The cheongsam (CHONG-sahm) is the dress that most westerners associate with China. It is a long, close-fitting dress with short sleeves, a slit up one side, a mandarin collar (a round, stand-up collar that is worn close to the neck), and a fastening across the right side of the upper chest. The cheongsam, also known as the qi-pao or the cheung sam, is considered the national dress of Hong Kong, a major island off the coast of China. Though outsiders see the cheongsam as typically Chinese, in fact the dress represents a mixing of Chinese and Western clothing styles.
The cheongsam first appeared shortly after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, which had ruled China since 1644. China, which had been isolated from the rest of the world during the Qing dynasty, began to modernize fairly quickly, both in its politics and its economy. Women especially began to have more freedom and wanted to modernize their clothing to allow more freedom of movement and comfort. But they didn't want to just adopt Western dress. The cheongsam represented a compromise. It used traditional Chinese fabrics like silk and included a traditional collar and fastening across the right side. But the form-fitting cut and the lack of binding ties were distinctly Western.
The cheongsam soon came to represent the politics of a modernizing China. It was advertised heavily and worn by famous actresses, often with high heels popular in the West. However, when the Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, the cheongsam quickly went out of style. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people.) By 1966 it was banned by the ruling party. In Hong Kong, on the southeast coast of China, however, which until 1997 was a crown colony of Great Britain with a majority Chinese population, the cheongsam never went out of style. The dress was particularly popular during the 1950s and 1960s, for it marked Hong Kong's resistance to the changes being brought to China by the Communists, who severely restricted what the Chinese people could wear.
Since the 1960s the cheongsam has been adopted as a uniform of sorts in the service industry in Hong Kong, but in the 1990s the dress had a new boom in popularity, in part because China and Hong Kong were reunified in 1997. Western designers offered their own versions of the cheongsam, and women in Hong Kong wore the dress to celebrate their cultural identity. As a sign of the importance of the dress, the Mattel toy company issued a special collectible Barbie doll, the Golden Qi-Pao Barbie, for the occasion.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Clark, Hazel. "The Cheung Sam: Issues of Fashion and Cultural Identity." In China Chic: East Meets West, edited by Valerie Steele and John S. Major. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999, 155–65.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.