Cheongsam: Silken Élan

Oscar Wilde had a point when he claimed that ‘fashion is a form of ugliness that intolerable that we have to alter it every six mouths’. Fashion’s ever changing appeal and preferences are so specific to a time frame, that by their very nature trends do not survive centuries of style. However, one of the few exceptions to the rule is a Chinese number that does not get the persistent recognition it deserves. Quite possibly the oldest and simplest style of dress around. China’s Cheongsam dress.

Know in Mandarin as Qipao, a Cheongsam is a tight fitting dress with an upright collar.  Typically made from silk but not exclusively, patterns can include dragons, flowers and anything associated with China. Since Cheongsam has been influenced by the west, fits have been modified to be more revealing. Shortening of the hem line, slits for a flash of legs. Still the more classic dress persists.

The male version of this outfit is called a cheongshan. Cheongsam’s story began in the Manchurian part of China during the Qing Dynasty, when this section of the country wore loose long fitting dresses. As to when the Cheongsam was invented appears to be vague but was in definite existence round 1636. For hundreds of years Cheongsam had a rather muted history until the Republican Era (1911-1949). Here feminists championing the end on foot binding, gender segregation and right to not be a imprisioned by their gender. To escape stereotypical gender dress, the Cheongsam suited the desire to wear less feminine clothing. Sadly this golden age was not to last. China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). After being a to one time national dress for China, the Cheongsam was viewed with disdain. Now anything associated with the ‘old way’ was deemed to be the enemy of the new China. Cheongsam’s appeal became more international was during the 1920’s. This was when more ‘foreign’ styles of dress became cosmopolitan (especially Ancient Egyptian and anything Asian). Since the 1980’s Cheongsam has returned to its rightful place as a classically beautiful dress with no political controversy.

Why the Cheongsam survived centuries of social and sartorial revolutions, changing tastes and attitudes? Simplicity. Clean lines and flexibility of patterns. Looking back at western fashions over the last 100 years, how many of use can truthfully say that we would wear anything from the Edwardian era?Cumbersome frills, multiple layers of fabrics, huge hats and next to no accessories? Did not think so, still let’s see what the next 400 years brings.

cheongsam poster

AnnaMayWong cheongsam

cheongsam vintage

white cheongsam

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One comment

  1. The cap sleeve and the cut are so flattering. If you can find one with the fabric cut on the bias — it is even more gentle on curves.
    Gorgeous.

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