Traditional and Improved Cheongsams

Cheongsam means "banner men's robe". The "banner" was part of the Manchu internal military system. The Red Banner, the Yellow Banner, the Blue Banner, the White Banner, the Bordered Red Banner, the Bordered Yellow Banner, the Bordered Blue Banner and the Bordered White Banner represented the eight armies. Han people used to call Manchu people "banner men" in general. The long gown often worn by Manchu women was also called the "banner robe". Manchu men's and women's gowns were all loose and thick. Because of the need to protect against the cold climate of China's northeast and also to clothe horse riders, the common robe shape had a straight waist, a hem with two or four slits and a large front. After the Manchu became the rulers of the central plains, most women's robes had no slits, and their sleeves and hems were very wide.

traditional cheongsam of qing dynasty

Two real cheongsams of the early Qing Dynasty were found in Princess Rongxian's tomb in Baiyinerdeng, Inner Mongolia, and are well preserved. Princess Rongxian was the third daughter of Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). The cheongsams buried with her display features typical of her ethnic group and of the period: they are made of silk and satin with colored embroidered patterns, round collars, narrow sleeves, buttons to the right at the neck, fitted close to the torso, with broad hems. Each cheongsam has a narrow black edge to the collar, and has embroidered patterns on traditional themes. Ten colored butterflies were embroidered on one cheongsam's dark yellow material, and propitious clouds and flowers were embroidered among the colored butterflies; two pairs of big butterflies dancing face to face were sewn on the chest, back, shoulder and knee parts. The lower edge of the robe was embroidered with mountains, and rivers. Because ordinary Manchu women's cheongsams only came down to the instep, both feet were exposed; Manchu wives and young ladies wore high-heeled wood banner shoes (with high heels under the foot arches) and cheongsams were supposed to cover the feet, so the shapes of cheongsams diversified to encompass everyday dress and ceremonial dress. Elements of Manchu cheongsams and Han coats were combined and this can particularly be seen in edge decorations - for example, the collar, cuffs, front and all hem edges wee embroidered with patterns or inlaid with "colored ribbons" and "tooth-shaped borders". After the Qianlong Period (1736-1795), "eighteen rolling decorative borders" were popular among women in Beijing. The eighteen decorative borders style was tightly constructed and cuff linings were embroidered with flowers.

After the Revolution of 1911 the Qing Dynasty fell and the Manchu emperor gave up the throne. Purely Manchu men's clothing of the Qing Dynasty was no longer worn, but Manchu women's cheongsams were accepted by Han women and coexisted with the Han coat skirt. After the 1920s, cheongsams featured few or no embroidered patterns, and their length was intentionally shortened. It is thought that a number of schoolgirls in Shanghai cut their hair short and wore well-fitting blue cloth cheongsams - and that this played a role in promoting cheongsams. By the end of the 20th century, Western clothing styles' influence on Chinese clothes was increasingly dominant, and old cheongsams were improved and adapted - the length was shortened again, and the waist was tightened and slits added to both sides, from the hem up the leg. The cheongsams of this period should be called "improved" cheongsams, because they are a combination of Chinese and Western influences.

improved cheongsam in the republic of china era

In the 1930s, cheongsams entered a particularly beautiful phase, with collars, cuffs and fronts changing with different fashions. During the Manchu period most cheongsams had no collar so women in the palace also wore small scarves indoors. Improved cheongsam collars became higher and higher (with buttons and loops). When they reached the cheeks, low collars became fashionable again, and when collars could not get any lower, they reached upwards once more. The same goes for sleeves. When long, they covered the wrists, and when short, they exposed the elbows. The hem was suddenly lengthened and trailed along the ground, and then shortened to cover only the knees. In the late 1930s, some cheongsam sleeves were cut off to form sleeveless long gowns; from the late 1940s, cheongsam slits became higher and higher; in the 1950s, women in Hong Kong raised the slits on both legs to the hip.

Cheongsams can be made of different materials, as well as different styles. Cheongsams made of rought cloth make the wearers appear more natural; cheongsams made of gold thread, satin, and silver are the ultimate in elegant sophistication.

Ryuzaburo Umehara (1889-1986), a Japanese painter, declared, "The cheongsam's very simple design with a stand collar and long body will not lose its novelty in and period". Umehara was right, and he went on to say, "The high collar supports the jaw, so the head posture is certainly upright; even when the wearer is sitting, the posture of two legs clinging together at the slits of the cheongsam can achieve a beautiful effect". Most of the women in Umehara's "girl paintings" series wear cheongsams.

Cheongsams evolved from having no slits to having slits, which gave women maximum freedom of movement, and a new dimension of attractiveness. In ancient times, both Eastern and Western women avoided exposing their legs. European ladies wore dresses with collars that dropped as low as the breasts, revealing their shoulders, neck and cleavage, but they covered their legs with loose, long skirts and even exposing their petticoats was regarded as inelegant. Improved cheongsams gave emphasis to physical beauty, and the waist was tightened and the slits were lengthened following the introduction of Western clothes to the East. This stylistic exchange moved in both directions; the French designer Paul Poiret designed women's clothes derived from the Chinese cheongsam style, with small slits on both sides and tight bodices, but wearers could hardly walk because the slits were too small - hence the name "staggering women's skirt". Some people thought some styles of cheongsam indecent because they allowed the legs to be exposed - Pope Pius X prohibited Christians from wearing them. Today, however, cheongsams are admired all over the world.

improved cheongsam from the side view

Many aspects of the cheongsam are beautiful. Seen from the side, the cheongsam creates a beautiful silhouette. Because the sleeves are connected to the upper body, cheongsams make women's shoulders look graceful and smooth without exposing them. The upper and lower parts match, with the same colors and patterns, so people who are short look slim and people of average height look charming and graceful.

In the 1930s, fashionable women were called "modern girls". New European and American styles kept feeding into the design of cheongsams and modern girls valued streamlined shapes. Cheongsam were matched with Western-style coats or wool vests with buttons down the middle when it was cold, or fur overcoats and muffs. The lotus collar, overturned collar, lotus sleeves and slit sleeves, all influenced by the West, all began to emerge. Many people made cheongsam hems into petal and floral leaf shapes. Despite the simple basic shape of the cheongsam, the fashion cycle of styles and colors was surprisingly short, e.g. around 1931, the waist gradually narrowed, and the slit was raised from below the knee to above the knee; after 1932, the body of the robe lengthened; in 1934, the garment's edge swept the ground; later, cheongsam slits were raised to below the buttocks and were used widely in Shanghai's entertainment business, paired with knee-length underskirts and silk stockings. In terms of materials, before 1937, patterned cloth, striped cloth and indanthrene cloth were all the rage.