Feature Articles

The Many Names of the Cheongsam

By: shimin on 11 Mar 2013
The Chinese of Singapore take their Lunar New Year shopping seriously – and why not? A fresh year means a fresh start, and a new outfit speaks volumes. While many opt for a more Western style, there are some who still go for the traditional look with the cheongsam. It’s a staple in every Chinese woman’s wardrobe – here’s why.

We’ll let you in on a secret –  the cheongsam is not really Chinese in origin. During the last 300 years of dynastic rule, the Chinese were ruled by the Manchu people, with Nurhaci (yes, that's his name) establishing the military system of the “Eight Banners” to overthrow the Ming government. Because of this, the Manchu people came to be known as “banner people,” and the name for the dress which Manchu women wore came to be known as the qí páo (旗袍), which can be directly translated as the 'banner dress.'

Since the Chinese majority was being ruled by the Manchu minority, women were required to wear the qí páo, which was baggy, wide and loose.

(A Manchu woman sporting a cheongsam in the Imperial Palace. Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
Over time, the qipao became more form-fitting as China was increasingly exposed to fashion from the West. Influenced by the flapper look of the 1920s, the qí páo finally attained its elegant silhouette with a shortened hem. This trend took off in Shanghai and the qí páo was christened the as chángshān,(長衫) which means “long dress.” When brought over to Guangdong, this moniker was translated to Cantonese, becoming “cheongsam.” which is its most common name.

(Left: Cheongsam styles in the 1920s. Right: A Flapper girl. Photo Credit: Unknown)

As decades passed, this dress varied in style. The 1940s had women sporting sleeveless cheongsams, or those with ball gown hems. Women in the 1950s sported more utilitarian versions of the dress with the dawn of the Cultural Revolution. During this period of time, many Hong Kongers started wearing this dress, too.

The cheongsam reached the shores of Singapore as many immigrants from the south of China brought this dress over turbulent waters. Even today, the cheongsam is being modified, incorporating the styles of the 21st century, giving it a fresh twist.

The cheongsam is often worn with heels, accompanied with a stylish bag or a clutch. With the right accessories, anyone can be as elegant as those Shanghai Girls of the 1920s.

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