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What is a Cheongsam Dress?

by 顺之 聂 27 Sep 2023

Cheongsam, sometimes called Qipao is a traditional garment that has recently experienced a revival meanwhile many of you may be wondering what is a cheongsam dress . This blog has everything you need to know about cheongsam dress so keep reading.

Cheongsam is a recognizable and sought-after silhouette of Asian clothing that came to us from China and remains on the radar to this day. Most people think of it as a national costume. But, in fact, qipao is only partially a traditional garment. Qipao (the name in North Chinese) or cheongsam (the English version of the name, which has taken root among Cantonese dialect owners, meaning literally "long blouse") is a dress-robe, characterized by a standing collar and hollow, wrapped on one side. In Chinese, qipao means the dress of the famous.

The ethnic dress with a standing collar is not losing popularity. Trendy vintage stores in cities now sell the same cheongsam dresses once worn by grandmothers at weddings, and glittery versions are worn by teens on TikTok participating in the "Share Your Culture" dance competition, while fast fashion brands, capitalizing on this revival of cheongsam dress, shamelessly plagiarize the original to the dismay of Chinese Americans. And, of course, you can always find waitresses wearing qipao dresses in traditional Chinese restaurants in some European countries.

The dress is considered the epitome of Chinese fashion. But to understand the importance of cheongsam dress in our time, we must first know its history.

A Brief History of the Cheongsam

From the Qing Dynasty, when the Manchus ruled China. The Manchus wore long, loose garments called chanpao (长袍), with slits on the sides for riding and archery. Chanpao was worn by both males and females at the same time. Han Chinese belonging to a certain class, such as scholars and officials, had to wear the chanpao or else face serious consequences.

In the mid-1910s and early 1920s, Chinese intellectuals began to rebel against traditional values, calling for a democratic and equal society based on Western standards, including the emancipation and education of women. Foot binding, the painful practice of binding a young girl's feet to prevent them from growing, was outlawed. As women were allowed into the education system beginning in the 1920s, becoming teachers and university students, they abandoned the traditional ornate robes of the old and adopted the early form of cheongsam dress, which evolved from the clothes of androgynous men called chanpao..

The major changes that transformed cheongsam dress into the form we are familiar with occurred in China between the 1920s and 1930s. Shanghai, being the fashion capital, has greatly modernized the chanpao, making it more modern, free, and stylish.

So the long, not the most feminine shirt became more interesting—it became not so voluminous, and later it was transformed into a beautiful dress on the figure with flirty slits along the line of legs. In China there was a real boom in qipao (or cheongsam dress) - it was worn everywhere. Qipao became an element of closet and ordinary girls, fashionistas from high society, and famous actresses, artists, singers, and other representatives of Bohemia. Shanghai courtesans did not ignore the interesting style of the cheongsam dress, fully revealing the functionality and sex appeal of this outfit. The dress became a favorite and phenomenally popular among all walks of life. As a result, in the late 1920s (most sources give the date as 1929) cheongsam dress was recognized as the official dress of the Republic of China.

Shanghainese then brought the dress to British-controlled Hong Kong, where it remained popular through the 1950s. At that time, working women often combined cheongsam with a jacket. For example, Wong Kar-wai's 2001 movie In the Mood for Love, set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, shows actress Maggie Cheung wearing a different cheongsam in almost every scene. The story of this iconic piece of clothing reflects the rise of modern Chinese women in the twentieth century.

Qipao Vs. Cheongsam

Today in China, Qipao and Chongsam are two names for the same dress. The dress is considered the epitome of Chinese fashion. However, they were originally two different dresses, and due to different historical circumstances, the names overlapped, and over time they became the same dress. However, the original dresses carried significant differences. The main difference between the two words lies in their linguistic origin. Cheongsam is the English version of Cantonese long dress. It is used in the southern part of China, while Qipao is used in northern part of the country. Cantonese cheongsam eventually arrived in Shanghai and evolved into English cheongsam. Another English term for this dress is "mandarin dress."

Both cheongsam and qipao originated in the dress of Manchu women. The dress is characterized by silk with a high or low mandarin collar. The dress may have different sleeve lengths. It can be sleeveless, long sleeves, short sleeves, or quarter-length sleeves. The suit may have high or low slits on one or both sides of the skirt. The slits may reach the waist or hips. The dress has a diagonal opening from the neck to the right armhole. The garment is designed to be closed by attaching frog or button closures to the right front of the garment.

Cheongsam or Qipao has a variety of designs and patterns. Embroidered or solid-color fabrics can be used with a wide range of patterns. The pattern can range from various floral patterns to symbolic patterns such as fish, dragons, or phoenixes. Colors can range from two to several depending on the fabric and design. The dress can be embellished with accessories and jewelry.

The original cheongsam or qipao is a wide and loose type of dress that shows only the head, arms, and tips of the toes. This became modern and evolved into a revolutionary design with a tighter shape and more appropriate for the female form.

Meaning: It means "banner clothes".
Year of origin: It originated in the 16th century.
Weight: Qipao dresses were heavy.
Meaning: It is ethically significant.

Meaning: It means "long dress".
Year of origin: It originated in the 20th century.
Weight: Cheongsam dresses are lighter.
Meaning:It is the epitome of fashion.

Further Transformation of the Qipao

In the 21st century, the traditional dress has undergone changes and now it is a special outfit - it is preferred for parties, weddings, and photo shoots, Chinese stunning images can be seen in stylish music videos, world stars wearing qipao, parading on the red carpets of popular film awards and festivals. Cheongsam in the 21st century are striking in their sophistication, beauty, and concise yet stylish design. The late 90s were a crazy cultural melting pot and a time of intense experimentation (and appropriation). During this era, the cheongsam became a staple of the modern young woman's closet, and everywhere from malls like Delia to fashion runways selling branded stand-up collars. Stars like Kate Moss and Claire Danes wore them on the red carpet.

Much of the qipao legacy can also be attributed to Wong Karwai's critically acclaimed and incredibly influential film Love Mood (2001), a Hong Kong romance between lovers played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The very stylish film inspired contemporary film aesthetics and costume design, as well as a younger generation of Asian-American movie lovers.

A new generation of young female consumers no longer see cheongsam as a relic of their grandmothers' closets. Instead, it is increasingly seen as a timeless legacy that could be reinterpreted with a modern fashion sense. A variety of materials are used to sew the dress today – silk, brocade, velour, satin, and similar fabrics. Colors are also varied, with folk Chinese, black, and scarlet with gilded motifs often used. This has led to innovative designs such as jumpsuits with stand-up collars and mid-length qipao, suitable for all formal and informal occasions. Adding a modern style to the traditional cheongsam dress reflects not only the creativity of modern dressmakers. It is also a testament to the versatility of qipao and its core elements that have stood the test of time.

While qipao is once again winning the hearts of women around the world, it has also successfully conquered high fashion. Influential designers such as Anna Sui and Louis Vuitton have brought modern interpretations of cheongsam to the catwalk. With the reinterpretation and reinvention of cheongsam, a new generation of Western audiences is beginning to move beyond stereotypical notions of Chinese culture.

Where Can You Buy Cheongsam?

Since the release of In the Mood for Love and other TV series in China, cheongsam dress studios are experiencing a renaissance. You can buy them at high-end boutiques or have it customized at clothing markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, many major cities in mainland China, and Singapore. You can also find a cheaper version at street stalls. A ready-made cheongsam dress at a clothing store can cost about $100, while a custom-made cheongsam can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Simpler and cheaper designs can be purchased online.
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