The Return of the Cheongsam

Published in print and online for my publication – East Magazine. Available to read online at

Instantly identifiable as a Chinese sartorial icon, Babette Radclyffe-Thomas investigates what is powering the recent resurgence of cheongsam-clad women

Maggie Cheung glides effortlessly across the screen enveloped in a sensuous fitted cheongsam. Side slits parting slightly as she walks, the high collar emphasising her lithe silhouette, Cheung’s dress exudes elegance whilst evoking a romantic nostalgia for 1960s Hong Kong. The cheongsam is instantly identifiable for a global audience as a signifier of ‘Chineseness’ but what are the origins of the cheongsam and how did it attain this position? The cheongsam has held close links to the political background and cultural history of China; throughout the evolution of the cheongsam it has continuously assumed new identities. From Parisian high-fashion catwalks to an explosion of cheongsam boutiques across China, what is powering this current revival of cheongsam-clad women?

Evolving from Manchu banner gowns and male scholar robes the qipao (旗袍), better known in the West as the cheongsam, is a one-piece garment which has become instantly identifiable in the West. The cheongsam is both a symbol representing Chinese culture and a signifier of Chinese ethnicity and identity. A recent revival of the cheongsam is evident in fashion as appropriated by Western designers, amongst celebrities and on film. Catering to a variety of cheongsam wearers, the identity of the twenty-first century cheongsam is markedly different from its political symbolism in the 1920s when it was seen as a signifier of social progress and increased female emancipation. In modern China the cheongsam has been revived as a symbol of Chinese ethnic identity yet retains tawdry associations with the entertainment and service industries; the cultural integrity and the cultural functions of the cheongsam are now in question.

Literature reveals conflicting opinions as to the exact origins of the cheongsam, however the majority of academics agree that the cheongsam emerged as a modification of the Chinese male scholar robes. Women sought less restrictive clothing to reflect their increasing emancipation following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Due to both geographical and political factors Shanghai rapidly became the fashion capital of China in the 1920s, and today the tailors of Shanghai remain the most prestigious. Shanghai was the pre-eminent centre of modernisation and the first coastal city opened to the West, and subsequently had an open culture and concentration of Westerners. Western tailored fashion influenced the progression and feminisation of the cheongsam recognisable in current manifestations with the high tubular collar, the huaniu (knotted and decorated button and loop fastenings) and short side slits.

Due to celebrity endorsement from famous actresses and Sun Yat-sen’s wife Song Qingling, the cheongsam grew to prominence; easily adaptable for all age ranges the cheongsam became standardised national dress for Chinese women and by the late 1920s the cheongsam dominated female fashion choices. Calendar posters using cheongsam-clad models facilitated the image of the cheongsam to pervade domestic and international culture and to become identified in the international arena as typical Chinese attire. The cheongsam came to symbolise ‘the unity of the country’ and ‘complete morality’ (Weilin 1937: 4-6) and by the 1930s the cheongsam had become ‘a stage for debates about sex, gender roles, aesthetics, the economy and the nation’ (Finnane 2007: 141). An item of egalitarian dress, the cheongsam reflected the general trend to imitate male practice, increasing the number of females attending school and becoming involved in political movements and public demonstrations. The cheongsam, now entrenched in national identity, became inextricably linked to the identification of Chinese women.

Over the course of the twentieth century the cheongsam has evolved in political significance, style and consumer base. Cheongsam styles have featured rising and falling hem lines and have become increasingly fitted. By the late 1960s the cheongsam became a symbol of decadence and capitalism and in a climate in which wearing fashionable clothes was highly dangerous, decreasing possibilities for dress existed. During the Cultural Revolution the adoption of the unisex Maoist suit led to the disappearance of the cheongsam on the Mainland, thus the cheongsam looked to other Chinese communities for its continuance such as Hong Kong which witnessed the height of cheongsam popularity during the 1950s and 1960s.

The resonant image of the cheongsam in the West is of Nancy Kwan in the 1960s film ‘The World of Suzie Wong’. Kwan’s dress exemplifies the sexiest adaptation of the cheongsam and is the style most associated with Hong Kong. Stanley Karnow (Karnow 1964) cites the cheongsam as the ‘root of much disorder in the Far East’ when he reports ‘traffic accidents…increase sharply at lunch hour, when girls in their slit skirts grace the city’s boulevards’. However by the end of the decade the cheongsam decreased in popularity; generational differences began to show as the youth identified the cheongsam as traditional and instead turned to more relaxed Western fashions to express their identity. By the 1980s the cheongsam had been relegated to evening wear or solely formal wear for ceremonial occasions.

In the new century both Western and Eastern celebrity endorsement has fuelled resurgence in cheongsam wearing; cheongsam-clad celebrities include Madonna, Nicole Kidman and Zhang Ziyi. The Asian film industry has played a significant role in propelling the resurgence of the cheongsam.  Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000) set in 1960s Hong Kong plays on a romantic nostalgia felt by many Chinese; Maggie Cheung portrays So Li-zhen, with a wardrobe consisting of 26 cheongsams for all occasions.

Consumers of cheongsams as ethnic and cultural symbols have diffused the cheongsam through cultural settings and reinforced the association of the cheongsam with ‘Chineseness’. Reflecting Chinese cultural roots, traditional clothing has been re-appropriated and given a twenty-first century spin. Ethnically Chinese designers such as Vivienne Tam and Peter Lau have adopted the cheongsam and the Shanghai Tang boutique capitalises on combining a type of self-Orientalism with romantic nostalgia. Fashion designers as cultural producers play a significant role in adapting and expanding the symbolism of the cheongsam; the exoticisation of the foreign provides a popular source of inspiration for Western fashion designers who have adapted the cheongsam and disseminated its styling to a wider audience. Luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton’s 2011 Spring/Summer collection features various neon cheongsam. The significance of the cheongsam as cultural symbol has also influenced modern Chinese artists such as Li Xiaofeng who uses broken porcelain shards to create cheongsam sculptures and Liu Jianhua who creates ceramic sculptures of cheongsam-clad women expressing China’s position on the world stage.

Despite its abandonment in preference for less restrictive Western clothing, the cheongsam remains a powerful image. Thus at the same time that the cheongsam is increasingly universalised as a fashion statement, the cheongsam is also being reclaimed as a signifier of cultural identity in China. In the face of an increasingly globalised culture prevalent in modern China, the need to ascertain a national identity is felt more strongly than ever. The cheongsam, laden with associations and sentiments of heritage and ethnicity, has been promoted by the government as a national sartorial icon, seen by millions on the 2008 Beijing Olympic ushers. However the cheongsam assumes multiple roles in modern China; whilst it is promoted as a symbol of Chinese tradition worn for weddings and formal occasions, it is retained as school uniform in Hong Kong and serves as work attire for many employed in the service and entertainment industries.

The cheongsam emerged from the drive for sexual equality as a signifier of modernity and became the definitive female dress during a tumultuous period of Chinese history. The current resurgence projects varied symbolic meanings including ethnic representation, femininity and perhaps more tawdry associations. Still instantly identifiable as a signifier of ‘Chineseness’ the typical characteristics of the cheongsam remain, however the cheongsam’s symbolic meanings have been repackaged to appeal to a variety of consumers. Seen on film, in art galleries and catwalks around the world, the cheongsam has an undeniably interesting and exciting future.

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