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The history and politics of the cheongsam

By AUDRIE JULIENNE BERNAS Published Feb 01, 2022 6:04 pm

When you're wearing something that dates back a hundred years, you're wearing a precious piece of history. Such is the cheongsam, the staple for Chinese women from the 1920s up until today, with numerous modern iterations of the clothing. 

When we see women in cheongsams, particularly ladies from the Chinese Filipino community, we're fascinated by the outfits' intricate designs and how daintily they hug the wearers' figures.

The iconic body-hugging dress possesses an identity like no other, and has been an integral part of Chinese fashion.
The iconic body-hugging dress possesses an identity like no other, and has been
an integral part of Chinese fashion.

The cheongsam, which means long dress in Cantonese, is a form-fitting garment with high cylindrical collars, side slits (which sometimes go as far up the thigh), and an asymmetrical opening in the front that stretches from the middle of the collar to the armpit and down the side, with the opening traditionally secured with knotted buttons and loops known as hua niu.

The cheongsam is believed to have evolved from a long robe worn by Manchu women during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in China. The long gown was cut in a single piece that hung straight down to the ankles. There was a slit on either side of the gown but other garments worn underneath prevented the legs from showing.

The modern cheongsam first became popular in late 1920s Shanghai, an influential fashion capital in China. Its popularity spread from Shanghai to places with large Chinese communities like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. In Chinese media, calendar posters, which featured beautiful women dressed in cheongsams, helped boost the reputation of the dress.

But with the numerous renaissances the dress has gone through the years comes a history that's distinct from the many fashion movements we’ve seen. It became the war cry of women who wanted a better China amid the machismo leadership within the Communist Republic. 

Symbol of women's emancipation

The history of the cheongsam began when the Qing dynasty was overthrown, which then led to the founding of the Republic of China in 1912.

From the mid-1910s to the early 1920s, the Chinese intellectuals who wanted a more modern approach to living in the country began to revolt against the archaic teachings and traditions—something they felt was being forced on them.

These included total emancipation and giving women the right to education, as well as abolishing the centuries-old practice of foot-binding among young girls to prevent the growth of their feet.

Somehow, the wearing of cheongsams symbolized the emancipation of women within the machismo rule of China.
Somehow, the wearing of cheongsams symbolized the emancipation of women within the machismo rule of China. 

The more women fought for their place in society, the louder the call became against other gender-based problems the country was facing. But as the Republic’s rule progressed, so did the inculcation of modern Western cultures and concepts.

Urban women began wearing the cheongsam as a form of protest against the backwardness of modern society. In a bid for gender equality, students also wore the cheongsam as a modification of the men’s long robe. 

As the dress slowly began to be a part of everyday life, the movement gained more traction.

Political figures like Soong Ching-Ling, one of the leaders during the Republic of China’s revolution, began wearing the dress. It was a statement announcing the vital role of women in everyday China. The dress was tailored to emphasize and flatter a woman’s body. As time went by, the slits got higher with some daring designs—a symbol of sexuality as much as of tradition. 

The Chinese bombshell

Provocative in nature, the dress helped shape a cinematic psyche that screamed China. In the 1960s, the “Chinese bombshell” movement was what the New Wave in France was.

France had Anna Karina while China had Nancy Kwan, who was referred to as the “Chinese Bardot,” pertaining to French actress and sex symbol Brigitte Bardot.

Nancy Kwan is one of the celebrities who’s known for wearing cheongsams.
Nancy Kwan is one of the celebrities noted for wearing cheongsams.

Kwan was frequently shot wearing a cheongsam, which inspired Western actresses like Grace Kelly to sport the dress.

In the 1960s, there was the critically acclaimed arthouse romance In the Mood for Love (2001) by Wong Kar-wai. Set in Hong Kong, the movie shows how the cheongsam dominated Maggie Cheung’s characters' wardrobe. This explains how those who escaped the Communist Revolution in 1949 and fled to different Chinese territories slowly rebuilt their lives in these cities.

Maggie Cheung in the cult favorite In the Mood for Love is a stunner in a wide array of cheongsams she wore in the movie.
Maggie cheung in the cult favorite In the Mood for Love is a stunner in a wide array of cheongsams she wore in the movie. 

Who would have thought that a costume can somehow focus on the lives of the exiled Shanghainese community in Hong Kong.

The Netflix series The Last Madame, also showcases different adaptations of the timeless dress. A story of taking back what’s yours, it's a nod to how the cheongsam is a constant reminder of where the dress came from, how it began its legacy among Chinese women, and why we should remember it.

The Netflix series, like many Chinese period films, extensively uses cheongsams as part of the storytelling to show the rich meanings of wearing one.
The Netflix series, like many Chinese period films, extensively uses cheongsams as part of the storytelling to show the rich meanings of wearing one. 

From the time it was first worn to its declaration as a national dress for Chinese women in 1927 to the present time where we see it almost every day—in the movies, shows, and even people posting it on Instagram — the iconic cheongsam has steadfastly proven that it’s more than just a piece of garment. 

Not just another theme dress

It is an understatement to say that the dress says so much about the bitter past of women and the struggles they had to go through before wearing it freely with pride. The cheongsam goes perfectly well with the celebration of Chinese New Year, but it's not just another theme dress for another promotional post for Instagram influencers to endorse a product, or a costume for the everyday celebrity. 

Some years back, this caveat was somehow proven by the popular “It Girl” clique (who now owns one of the biggest local makeup lines in the country) after posting a now-deleted Instagram photo for the quirk of it all.

They were accused of cultural appropriation after donning a Communist cap in Tiananmen Square, following it up with another skimpy cheongsam photo with a spiteful caption. 

The cheongsam holds more than just folds of fabric. To wear it is a statement, to remind ourselves that everything we own was once history.

The incident happened around five years ago. But it is still a vexing issue among those of us who deserve better than to see people mishandle such a delicate piece of history, let alone an event that changed the course of how the Chinese government functioned some 30 years ago.

Just like our indigenous clothing and the beloved pieces of ancestral anito and anting-anting, the cheongsam holds more than just folds of fabric. To wear it is a statement, to remind ourselves that everything we own was once history.