The cheongsam: Looking back with nostalgia, and forward with anticipation

I know a lot of readers look forward to my post on cheongsams, but it’s not easy to put one up as I like to showcase the dresses available out there, and most cheongsam collections are available only end of the year for the Chinese New Year season. I was racking my brain for ideas and one that popped up recently was a nostalgic perspective of the dress.

In my younger days, I didn’t have much money to build a cheongsam collection, so I collected memorabilia like bookmarks, posters, and news articles on the cheongsam. This is an article dated 28 October 2000 featuring scenes and clothes from the movie “In The Mood For Love”.

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When I saw a coffee table book, at Kang’s boutique, on 1930’s Shanghainese ad posters of cheongsam-clad ladies, I went to Kinokuniya bookstore to get it as well. This is a collection of ad printed on calendars commonly found in the 1930’s, called “Book On Ads from Old Calendar” (老月份牌广告书).
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In fact during business travels in Beijing several years ago, I would take the chance to check out flea markets for old posters that are replicas of ads such as these.

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Kinokuniya bookstore is currently having a 20% promotion for its members and I took the chance to get the last copy of “In the Mood for Cheongsam” that was printed in conjunction with the same exhbition held last year. This book examines the golden age of the dress in Singapore and it’s continued influence today. Though the cover is a little tattered and torn, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I have a copy of it.

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I used to have a strong bias for the 1930’s Shanghainese cheongsam design; with its high collar, beautiful embroidered buttons, and light silk fabric. But my husband felt that I should look forward instead of being fixated with the past. So over time, I’ve accepted the modern versions. But one thing doesn’t change: I have a strong preference for the straight-cut design rather than flared bottom or A-line since the former is more suited for my physique.

Increasingly, designers are becoming more creative with their modern interpretation of the cheongsam; and Shanghai Tang is one of them. Recently I was, again, pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Ms Witty Lau, Senior Community Manager of Shanghai Tang, who would like me to feature their cheongsams on my blog. She has also kindly sent me a PR kit as well as the link to the modern cheongsam designs from the latest FW 2013 collection. I checked out the site, and even visited the store to have a first-hand look and feel of the dresses. As expected, the workmanship is of very high quality.

I like this simple yet chic orange cheongsam shown below, which also comes in black (though I think the bright orange is more outstanding). I have also seen the no-belt picture, and I must say the belt is a must because it highlights the waist as the fabric (made from wool and cotton) doesn’t drape as well as silk. Besides the belt looks amazing. When I tried looking for the dress at the flagship store at Takashimaya, the sales staff told me that it’s not available in Singapore, which I thought is rather strange. She explained that not all the designs are available in the country, though for this design, the black is. She then proceeded to show it to me. But it was not the same as what I saw on the website, and I later realized she had instead shown me the wool crepe dress with leather front panel.
Orange cheongsam

Wool Crepe Qipao Dress with Leather Front Panel

Wool Crepe Qipao Dress with Leather Front Panel


When I first saw this black leather and wool dress, I didn’t think it would look as good as the orange colored one, but after seeing it on the model, I changed my mind and have to say that the leather panel gives it an oomph factor.

I like this slanted color block wool dress too, which is ultra-modern. Some may not think it looks like a cheongsam, but a hint of it is enough and that makes it rather wearable.

This also comes in yellow but when I see it in person, I thought the color combination is  a little drab.

This also comes in yellow but when I saw it in person, I thought the color combination is a little drab.

When I first saw the picture of the below Pleated Lace cheongsam, I thought it looked pretty good, but when I spotted it on the mannequin, I stopped and stared. In the window display, under the warm light, the dress shimmered and I was mersmerized. The velvet collar; the pleated black lace on (possibly) beige lining, the triangular details on the waist and the black sequined skirt; all these under a lesser hand, would have looked garish. Yet, Shanghai Tang designer made this into an outstanding evening dress! But I’ve to admit the price tag of US$1,297.44 is also a jaw-dropper.
Pleated Lace

There are some modern designs which I feel leave much to be desired, like the micro cheongsam dress, which I think is antithesis to the elegance of the cheongsam. Maybe the intention was for a clubbing dress, but it looks more a ‘Suzie Wong’ wannabe than a chic dress that it should be.

