Words: Irvin Hanni
Y U no wear cheongsam? A casual survey amongst the ladies revealed these common answers.
“If I buy normal clothes, I can wear it anytime of the year. With the cheongsam I would probably wear it only once or twice for special occasions.” – Piper
“Aiyoh can’t be bothered to adjust the tight-fitting dress when I need to do this and that.” – Win Win
“I feel like the occasion must be extra special to wear a cheongsam, because it takes effort to look really good in one.” – Mun Chi
“Legs not skinny, thighs so wide, how to wear cheongsam like this ma?” – She who shall not be named
The list goes on.
Typically defined by Mandarin collar with pankous (Chinese-style knotted buttons) and figure-hugging pencil-cut shape with side slits, the cheongsam oozes elegance, femininity and sex appeal in one neat package. But while everyone agrees that it is a gorgeous outfit which accentuates a woman’s beauty, a lot of them are opting for functionality instead of tradition.
CNY OOTD game
A simple observation can be done via Instagram. While we do see women donning it for CNY or at weddings, the number is very little compared to the hashtags #bajukurung (4 million), #bajuraya (3 million), or #sari (1.5 million). This is referring to the two other major cultural celebrations in Malaysia – Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Deepavali. We’re omitting #uglychristmassweater from the equation for now.
In comparison, #cheongsam only yielded roughly 390,000 hits. Kindly note that the statistics are approximate as of publication time. Also, hashtags are by no means the accurate science for anything, just slightly more fun this way.
Props to beautiful bride in red Ms Yippie Yip for succesfully making her friends wear traditional garments to her wedding.
But even without the numbers, the visuals are quite telling. There are far more western-style outfits than cheongsams when it comes to the CNY OOTD game. This distinct element of Chinese culture seems to have quite a minimal presence as compared with the other traditional dresses in the country.
Not that CNY is observed mildly here, it’s one of merriest festive seasons rich with tradition including the reunion dinner, yee sang, angpows, lion dances and firecrackers. Even the non-Chinese are sometimes swept away in the revelry of red, considered an auspicious colour as it attracts joy and fortune. It is the numero uno colour of choice when a person wears a brand new outfit to symbolise new beginnings and new aspirations for the New Year.
Image: NIcky Almasy
Origins of the cheongsam
Debates are still ongoing on the actual history of the cheongsam, but let’s focus on the most widely discussed theory. So sometime during 17th century China, the Manchu community established the Qing Dynasty, which would later become the last imperial dynasty in the country.
Politics here politics there, the people eventually adopted a clothing style that combined elements from various cultures into the outfit that we now refer to as the original qipao. Qi refers to the Qing people while pao means robe. The style was conservative, with long A-shaped robe that fell down to the floor, featuring bell sleeves and Mandarin collars. Made from the finest silk, it was normally worn by upper class women, like those we see on TVB dramas.
Rocking the qipao like the nobility they are. Left to right: Empress Xiaoshencheng during the Daoguang Period (1821–1850) and Lady Aisingioro Hengxiang during Guangxu Period (1875–1908). Image: Wikimedia commons
By the time the 300-year-old Qing dynasty closed shop to give way to the Xinhai revolution in early 20th century, the qipao had also evolved with the times. Some people attributed this to the rise of women empowerment and the influence of western fashion.
During the 1930s, the qipao became slimmer with side splits that went up to the knees. Throughout the next few decades, it got more and more form-fitting, featuring shorter or barely-there sleeves and slits that went up towards the thighs. It was no longer a dress for the privileged, but embraced by the everyday women of China. Welcome, fashion!
To fully appreciate the qipao during its golden era, it’s best to take a seat on the time travel capsule to 1930s Shanghai. Can’t afford the ticket? Watch Wong Kar Wai’s iconic film In The Mood For Love, set in 1960s Hong Kong featuring Maggie Cheung in 21 different va-va-voom cheongsams. Oh yeah, cheongsam is qipao translated into Cantonese.
An advertisement in the 1930s featuring a slim cheongsam that falls down to the ankles. Image: Wikimedia commons
Year of the Pig
As 2019 is the Year of the Pig, the element naturally comes into play. Associated with abundance, positivity, and warmth, the pig became the twelfth and final animal of the Chinese zodiac because it was the last one to arrive at a party hosted by the Jade Emperor. Legend has it that the pig overslept because he ate too much, but we also like to believe that he was just fashionably late.
Because people are encouraged to wear new clothes, this particular custom is practically a gold mine for the fashion industry. Fast fashion brands like H&M and homegrown Padini group have their yearly CNY collections, but most designs are still contemporary with an emphasis on the colour red instead of anything culturally distinguishable.
On the international hoity toity spectrum this year, French handbag superstar Longchamp collaborated with one of China’s top fashion influencers Mr Big to produce a special pig-inspired collection on its signature Le Pliage line. Meanwhile Italian brand Gucci recently unveiled its CNY collection with cardigans, tshirts, and sneakers featuring the Disney classic Three Little Pigs.
Nope, no cheongsams.
Image: Alexander-Mils on Unsplash
Cheongsam in the news
The cheongsam made international headlines last year when 18-year old Keziah Daum from Utah opted to wear a red vintage cheongsam to her high school prom. In today’s world where some people are easily offended by anything and everything, she got lambasted by a Chinese American dudebro who has probably never worn a changsan –the male equivalent of cheongsam– his entire life .
Fully clad in western getup complete with Adidas baseball cap, Jeremy Lam cried tears of ‘cultural appropriation’ on a lengthy Twitter thread. Funnily enough, a lot of Chinese people in China and around Asia welcomed Ms Daum’s gesture, calling it ‘cultural appreciation’ instead.
The Twiiter post that sparked an international debate. Via @daumkeziah on Twitter.
The main argument against cheongsam seems to be that it is an outfit that requires a lovely slim figure and a lot of poise while wearing it, not something you want to wear whilst carrying a tray full of drinks from the kitchen to the living area where your busybody relative twice removed Auntie Belinda is waiting to ask why are you not yet married.
Image: CC BY 2-0_Chris Photography(王權)
But what if there are newer, more stylish versions that combine fashion and functionality? Like an A-cut waistless flare that falls down to the knee that expertly conceals wide bottoms, or fishtail fringes to give it a bit of an edge? And oh, how about this one – a cheongsam with pockets! For all that fat angpows, of course. There’s the answer to your question, Auntie Belinda.
The good news is, all the above-mentioned frocks are already out there. Check your favourite online shopping sites. Malaysia’s Queen of avant-garde Melindai Looi even has cheongsams with detachable Mandarin collars thus transforming them into sleek cocktail dress, for when you need to head down to Sid’s Pub later in the evening to get away from Auntie Belinda. Her latest 2018/19 collection, inspired by the Chinese folk art, is a vibrant testament of how an unconventional approach to tradition can turn into something revolutionary.
Melinda Looi’s 2018/19 Chinese Folk Art collection. Image courtesy of Melinda Looi.
We have seen how the qipao has evolved since its inception during Qing Dynasty to its current look. Maybe it is time for a revival, powered by the ladies of this new era. Or perhaps the cheongsam is already evolving. Let’s check Instagram this Chinese New Year.