Last year I attended an intriguing exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore titled “In the Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity & Singapore Women.”
Cheongsam is the word commonly used in Singapore for the modern qípáo, the form-fitting dress worn by Chinese women. Its evolution is fascinating. Originally, the qípáo worn on the mainland consisted of two roughly-made pieces — a far cry from the elegant gown we know today. That now-familiar style debuted in 1920s Shanghai and was popularized by the A-listers of the day: upper class women and courtesans. The revolution of 1949 sent the cheongsam into hiding in China, but the style thrived and continued to evolve in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Several things happened in Singapore during the 1950s that allowed the cheongsam to blossom. Darts, for one. As this dressmaking technique became commonplace, the dresses became even more body-hugging. And being a bustling port city, Singapore was awash in textiles from all over the world, allowing for greater experimentation in materials and design.
The rise of synthetics made the cheongsam more accessible to women who couldn’t afford to have one made to measure, and the coterie of artisans who painstakingly crafted them by hand quickly became a relic of the past. Working women started wearing the cheongsam in businesslike fabrics with a matching jacket. Other Western influences changed its look, altering the cut and introducing non-traditional fabrics and patterns. (I saw some groovy paisley numbers from that era that were actually pretty hideous.)
By the 1970s, the cheongsam had become an old lady dress, rejected by the young for being too constrictive. Nowadays it lives on as a special occasion outfit or wedding gown. It was wonderful to see most of the girls at the international school (including my own daughters) wearing them for the Chinese New Year celebrations. I can’t think of anything more beautiful than an elegant silk cheongsam in a traditional pattern. Take a look at the photos below and see for yourself.