Cheongsam (pronounced CHONG-sahm and a disambiguation of the Chinese ‘chèuhngsāam’ which roughly means ‘long short/dress’) is pretty recognisable as a traditional Chinese dress, but what’s the history? You may be surprised to know that, actually, this style of dress represents a mix of both Chinese and Western styles. The traditional Cheongsam is considered the national dress of Hong Kong.
A Cheongsam is usually a long (ankle length, although you can get half length designs) which is close fitting and features a high slit up one (or both!) sides. Typically, and most characteristically, they have a ‘mandarin collar’ which is a round, stand up collar which is worn close to the neck and fastens at the front and to the side.
There are other names for this style of dress as well, you may hear it referred to as a ‘qi-pao’ (pronounced kei-po) or ‘cheung sam’.
So, that’s what one is… where did they come from I hear you say? A brief history…
The Cheongsam first appeared shortly after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 (which had ruled China since 1644) and China was able to look outwards and modernise as the Qing Dynasty had isolated the country somewhat. Women especially began to have more freedom and wanted their clothes to match this modernising new world. However, they didn’t want to loose their culture and adopt Western dress. Therefore, the Cheongsam, emerging around the 1920’s, represented a middle ground. The traditional collar was kept and traditional Chinese fabrics, like silk, were used. The Western aspects came in the fact that the dress was much more form-fitting than previous attire and there was a distinct lack of binding ties…
And Feminism plays a role here too! After the feudal Qing Dynasty was overturned, Chinese feminists called for women’s liberation from traditional roles and they led several movements against gender segregation, including a termination of bound feet for women and cutting off long hair which was conventionally symbolised as women’s oriental beauty. Wearing a Cheongsam was thought to represent promoting women’s equality as, ironically, it was like the male, one-piece, clothing.
As the Cheongsam was different, it became a way of representing this modernising China. It was used heavily in adverts of the time and was worn by famous actresses, which only helped it’s popularity and may have influenced it’s usage over here in the West.
Two women wearing cheongsam in a 1930s Shanghai advertisement
Unfortunately, when the Communist Party took hold in 1949, this glamorous style quickly disappeared from the public style… it was even banned in 1966 by the ruling party! BUT… it never went out of style in Hong Kong (remember I mentioned that it was considered the National dress here, this is why…) as this region was, until 1997, a colony of Great Britain! There was also a number of Chinese tailors who fled the Communist rule and settled in Hong Kong. By the 1940’s there were a variety of Cheongsam styles and it was being seen around the world. The dress was particularly popular in the 50’s and 60’s – particularly because it showed resistance to the changes being imposed in China at the time. One of my idols, Lauren Bacall looking stunning in a Cheongsam
Wow – who knew politics could shape fashion so much…
In 1997, when China and Hong Kong were unified, the Cheongsam had a sort of resurgence! It was a celebration of cultural identity in Hong Kong and Western designers added their own spin and were inspired by the design. In fact… As a sign of the importance of this dress, ‘Mattel’ issued a special collectable Barbie doll; the Golden Qi-Pao Barbie!
In more modern history; since the 1960’s the Cheongsam has also been more commonly worn as a uniform in the Hong Kong service industry, featuring much more appropriate textiles, such as wool.
Now, back to today! And thankfully, its not so controversial to wear one!
You can find your Cheongsam in a variety of places, but I recommend Orchid Clothing, which is where I found this beauty…
Here I am at Riviera Swing wearing the Orchid Clothing Bamboo Cheongsam ❤
This beautiful style really excentuates curves and is so feminine and at £22.99 it won’t break the bank either! Just accessorise with some oriental flowers and you’re set!
Take a look at their other Chinese style items here… www.orchidclothing.co.uk