Cheongsam is a type of feminine body-hugging dress with distinctive Chinese features of Manchu origin. Although cheongsam is its Cantonese name, it was called mandarin gown during the 1920s-1930s, popularised by Chinese socialites and upper-class women in Shanghai.
Cheongsam in the Qing Dynasty
When the Manchus ruled China during the Qing dynasty, they used an administrative division called the Eight Banner system. Originally only the Manchu households were organized within this system, but over time Mongols and Han Chinese were incorporated. The Manchus, and anyone living under the Eight Banners system, wore different clothing from ordinary civilians. Thus they became known as Banner People (旗人). The Manchu clothing that they wore consisted of similar long robes for both men and women. These were called Changpao (長袍).
For a period of time, under the dynastic laws after 1636, all Han Chinese were forced under penalty of death to adopt the Manchu male hairstyle, the queue, and dress in Manchu changpao instead of traditional Han Chinese clothing (剃发易服).
However, the order for ordinary non-Banner Han civilians to wear Manchu clothing was lifted, and only those Han who served as officials or scholars were required to wear them. Over time though, some Han civilian men voluntarily adopted Changshans. By the late Qing, not only officials and scholars, but a great many commoner Han men wore Manchu male attire. Until 1911, the Manchu changpao was required clothing for Chinese men of a certain class.
For women, Manchu and Han systems of clothing coexisted. Throughout the Qing dynasty, Han civilian women continued to wear traditional Han clothing from the Ming dynasty. As a result, Ming dynasty style clothing was retained in some places in China until the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.
Qing's Cheongsams were long and baggy
Birth of Qipao
The original qipao fitted loosely and hung in an A-line. It covered most of the wearer's body, revealing only the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. The baggy clothing also served to conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age.
The version seen as the typical qipao in China today was popularized by the celebrities, socialites, and politicians of the time in Shanghai from the 1920s to the 1940s. Former First Lady of China Madame Wellington Koo was a prominent figure among them. Voted several times by Vogue into its lists of the world's best-dressed women, Madame Wellington Koo was much admired for her adaptations of the traditional Manchu fashion, which she wore with lace trousers and jade necklaces. Cheongsam dresses at the time had been decorously slit a few inches up the sides, but Madame Koo slashed hers to the knee, 'with lace pantalettes just visible to the ankle'. Unlike other Asian socialites, Madame Koo also insisted on local Chinese silks, which she thought were of superior quality.
Oei Hui Lan in Cheongsam
People eagerly sought a more modernized style of dress and transformed the old qipao to suit new tastes. Slender and tight-fitting with a high cut, it had great differences from the traditional qipao. High-class courtesans and celebrities in the city made these redesigned tight fitting qipao popular at that time.
In Shanghainese, it was first known as 'zansae' for 'long dress', rendered in Mandarin as 'chángshān' and in Cantonese as 'chèuhngsāam'; it is the last of these spoken renditions of 長衫 that was borrowed into English as "cheongsam".
Like the male Changpao, Cheongsam/qipao, in the beginning, was always worn with trousers. In the 1930s, with the introduction of Western fashion during the Nanjing decade, many people replaced trousers with stockings. The side slits were re-purposed into aesthetic design reaching the top of the thigh to reflect new fashion trends.
By the 1940s, trousers had completely fallen out of use, replaced by different types of hosiery. High-heeled shoes were another fashion trend introduced to Shanghai at the same time, and it became an essential part of the qipao fashion set, which continued into modern days. As the trend of hosiery, in turn, declined in later decades, women started to wear qipao more commonly with bare legs. While this development settled the cheongsam as a one-piece dress, by contrast, the related Vietnamese áo dài retained trousers.
1940s Shanghai Girls in Cheongsam
The modernized version of qipao is noted for accentuating the figures of women, and as such was popular as a dress for high society. As Western fashions evolved, so does the cheongsam design, with the introduction of high-necked sleeveless dresses, bell-like sleeves, and the black lace frothing at the hem of a ball gown. By the 1940s, cheongsam came in a wide variety of fabrics with an equal variety of accessories.
Cheongsam & Western Influence (1950’s Hong Kong)
The Cheongsam became so popular in Hong Kong during the 1950s that the dress became everyday wear. Hong Kong Cheongsam designs became more westernized and sensual, the dress also started to feature side slits showcasing a women’s thighs.
1950’s Cheongsam fashion trends often paired a Cheongsam dress with high heels, a leather clutch bag, and a jacket. Designers also began to experiment with the dress’s fastenings, piping’s, and collars, the dresses sleeves came in many variations such as short-capped, long sleeves, and fur-lined cuffs.
The Cheongsam dress became so popular during the 1950s that the dresses where worn in Hong Kong beauty pageants. The Cheongsam dress gained international notoriety through Hong Kong beauty pageants and popular movies such as “The World of Suzie Wong” (1961) and “The Flower Street” (1950).
Finalists in the 1994 Miss Hong Kong pageant
Unfortunately, the Cheongsam’s popularity began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many Hong Kong designers began to westernize their designs due to declining popularity.