Few who have seen the film Lust, Caution would deny the beauty of lead actress Tang Wei. The cheongsams worn by her character were in perfect harmony with her figure and temperament. These elegant, refined and sexy garments originally enhanced the grace of Chinese women during the 1930s and 1940s. Initially, cheongsam was a traditional long gown worn by the Manchu people in northeast China, regardless of their age, gender and social status. The Manchu ethnic group is also known as qiren, and in the Han language their clothing, cheongsam, is known as qipao (literally “qiren’s gown”). Prior to commencing their rule over China in 1644, Manchu people lived in northeast China and subsisted on grazing, fishing and hunting.
An ethnic group known for expert horsemanship, they engaged in frequent wars with other ethnic groups and led a nomadic life. To protect themselves from gale, sand, and scorching sun, they wore loose and straight garments, quite different from the long gowns of the Han, whose culture centered on farming. During their rule, the Manchu drew more on Han styles as time went on and their garb gradually segregated by genders. Menswear evolved into long gowns, mandarin jackets and trousers. Women’s clothing during this time were still mainly loose-fitting straight dresses. These were the predecessors of the cheongsams.
In the Mood for Love, a famous Hong Kong film, has been considered as a film which perfectly presents the beauty of Cheongsam (Qipao). Cheongsam, which features slender and skintight with the attractive slits up from the sides, adds the elegance and charm to the heroine Zhangmanyu and the romantic atmosphere to the whole film. The Chinese best-known actress Gongli possesses great preference for Cheongsam which perfectly shows her delicate, bewitching figure.
The 1911 Revolution ended Manchu rule, and thereafter Chinese men shed their long braided hair and changed their style of clothing, as previously stipulated by the Qing (1644-1911) government. Qing-style gowns, like the dynasty, became history. Just as clothing styles changed at the start of Manchu rule, again clothing changed and complicated styles were replaced. During the first decade of the Republic of China (1912-1949), influenced by new lifestyles and ideas, as well as Western garb, the Han-style women’s dress and cheongsam, two totally different styles, both exhibited change. Becoming simple in terms of design, wardrobes began to more show off the female form, an intention manifested in varying designs. And so was raised the curtain on a new style of cheongsam.
In the film In The Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung overwhelms the audience with her cheongsams. With an elegant air, noble temperament, refined figure, and gloomy mood, she unfolds the style of Shanghai women with the 23 cheongsams. Both outward and inner beauty is needed for wearing a cheongsam. Maggie Cheung’s unique charm and qualities makes her an idea model for the costume.
In the 1920s, with increasingly frequent international exchange, new European textiles, such as cloth, camlet, tweed, wool and lace, plus new fashionable trends and concepts - as well as photos of foreign stars in gorgeous costumes - were introduced into China. Feminine culture in such major Chinese cities as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Nanjing stood out, and stars of film and stage played an important role in the reformation and popularization of new styles. In Shanghai of the mid 1920s, the then generally-recognized fashion center of China, appeared a new dress - the weskit, with a length reaching the top of one’s foot. The loosely-fitting weskit featured embroidered borders, and fashionable women usually put it outside a lined short coat, in replacement of the long dress. This is the predecessor of the modern cheongsam.
The waistcoat style cheongsam quickly swept over China. Trendy Shanghai women, who tended to lead clothing trends, continued refinements. In 1926, sleeves were added to the weskit, transforming the costume into the first modern cheongsam. While it shared similarities with the gowns worn by Manchu women, this weskit, with sleeves, adopted elements from Han dresses. Gaining inspiration from various aspects, the modern cheongsam developed quickly into a current fashion. While it was a loose-fitting garment in the mid 1920s, the waist size became smaller, although the change was not obvious, in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, as European trends emphasized narrow waists and feminine characteristics, cheongsam accordingly became slim. To enhance women’s figures, various designs - including length of the garment, shape of the sleeves, slit cuts and accessories - have changed accordingly. With its style undergoing continuous changes, cheongsam remained popular into the 1940s.
There were 27 cheongsams worn by actress Tang Wei in the movie Lust, Caution. Through the changes of cheongsam styles and fabrics, director Ang Lee revealed the heroine’s different situations.
Around 1945, as the extravagance reached a peak in Shanghai, cheongsam became even more snug-fitting to highlight figures, and the lower hem was elevated to the knees from the lower legs. In the late 1940s, China’s fashion industry was already well developed. New fashionable garments and new styles were emerging in large numbers, and Chinese people were offered more choices. During this time, US-style costumes were popular in large cities like Shanghai. Thus, many chose men’s suits and one-piece dresses, and cheongsam no longer remained the only option.
Tang Wei in the movie Lust, Caution
Influenced by this trend, cheongsam gradually became fashionable and more designs developed, such as the cheongsam skirt. In a strict sense, these fashioned cheongsam couldn’t be considered to be cheongsam, since it lacked collar, lappet and slit cut; three determinative elements of this garment. However, people still addressed it as cheongsam. During this time, cheongsam covered a broad range of garments. At the end of the 1940s, cheongsam was extremely popular with the Chinese people. Almost every city woman owned one or two cheongsams, regardless of social status or figure. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, cheongsam was gradually replaced by simple garments. Since then, cheongsam only appeared for exclusive foreign affairs activities.
Cheongsam is a frequent choice for international star Gong Li during appearances on important occasions.
By the end of the 1950s, cheongsam was replaced by the Chinese tunic suit and Mao jacket. It was not until the early 1980s that the garb was again seen in public places. However, it has become a kind of ceremonial dress for formal occasions, rather than a prevailing garment, as in the 1930s and 1940s. At present, cheongsam can be seen in many Chinese TV shows, and in many Chinese-language films, such as Lust, Caution, Rouge, The Flowers of Shanghai, Center Stage, Eighteen Springs, and In The Mood for Love. At international film festivals such as the Academy Awards, Venice, and Cannes, at the Miss World contest, and in international model competitions, cheongsam is synonymous with China. For many female Chinese film stars, cheongsam is their first choice when attending important occasions.