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Elegance Personified

Elegance Personified

With the Lunar New Year arriving in February, we pay tribute to the timeless ‘cheongsam’, irrefutably a cultural symbol of Chinese charm and gentility

Malaysians are extremely fortunate to have been blessed with the opportunity to learn and embrace various cultures, with a number of ethnicities calling this amazing land our home, our ‘Tanah Air’.

The perpetual learning with an open mind and heart, in turn, shapes us to be better – better colleagues, better neighbours, better friends … essentially better members of society. And donning a traditional costume, be it of your own culture or otherwise, has a unique effect – one that fills your heart with immense pride and inexplicable glee.

As Chinese communities around the world prepare to usher in the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 5-6, it’s only fitting to shine the spotlight on the ‘cheongsam’ (for her) and ‘changshan’ (for him).

The Changshan and Cheongsam

The Cheongsam

Cheongsam is a body-hugging dress featuring a mandarin collar and side slit, constructed from a silky, embroidered fabric complemented by a fastening across the right side of the upper chest.  

Oozing femininity and quiet elegance, the alluring dress’s history dates back to early 1920s China, Shanghai in particular, with roots stemming from the times of the Qing dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644. China, which had been cut off from the rest of the world during the Qing dynasty, began to embrace modernity fairly quickly and adopt Western influences following the collapse of the dynasty in 1911.

Classic red cheongsams are popular for Chinese New Year as they signify prosperity
Mum and daughter in cheongsams as they celebrate Chinese New Year

Also known as ‘qipao’, the close-fitting dress back then had a looser cut than the cheongsam of today, with long, wide sleeves, representing a compromise as it fused the traditions of the East (eg traditional Chinese silk, collar, fastening) and the West (form-fitting silhouette).

Over time, it became the garment of choice for urban ladies in thriving cities such as Beijing and Shanghai as well as neighbouring Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The evolution of the cheongsam continued through the 1930s and 40s; it became more fitted and body-hugging, with side slits introduced for the more bold and audacious. More modest, inexpensive textiles began replacing conventional silks, with geometric and art deco motifs joining the usual embroidered floral designs.

Festivity on a rack – cheongsams at a night market
The cheongsam fits all ages
A modern, elegant cheongsam

Soon the cheongsam began popping up with various styles of fastenings, pipings, and collars, along with capped sleeves and without sleeves altogether, piquing the fancy of women of all ages – ladies of higher standing in society often seen pairing the stylish outfits with high heels and even gloves.

But soon after the rise of the Communist government, the cheongsam was banished from everyday life in mainland China as it was considered ‘bourgeois’, banned by the ruling party by 1966. The streets of Shanghai – where the cheongsam originated from – were even patrolled to ensure that no one wore fashionable attire!

However, over in Hong Kong, which was a British colony then, the cheongsam’s popularity continued, and in the fifties became an outfit of daily use for women.

Though its popularity declined by the end of the 60s, the cheongsam got a new lease on life in the 1990s (perhaps due to the reunification of China and Hong Kong) with Western designers offering their own versions of the attire.

Elegant, exuding effortless femininity, the cheongsam remains a timeless fashion statement, often making appearances on catwalks across the globe and Hollywood films; think Kirsten Dunst in Spider Man (2002) and Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates (2004).

The Changshan

Perfect match - couple in red cheongsam and changshan

The male counterpart of the cheongsam, the traditional changshan is a loose-fitting tunic top that buttons across the chest and down the side with traditional Chinese frog buttons. Worn with matching pants, it is also identified by the mandarin collar and side slits on either side of the top.

It was considered formal dress for Chinese men before Western-style suits begun to be widely adopted in China.

Don’t mess with me! Changshan is a popular outfit for Taichi exponents

Just like the cheongsam, the changshan saw the end of its existence during the Communist Revolution, but Shanghainese emigrants and refugees carried the fashion to Hong Kong, where it has remained popular.

Generally worn at weddings and formal events, the changshan continues its appeal through the influence of Chinese martial arts films that have penetrated Western markets through box-office successes such as Bruce Lee classics and Ip Man movie instalments.

Photos © iStock by Getty Images.

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