Cheongsam 長衫: A Brief Introduction to the Chinese Traditional Dress


During Chinese New Year in Brunei, I wore a cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress. Having already written about the hanbok from Korea and the salwar kameez from South-Central Asia, I wanted to write about this iconic, beautiful dress with a long, long history!

Cheongsam (from Cantonese), also known as qipao (pronounced chee-pow, from Mandarin), has existed for hundreds of years since the Qing dynasty of China. It was a mark of class, and was initially loose-fitting and hung straight down. It provided near-full coverage, leaving only a woman’s head, hands, and toes uncovered, and was originally worn with trousers. With the introduction of Western fashion during the late 1920s and early 1930s (what is known as the Nanjing decade), trousers gave way to stockings, and the baggy fit was tailored to show off the female form. The side slits, which were initially meant for ease of wear, became a purely aesthetic feature.

Cheongsam are still worn today!

Cheongsam can be seen in many aspects of life nowadays. They are often worn as uniforms, formal wear to events, and are even worn at weddings. A long, red cheongsam is traditional for the bride to wear while she toasts with her guests.


Marcie slipped into this purple cheongsam at her wedding reception to embrace the union of cultures in her marriage. Marcie’s Blog | Instagram

The fitted cheongsam that we see nowadays is said to have been created in Shanghai in the 1920s. Typical features include a high Mandarin collar, knotted frog button closures across the chest, and slits up both side hems. Cheongsam, whose name literally means “long shirt”, can be found both long or short in length, and are most commonly made from silk, satin brocade, or cotton.


Vivian in a full-length red cheongsam, celebrating CNY 2017 at Honey Waterfalls in Kislovodsk, Russia. Vivian’s Blog | Instagram

My experience wearing cheongsam at Chinese New Year

When I booked my flight to go away for Chinese New Year, I asked my boyfriend if there was anything in particular that I should wear, and the first thing that he came up with was the cheongsam! I was a bit nervous to buy one – I didn’t want to look like I was wearing fancy dress or appropriating another culture. After visiting a Chinese cultural centre in Birmingham, UK, and finding the prices a little too high (and the selection too small), I took to the internet. I was mostly worried about the cheongsam fitting correctly. Being western, I don’t have the body makeup of an East-Asian woman, and when I measured myself I was finding that I needed to size up a couple of sizes in the chest to make sure it fit my hips.

Cheongsam, Hannah International, Brunei, Chinese New Year

I settled on a cheap, royal blue coloured dress in a silky dragon and phoenix brocade material. I was concerned that I would be too warm with the high neck, but the fit was just right (even despite sizing up), allowing for movement and airflow. It was surprisingly flattering! And definitely comfortable. But the best part was all the compliments I received! No-one once looked at me like I shouldn’t be wearing a cheongsam. In fact people joked that I was better than them for wearing the traditional clothing when they weren’t!

Wearing the cheongsam at Chinese New Year was a special experience, and one I would like to do again. Hopefully next time I can afford a better quality, prettier one! I’ve had my eye on a few unique dresses from Dezzal, and even thought about making my own…watch this space.

Want to hear more about how I celebrated Chinese New Year 2017? Read about the festivities in Brunei here!

9 responses to “Cheongsam 長衫: A Brief Introduction to the Chinese Traditional Dress”

  1. AW Hannah the Cheongsam suits you so much!! I agree it’s really flattering, and the royal blue is gorgeous. I love that you embraced the traditional dress for Chinese New Year, can’t wait to see more posts like this!

    Love Izzy |

    • hannahinternational says:

      Thanks Izzy!
      I was worried when I first bought it that it would look terrible on me, but since it was a little looser-fitting it was pretty flattering and I loved it!

  2. sirvikalot says:

    What an informative piece! It’s great that you actually researched the history of the dress and what it represents. It’s a bit sad that China felt the need to change to fit in with the west but the modern day dresses are very pretty and it looks great on you.

    I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation at all, it’s appropriate to dress traditionally when attending a event in another culture.

    V <3

    • hannahinternational says:

      The history of the dress goes muuuuch further than what I’ve written in here. It’s even linked to historic Chinese feminist movements if I understood what I read correctly!! It’s so symbolic of a lot of stuff.
      I don’t think it is either because I’ve not done it for a costume or anything, but I was a little bit worried that people would be thinking “what is the white girl doing wearing cheongsam?!”, haha. However, the fact that my boyfriend and his entire family were telling me to wear it made me feel a little better! He even put his traditional shirt on to make me feel less like a sore thumb!

  3. You look stunning! And it was a really interesting read, I literally didn’t even know what these were called until I read this post 🙂 Kept me entertained at work!

    Rebecca, xo

    • hannahinternational says:

      Thank you Rebecca! I actually enjoyed wearing it a lot more than I thought I would! I didn’t know their name until Sam and his brother told me to wear one. They have such an interesting history. Glad you liked the post!

  4. Sarah says:

    I love cheongsam, they are so gorgeous and flattering. I begged for one for my birthday when I was about 12 or 13 and had my parents hunting all over for one! I don’t know how but they tracked down one in my size, which I proudly wore with my white platform sandals and Baby G watch (it was the 90s!). Your post has reminded me what a beautiful, feminine dress this is. I’m going to get one in an adult size! You look gorgeous x

  5. Hannah says:

    I LOVE the effort that’s gone into understanding the culture and customs behind this mode of dress for this post. You look gorgeous in it, but you also obviously have a deep understanding of it’s background – the whole thing was really informative and I feel like I’ve come away with some great new knowledge (always a pro with me!).

    Going to read your others now ???

    • hannahinternational says:

      I’m so glad you learned something! It’s exactly what I hope to do with posts like this, so it’s really rewarding to get a comment like this.
      Thanks Hannah! xx

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