The cheongsam is a body-hugging one-piece Chinese dress for women. It is known in Chinese as the qípáo (旗袍), qípáor (旗袍儿), Wade-Giles ch'i-p'ao, and is also known in English as a mandarin gown. The modern cheongsam is a modernized version of the qipao of the Manchurians who conquered China in the 17th century (Qing Dynasty).
Chinese language usageThe English loanword cheongsam comes from chèuhngsàam, the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese term zǎnze or zansae (長衫, 'long shirt/dress'), by which the original tight-fitting form was first known. The Shanghainese name was somewhat at odds with usage in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, where chángshān (the Mandarin pronunciation of 長衫) refers to an exclusively male dress (see changshan) and the female version is known as a qipao.
In Hong Kong, where many Shanghai tailors fled to after the Communist takeover of the Mainland, the word chèuhngsàam may refer to either male or female garments. The word keipo (qipao) is either a more formal term for the female chèuhngsàam, or is used for the two-piece cheongsam variant that is popular in China. Western countries mostly follow the original Shanghainese usage and apply the name cheongsam to a garment worn by women.
When the Manchu established and ruled China in the Qing Dynasty, certain social strata emerged. Among them were the Banners (qí), mostly Manchu, who as a group were called Banner People (旗人 pinyin: qí rén). Manchu women typically wore a one-piece dress that came to be known as the qípáo (旗袍 or banner quilt). The qipao fitted loosely and hung straight down the body. Under the dynastic laws after 1644, all Han Chinese were forced to wear a queue and dress in Manchurian qipao instead of traditional Han Chinese clothing (剃发易服), under penalty of death. In the following 300 years, the qipao became the adopted clothing of the Chinese and was eventually tailored to suit the preferences of the population. Such was its popularity that the garment form survived the political turmoil of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty. The qipao after several centuries, became the archetypal dress for China.
The first and "traditional" qipao when introduced to the larger Han population was wide, baggy and rather loose. It covered most of the woman's body revealing only the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. The loose baggy nature of the clothing also served to deemphasize and conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age. However, with time the qipao were tailored to become more form fitting and revealing. The modern version, which is now recognized popularly in China as the "standard" qipao, was first developed in Shanghai around 1900, soon before the end of the Qing Dynasty. People eagerly sought a more modernized style of dress and transformed the old qipao to suit their tastes. Slender and form fitting with a high cut, it contrasted sharply with the traditional qipao. In Shanghai it was first known as zansae or "long dress" (長衫 = Mandarin: chángshān, Shanghainese: zansae, Cantonese: chèuhngsàam), and it is this name that survives in English as the "cheongsam".
The modernized version is especially noted for accentuating the figures of women, and as such was highly popular as a dress for high society. As Western fashions changed, the basic cheongsam design changed too, introducing high-necked sleeveless dresses, bell-like sleeves, and the black lace frothing at the hem of a ball gown. By the 1940s, cheongsam came in transparent black, beaded bodices, matching capes, and even velvet. Later, checked fabrics also became quite common.
The 1949 Communist Revolution ended the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai, but the Shanghainese emigrants and refugees brought the fashion to Hong Kong where it has remained popular. Recently there has been a revival of the Shanghainese cheongsam in Shanghai and elsewhere in Mainland China; the Shanghainese style functions now mostly as a stylish party dress.
Modern useIn the 1950s, women in the workforce in Hong Kong started to wear more functional cheongsams made of wool, twill, and other materials. Most were tailor fitted and often came with a matching jacket. The dresses were a fusion of Chinese tradition with modern styles. Cheongsam were commonly replaced by more comfortable clothings like sweaters, jeans, business suits and skirts. Due to its restrictive nature, it is now mainly worn as formal wear for important occasions. They are sometimes worn by politicians and film artists in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are shown in some Chinese movies such as in the 1960s film, The World of Suzie Wong, where actress Nancy Kwan made the cheongsam briefly fashionable in western culture. They are also commonly seen in beauty contests, along with swim suits. They are only common in daily living for some people as a uniform.
Women in video games are often in cheongsam, so cosplay showgirls may wear a cheongsam in show times. These cheongsam usually made of rubber or silk, reflective in color to catch camera focus, with sleeves to the upper part of the arms and the bottom of the cheongsam to half of the upper legs. They are commonly found in combination with short socks and white shoes.
Some airlines in Mainland China and Taiwan have cheongsam uniforms for their women flight attendants and ground workers such as China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines. These cheongsam are very similar to other airline uniforms. They are in a plain color, the bottom about 3/4 down to the upper legs, with a body fitting wool suit of the same color of the cheongsam. The workers wear stockings and shoes or low heeled shoes. Their working places are often air-conditioned so they do not feel very hot.
