A storied silhouette

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


For decades, one of Hong Kong's most ubiquitous sights was the cheongsam. Visitors to Hong Kong - especially male visitors of a certain age - still expect to see local women clad in figure-hugging Chinese dresses. But like bat-winged junks on the harbour, safari suits and rickshaws, the trademark cheong-sam has largely vanished.

The dress was only widely worn in the 1920s. At that time, it was popularly known as a 'Shanghai dress', as it experienced its first surge of popularity in that city. From Shanghai, the fashion trend rapidly spread throughout the Chinese world, and by the late 1930s, it was a common sight from Penang in Malaysia to Hong Kong and further afield.

A mark of modernity, the cheongsam elegantly symbolised the growing liberation of women that followed the establishment of the Republic of China, in 1912.

It's worth remembering that the cheongsam was as much a status symbol as a fashion choice. Coolie and peasant women would not be caught dead in them, as they favoured more practical trousers.

One of my late elderly family friends, Auntie Cissy, who never wore anything but a cheongsam, would smile witheringly and roll her eyes when asked if she owned any slacks. She said trousers were only for amahs, or helpers. True to her word, when she died, she left behind wardrobes full of superbly cut cheongsams, many of them decades old.

Beyond class markers, some local women in Hong Kong today wear the cheongsam as a cultural statement. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that, as older photographs attest, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang dressed in contemporary Western fashions early in her civil-service career before switching to the habit of donning the well-tailored cheongsam. Many of her female colleagues did the same.

Alternatively, some women wear them simply because of their flattering form. But many others regard the cheongsam as the ultimate China-doll cliche, and for that reason alone will never wear one.

Numerous Hong Kong girls' schools have adopted the cheongsam style - albeit a less flattering version - for their students' uniforms. But an unintended consequence of this dress policy is that most of these girls, having been forced to wear a fairly unattractive version for years, might avoid wearing the real cheongsam in adulthood.

An older overseas generation reared on films such as Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) somehow expect Chinese women to wear the cheongsam. The runaway international success of The World of Suzie Wong, in which a cheongsam-clad Nancy Kwan plays a local prostitute, had the paradoxical effect of killing the fashion craze while making it an immediately recognisable symbol of Hong Kong womanhood.

Many local women didn't want to look like they worked the streets of Wan Chai and the costume steadily declined in popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, a few specialist tailors still make them, and the cheongsam is still worn for special occasions such as weddings. Well-cut, intricate versions can cost thousands of dollars apiece, though tailors in Shenzhen can make one for a fraction of the price.

For those interested in the history of this alluring garment, the superb exhibition 'In the Mood for Cheongsam' has opened at the National Museum of Singapore and will run until the end of June.

The male cheongsam can still -occasionally- be seen around town. One particularly flamboyant businessman -no prizes for guessing who- wears one as much for dramatic effect as for cultural identity.