AS FASHION continues to bridge cultural boundaries, the east remains a huge inspiration for international designers. From mandarin collars and Chinese embroidery to gowns made to replicate Ming vases, names such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani and John Galliano have transposed elements of Chinese style and culture onto their catwalk creations. But it's the cheongsam that best represents Chinese fashion internationally. In Wong Kar Wai's film In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk's stunning collection of snug and high-necked cheongsams took audiences' breath away as much as her smouldering exchanges with Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Derived from the long, shapeless robes of the Manchurian court, the cheongsam (qipao in Putonghua) has become the pre-eminent traditional dress of Chinese women. It was originally intended to conceal a woman's figure right down to her feet, but by the 1900s a more figure-hugging version became widespread, reaching the height of popularity in 1930s Shanghai. According to Vivianne Lau, general manager of eastern-inspired luxury brand Blanc de Chine, socialites and actresses were among the first to wear cheongsams as a sign of sophistication. 'During this time cheongsams emerged as an important part of the Chinese woman's life and wardrobe,' she says. 'It was also during this period that the silhouette evolved into a figure-skimming piece with a stiff, high collar and a knee-high slit.' As fashion evolved, so did the cheongsam, with the introduction of details such as bell-like sleeves and black lace. By the 1940s, it was normal to find transparent black and velvet styles with beaded bodices and matching capes. With the communist takeover in 1949, the cheongsam practically disappeared on the mainland - but found a new audience in Hong Kong, where it was popularised by Nancy Kwan in the film The World of Suzie Wong. Although the cheongsam became more provocative during the 60s, it was still a far cry from the short, skin-tight version with thigh-high slits worn by Kwan. Styles worn by working-class women were made slightly loose to facilitate movement in their day-to-day activities. The elegant version from the 1930s is the model for modern styles. 'Nowadays, these dresses are worn mostly for special occasions and ladies prefer a much sexier and sleek-looking silhouette, which allows them to show off the curves of their body,' says Shanghai Tang international tailoring manager Jeremy Lim. A cheongsam at its best involves precise craftsmanship, beautiful fabric and detailed embroidery, so experts recommend visiting a tailor and having it made from scratch. 'The choice of fabric is important as it affects the overall appearance of the cheongsam,' says Lau. Silk and wool are the most traditional choices, but she also recommends sequinned fabrics, brocade, pretty printed cotton and lace. Beaded fabric for evening adds a bit of bling. Colour is important. 'Black and dark colours are considered taboo on festive occasions,' says Lim. 'Red and bright colours are favoured by the Chinese, especially for weddings and the Lunar New Year because they bring forth well meaning for the occasion.' If red isn't for you, try experimenting with unusual and offbeat colours. Actress Nicole Kidman sported a daring chartreuse cheongsam sheath with a mink trim by Christian Dior haute couture for the 1997 Oscars. If you want to play it safe, use a material embroidered with colourful threads to add dimension. 'Traditional embroidery often comes in the form of gold and silver designs of dragons and phoenixes to symbolise the balance of male and female power,' says Caroline Shaw of the Wedding Company. The Double Happiness motif is another popular choice. In terms of style, anything goes, but the key to getting the right look boils down to the fit. 'Make sure you tell the tailor what silhouette you're looking for, how high you want the slit to be, the length of the sleeves and the height of the collar,' says Lau. 'The height of the collar affects not only your comfort but also your hairstyle.' Although some people might dream of replicating Cheung's glamorous cheongsams, keep in mind that a rigid collar up to your chin is incredibly restrictive and uncomfortable. A well-made cheongsam should skim over the body rather than fit like a glove. 'The slit should be at a comfortable height, so movement is easy, rather than cut high to reveal flesh,' says Lau. For those who want to experiment with the classic shape, there are several stylish options. Take inspiration from Gong Li, who walked the red carpet at Cannes in a stunning Tom Ford (for Yves Saint Laurent) sequinned cheongsam with an unusual low decolletage and sweeping fishtail hem. Lau suggests mixing and matching cheongsams with modern pieces of clothing for an updated look. 'Don't be afraid of pairing it with things such as with a denim jacket, a trench, boots or even sneakers.'