sleeves, long sleeves with fur-lined cuffs, and sleeveless cheongsams, were all tried out by women.
However, the cheongsam, which was deemed bourgeois, vanished from ordinary life in mainland China immediately after the Communist regime came to power. The streets of Shanghai, the origin of the cheongsam, were patrolled to ensure that no one was dressed in trendy attire. Women adopted a tunic consisting of a jacket and pants comparable to men's due to the Communists' egalitarian ideal.
Despite this, the cheongsam remained popular in the British colony of Hong Kong, where it became commonplace in the 1950s. It was frequently worn with high heels, a leather purse, and white gloves, as it was influenced by European fashion. The emergence of Hong Kong beauty pageants, as well as films like The World of Suzie Wong (1961), established the garment's identification with Hong Kong in the world awareness.
The cheongsam's popularity waned by the end of the 1960s, giving way to Western-style dresses, blouses, and suits. These mass-produced Western garments were less expensive than handmade cheongsams, and by the early 1970s, most people no longer wore them on a daily basis.
It is, nonetheless, a notable garment in Chinese women's fashion history.
Many other films and today's high fashion world demonstrate the proper way to appreciate the diversity and beauty of cultural variations. The cheongsam, as a garment, has shown to have timeless style, as seen by its continued popularity since its introduction in the 1930s. Characters in several films, including ‘In the Mood for Love,' ‘Dangerous Liaisons,' and ‘Spider-man,' as well as celebrities on the red carpet and in publications, have worn it. Chinese dignitaries also wear it on official visits and events to symbolize their ethnic identity on the global stage.
In terms of the fashion industry, it has been featured in the collections of some of the world's most well-known brands and designers. Cheongsams were recently seen in Dolce & Gabanna's 2016 autumn collection and Gucci's 2017 fall collection, among other places.