How many of us are not familiar with the cheongsam? This wonderfully simple and elegant dress which when we think of when Chinese fashion springs to mind along with the most unglamorous Mao Tunic.
Like the sari of India, I think this is a very elegant form of dress, which can cross social boundaries.
A derivative from the rather shapeless garments that prevailed for both men and women during the Qing Dynasty when the Manchu ruled China, the modern day version had its roots in Shanghai during the 1920’s. Shanghai being China’s main commercial port was a melting point for Chinese and westerners alike, so it was only natural that traditional Chinese dress was modified for western tastes.
Chinese women eagerly sought a more modernized style of dress and transformed old traditional styles of clothing to suit their tastes. Slender and form fitting with a high cut, it had great differences from the traditional mode of dress, however it was high-class courtesans and celebrities in the city that would make these redesigned tight fitting dresses popular at the time.
As Western fashions changed, the basic cheongsam design changed too, introducing high-necked sleeveless dresses, and bell-like sleeves.
Come 1949 and we all know what the Communist Revolution did for fashion in China. Gone were the exquisite silks and brocades only to be replaced by the Mao Tunic (a fashion statement all on its own). As a result, the mass exodus of the local Shanghai populace to Hong Kong ensured that the cheongsam would become even more popular in Western culture.
Women in the Hong Kong workforce in the 1950’s adopted the cheongsam in more functional fabrics as everyday wear.
Films such as The World of Suzie Wong with Nancy Kwan cemented the hold the cheongsam would have over Western fashion, with pattern companies such as Simplicity offering versions where American housewives could whip up their own piece of Oriental glamour.
Open to interpretation by modern designers the cheongsam has become a staple in many a wardrobe and can be seen in many areas where a Chinese style look is desired. It was also nice to see the Swedish Olympic Team of 2008 adopt a form of the cheongsam as a nod to their hosts.
Unfortunately sometimes the cheongsam can appear kitsch, however I know that done right it is a knockout!