The cheongsam, from swinging Shanghai to Suzie Wong to slit thigh-high

Since the modern, figure-hugging cheongsam made its debut in the 1920s it has been a Chinese fashion staple and part of popular culture thanks to films such as The World of Suzie Wong and In The Mood For Love

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 5:38pm

Introduced by the ruling Manchus during the Qing dynasty, the cheongsam (or qipao) is today one of the most recognised Chinese dress styles.

The first cheongsams were loose and covered almost the entire body, and the modern version dates from 1920s Shanghai. The influence of Western fashion at that time saw the cheongsam get shorter, sexier and more revealing of the wearer’s figure. Tailored tight to the body, it became the form-fitting design we know today.

SEE ALSO: The World of Suzie Wong, 55 years on: archives opened to revisit 1960s Hong Kong’s main event

The new style quickly caught on with the upper classes, and became standard wear for Chinese women in the years that followed. In China, it took the Cultural Revolution and the Mao suit to bring its reign to a shuddering halt.

Beyond China, hit 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, with its sexy lead character, played by Nancy Kwan, thrust the modern cheongsam into popular consciousness. The form-fitting versions, slit dangerously high, that Kwan wore on screen inspired copies worldwide, and still to this day provide a reference point for some of fashion’s biggest designers –– Hong Kong’s Shanghai Tang has been a faithful supporter of the cheongsam. Among the fashion houses to have featured cheongsams in their recent collections are Ralph Lauren (2011), Gucci (2012), Louis Vuitton (2011) and Emilio Pucci (2013).

Of the Hong Kong tailors making cheongsams, Linva Tailors in Central district have been turningn them out since the 1960s. Linva made cheongsams for the Hong Kong film In The Mood For Love (see below). Master tailor Leung Ching-wah took up an apprenticeship when he was 12. “There’s no point in making a cheongsam if it’s not made in the most traditional way, no point in making it if it’s not beautiful,” Leung said.

“In the 1950s and ’60s everyone wore a cheongsam, but after the 1970s, when the Western influence kicked in, they became unpopular,” he said.

In The Mood for Cheongsam

In the 2000 film In The Mood For Love, directed by Wong Kar-wai and starring Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, the cheongsam – beautifully wrapped around Cheung’s figure – is almost a character in the film. Cheung wears 21 different designs, from bright florals to cool geometrics, each one complementing the backdrop of the scene.

Put another cheongsam on the Barbie

Love her or hate her, Barbie – the blonde-haired, blue-eyed plastic doll with the unrealistic body image – has been adored by young girls around the globe for decades. In 1998, Barbie’s creator, Mattel, released its Golden Qi-Pao Barbie doll to commemorate the first anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The doll’s dress features layers of lace appliqué on a solid golden background. Tiny rhinestones and golden rosettes add to the bling factor. Fake crystal droplet earrings and a faux jade bracelet and jade butterfly complete her ensemble.

Kick-ass dress

In the popular Chinese Street Fighter video game, Chun-Li is recognised by her signature blue cheongsam (first seen in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior). To allow her to better kick and jump, her dress was modified to permit a wider range of movement. It is worn with white knee-high boots, hair bun covers, and oversized spiked bracelets.