Wiggle dresses and cheongsams

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Due to the success of the late 1950s film and different stage adaptions of the novel ‘The World of Suzie Wong’, the Asian dress cheongsam, or qipao, has been associated with Asian women as being overly promiscuous or submissive.

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I thought I’d share this cheongsam or qipao with you today because this one is an actual vintage dress, tailored in the “Suzie Wong” years of the 1950s or 1960s. I bought this piece from a store that specializes in vintage clothing. Besides asking the person if the dress is vintage, one can tell the date from its cutting. This is cut in the same manner as what they call a “wiggle dress” which emphasizes a tiny waist and a larger hip curve.

A modern day cutting of a cheongsam is different and lies close to the wearer’s body and gives a shapely figure without overly nipping in at the waist, or exaggerating the hips. Compare the cutting of the vintage cheongsam above, to this picture below of a modern cheongsam:

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Photo: Kevin Cordeiro.
A modern day tailored cheongsam in a rich silk satin material, in deep red. Embroidered beadings detail around the collar and slits, from Amor Meus by Francis Louis Ler, Singapore.

A modern cut lets the wearer sit more easy and, actually breathe some. The older cutting that follows the “wiggle dress” style does not particularly lend itself to sitting, or enjoying a Chinese 10 course dinner. In a modern cut dress, I wouldn’t have to worry about that, all that much.

Some thoughts to those who wish to wear the cheongsam; this is an Asian dress with a long history and all cultures have their intricacies of meaning when wearing different clothes. As little as other Europeans will understand British school ties or a mainland native Chinese will fully understand a Swedish national dress, a European would want to avoid buying a cheongsam off the rack somewhere and simply don it. To give the right impression and for example, to distinguish yourself from the Marina Mandarin Hotel lounge waitresses (or any other Chinese restaurant who has a cheongsam as their serving staff uniform) you would want to have an Asian (good) friend to advise you and ideally, you would need to have it tailor made, so that it hugs you at the right places.

Apart from Chinese wedding dinners, where the bride usually dons a cheongsam either for the tea ceremony or for the wedding dinner itself, Chinese New Year would be a good time to look out for pretty cheongsams along the streets of Singapore since most women will take that opportunity to wear this traditional dress. Red is often favoured as a colour because it symbolises joy and good luck.

I think cheongsams will always find a place in my wardrobe. Together with the sarong kebaya and in part, the sari, I consider this dress a part of my heritage.

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Cheryl, 3 years old, Chinese New Year in Singapore, wearing a red cheongsam.

The cheongsam is also a fairly easy way to dress up in this day and age. It is a surprising “no fuss” dress, just zip it up, do your hair and you’re ready for an elegant night out.

A quick search on the internet for the words “Chinese qipao history” will render about 32 600 hits on Google. Here’s one extract from Arcor.de that I would like to share with you, on the history and making of the qipao.

The Cheongsam came from the Manchus who grew out of ancient Nuzhen tribes. In the early 17th century, Nurhachi, a great political and military strategist, unified the various Nuzhen tribes and set up the Eight Banners System. Over the years, a collarless, tube-shaped gown was developed, which was worn by both men and women. That is the embryo of the Qipao. The dress is called Qipao in Chinese or translated as “banner gown”, for it came from the people who lived under the Banner System.

The Qipao became popular among ladies of the royal family in the Qing Dynasty. At that time, Qipaos were fitted loosely and were so long that they would reach the insteps. Usually, they were made of silk and the whole dress was embroidered, with broad lace trimmed at the collar, sleeves and edges.

In the 1920s, Qipao / Cheongsam became popular throughout China. With the influence of Western dress styles, the Cheongsam underwent a change. The cuffs grew narrower and were usually trimmed with thin lace. The length of the dress was shortened as well. This new adaptation allowed the beauty of female body to be fully displayed.

In the 1930s, wearing a Qipao / Cheongsam became a fashion among women in the whole of China. Various styles existed during this period. Some were short, some were long, with low, high or even no collars at all.

Starting from the 1940s, Cheongsams became closer-fitting and more practical. In summer, women wore sleeveless dresses. Qipaos of this period were seldom adorned with patterns.

The Qipao became standard female attire until the 1960s. Following Western fashion, the tailors raised the hem, even to above the knee, so that the “long” was long no longer. In the West, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s the style was deemed something oppressive, like the Victorian bodice.

In Western popular culture, the qipao became synonymous with the 1960 movie character Suzie Wong and the sexual objectification of women.

Today, with its variety of styles, the Qipao / Cheongsam shows its charm at many markets. More and more women in China appreciate its beauty. For instance, when wives of China’s diplomats attend important social gatherings, the Qipao is their first choice among dresses. In fact, quite a number of influential people have suggested that Qipao / Cheongsam should become the national dress for women in China. This shows that the Cheongsam remains a vibrant part of Chinese culture.

Wearing a Qipao nowadays has turned into something of a vogue, both at home and abroad. Due to its elegance and classical looks the Qipao becomes a source of inspiration for fashion designers. World-renowned brands like CD, Versace, and Ralph Lauren have all cited some Qipao elements in their designs. Many foreign women are eager to get themselves a Qipao should they visit China. Qipao is no longer a garment particular to Chinese women, but is adding to the vocabulary of beauty for women the world over.

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