Beauty and elegance: the cheongsam in Singapore

Beauty and elegance the cheongsam in Singapore

Me in a cheongsam

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.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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9 Responses to Beauty and elegance: the cheongsam in Singapore

  1. What a beautiful exhibit!

  2. Judy says:

    I love cheong sams, they look so elegant. I bought one when I visited Hong Kong many years ago but never had the guts to wear it. :/

    • Maria says:

      I definitely can’t wear mine out in public. For some reason it seems to have shrunk over the past few years. That’s the only explanation I can think of to explain how tight it’s become around my hips.

  3. Zenka Ang says:

    Wow, you look elegant and quiet in that gold cheongsam. And those exhibits are just marvelous! I myself am a cheongsam fan and am hosting a blog regarding cheongsam. It would be my pleasure to invite you to drop by : )

    Here is one of my post about another cheongsam exhibition in Shanghai:

    Cheongsam Exhibition Show: A Century of Glory @Shanghai Art Museum Pt. I

    • Maria says:

      Thank you for the link — I enjoyed the photos. Especially the close-ups of the necklines and their intricate fastenings. There was a video at the Singapore exhibit that showed artisans hand crafting cheongsam fastenings, and it was amazing. Nowadays they’re all machine made and that industry has died out.

  4. Naomi Hattaway says:

    Cheongsams DO shrink over the years! It’s a well known fact 😉 I want to get a kebaya while we’re here as well!

    • Maria says:

      Ah Naomi, you’re so kind! 🙂 We bought my younger daughter a kebaya when we first moved to Singapore, and we couldn’t understand why people kept referring to her as a “Singapore girl.” Just one more example of how lost you can feel when you don’t understand pop cultural references. (PS Watch out if you do buy a kebaya — I think they shrink, too!)

  5. May says:

    Lovely post and thank you for the gorgeous photos! I definitely try to wear the Cheongsam more often if I can. You looked lovely in the Cheongsam by the way!

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