Few primary schools and some secondary schools in Hong Kong, especially those established for a long time by Christian missionaries use a plain rimmed sky blue cotton and/or dark blue velvet (for winter) cheongsam with the metal school badge right under the stand-up collar to be closed with a metal hook and eye as the official uniform for their female students to be worn to regular classes. The schools known to set this standard include True Light Girls' College, St. Paul's Co-educational College, Heep Yunn School, St. Stephen's Girls' College, Ying Wa Girls' School, etc. These cheongsams are usually straight body shape, not narrow in the waist, and the bottom of the cheongsam at least have to cover the upper legs. Their cheongsams uniform is tailored so that the size of their collar is tightly fitted to their neck, and the stiff collar is hooked up all the time amidst the tropical humid and hot weather. The bottom with short slits are also too tight to allow students to walk in long strides. The slits often split when walking and are repeatedly sewed. Many schools also required to wear underskirts of the cheongsam, which is usually bought in the schools. It is a full slip white cotton gown with its bottom near but less than the length of the cheongsams, and like the cheongsams, they have slits at the right and left side of the lower part of their cheongsams, where the slits are longer than that of the cheongsams. A white cotton undershirt is often worn inside. The blue color of the cheongsam is different in different schools, and the sleeves of the winter uniform may be half to the upper arm to full sleeves. Some schools cheongsam may be white in color, fit to the waist, worn by the elders classes students or worn in a school term in a year, allow undershirts and pants, soft collar, require side hair braids, white socks up to the lower legs or have no slits in the cheongsam etc. Many students feel it an ordeal, yet it is a visible manifest of strict discipline that is hallmark of prestigious secondary schools in Hong Kong and many students and their parents like that. In summer wearing this for a school day would be sweaty and un-hygienic. Some rebellious students express their dissatisfaction with this tradition by wearing their uniform with the stand-up collar intentionally left unhooked or the bottom cut shorter than their knees. The Ying Wa and True Light Schools have set questionnaires to their students about uniform reforms but not passed. But Madam Lau Kam Lung Secondary School of Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery ended their cheongsam uniform in 1990 after student unions suggested.
Many waitresses in Chinese restaurants over the world wear suits and skirts but some, especially the receptionists, wear cheongsam uniforms. These cheongsam (referred to as qipao in China) are long, often foot-length or floor-length. They have slit high to the waist or hip, usually no sleeves or cap sleeves. They are often made of brightly-colored silk or satin with rich Chinese embroidery. Some nightclub waitresses, ritual girls in ceremonies, and competitors in Chinese beauty competitions wear similar cheongsam uniforms. They may wear panties but not an underskirt so walking shows their legs. These uniforms are considered too sexy for ordinary wear so they are worn and kept at work. The waitresses change into casual clothes before going home.
Similar garmentsThe Vietnamese áo dài is a similar version of this dress as is the Tibetan national dress.
- Bai Yun, Zhongguo lao qipao- lao zhaopian lao guanggo jianzheng qipao de yanbian (The traditional qiapo of China: evidence of its [stylistic] changes in old photographs and old advertisements), Beijing: Guangming ribao chubanshe, 2006.
- Bao Mingxin and Ma Li, eds, Zhongguo qipao (China’s qipao), Shanghai: Shanghai wenhua chubanshe, 1998.
- Chang, Eileen (Zhang Ailing), “A Chronicle of Changing Clothes,” Andrew F. Jones. trans., positions: east asia culture critique 11, 2 (Fall, 2003): 427 – 441.
- Clark, Hazel, The Cheongsam, Hong Kong, Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Finnane, Antonia, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation, Columbia University Press, New York; Hurst, London, 2007. Chapter 6, "Qipao China."
- Roberts, Claire, ed., Evolution and Revolution: Chinese Dress 1700s – 1900s, Sydney: Powerhouse Museum, 1997.
- Cheongsam article on the Beijing Official Website
- About.com entry on the qipao
- Documentary on the qipao on CCTV website
- Slideshow of a few items from the Fashion Institute of Technology's China Millennium exhibit
- Shanghai Ladies: Portrait of the "Modern Chinese Woman" Listen to two excerpts from Christina Wong's documentary and view some vintage advertising posters. (Flash/Audio, 2003)
- History of Cheongsam (Qipao)
- Tips for your Qipao (Cheong-Sam)
Cheongsam in German: Cheongsam
Cheongsam in Spanish: Qipao
Cheongsam in French: Qipao
Cheongsam in Japanese: チャイナドレス
Cheongsam in Korean: 치파오
Cheongsam in Polish: Qipao
Cheongsam in Chinese: 旗袍