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 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.
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.
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.
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.