Watercolour Ikat print silk blend Qipao dress in green

Watercolour Ikat print silk blend Qipao dress in green

This Shantung silk sleeveless Qipao dress with ribbon trims looks interesting in this picture.
black velvet cheongsam 2

But on the model, the dress doesn’t look as good. In particular, I find that it is too short and doesn’t hug her physique. Maybe the model is really tall, but there should be a sense of proportion when putting on any dress.
black velvet cheongsam

There is also this Micro Ikat Print Sleeveless Silk Flare cheongsam that is paired with stretch leather pants. Now there is one thing which I wouldn’t accept in a modern design: a cheongsam without a waist. Perhaps this is good for ladies who are having the bumps (either baby or tummy).
Micro Ikat Print dress

Then there are the conventional designs like this rose print cotton blend cheongsam with silk lining. To be honest, I am not sure why it justifies the price tag of more than US$1,000 just because it has 100% silk habotai lining.
Rose Print cheongsam

The day after I got the email from Witty, I was doubly pleased to be contacted by SisSae to check out their website. They have also kindly agreed to me reviewing their dresses and lifting images from their site for my post. I found out that the boutique is set up by three sisters hailing from Indonesia. I don’t have any first-hand look of the dresses, which are mainly for evening wear though there are some which can be worn in informal occasions. Judging from the pictures, the workmanship looks pretty good. In fact, according to the website, the dresses are handmade.

Though I’m a straight-cut fan, but I have to say this dress, given the name ‘Dream Girl’, looks pretty adorable and I like the color combination. Best of all, it has concealed side pockets.
Dreamgirl cheongsam

This is a beautiful dress which has a sexy and intricate lace details on the back. I also like the pastel green color, given the name “Jasmine”.
Jasmine cheongsam
The lace flower appliqué looks really intricate.
Jasmine cheongsam 2

This is another dress which has interesting lace details on the top. It is a pencil skirt design which would go well with those who have a penchant for lace , though I thought the skirt would look better if it is slightly shorter, like above the knee. (See the Shanghai Tang pleated lace cheongsam above.) It also comes in gold and black color, but from the pictures I find the silver version a standout comparatively.
Noir SilverNoir Silver 2

Now the cheongsam below, called “Manchurian Purple”, is not something I would wear. There are a couple of problems with this dress; first of all the dark purple color is matronly-looking, then the “auntie” look is made worst by the mid-calf length. Both factors make the wearer look older than she really is. If you look at the orange cheongsam from Shanghai Tang above, you will see that it has the right length proportion, slightly above the knee. Unless you are 70 going 50, I wouldn’t recommend this dress.
Manchurian

This is another modern cheongsam which I don’t like either. It gives me the impression of an over the top show-girl look, what we call in Singapore “getai” (歌台). The color combination doesn’t work for me too.
Nicolette Red

This is a pencil-skirt cheongsam design which, unfortunately, looks school-marmish, because of the length. Again, why below the knee? The green leafy lace applique looks like grass sticking on the skirt.
Victorian Lace

SisSae also offers cheongsams for little girls, and I must say some are rather adorable. Like this “Himalayan Blue Girl” dress, which also comes in fuchsia color.
Himalayan Blue Girl

Look, “Dream Girl” for kids! She looks so pretty in it. Now if I had a little girl, I would definitely order this for her.
dream girl kid

Our Bitsy Prints have come out with new prints for their modern cheongsam dresses sometime in mid October. I like to remind my readers again that the ladies at OBP are offering 10% discount for you when you mention you’re a reader of my blog. So if you’re eyeing one or more dresses on their online shop, do take opportunity of this offer. Melanie from OBP also updated me that there now more size choices including XL and XXL.

A couple of the dresses are rather festive, which I thought go very well with Deepavali (Indian Festival of Light) that fell on last Saturday (2 November). I like the cheongsaree design of OBP, which is rather different from others.
A-thousand-leaves-saree
Royal-robin-blue-cheongsam

Then there’s the conventional print like this “Pink Petals and Aubergine” dress.
Pink-petals-swallows-cheong

OBP has a version of the cheongsam with batik print on the top, but I find the whole get-up rather boring.The belt doesn’t help either.
Crimson-batik-cheongsam

So there you have it; some examples of the reinvention of the iconic dress. Now that November is here, Blum (heard from a sales staff) will be showcasing their Chinese New Year collection starting mid of the month. As usual, I will be here to feature them as well as other modern versions. No matter good or bad, we always look forward to the interesting designs that make the cheongsam so special. I also hope to feature new boutiques as well; I tried writing to Tong Tong to request for a review but again I don’t get a response. Anyway I will report on what I have access to.

Finally I like to say a big thank you to Witty Lau of Shanghai Tang (the PR kit is really helpful), the sisters at SisSae, and both Melanie and Grace of Our Bitsy Prints, for allowing me to showcase your dresses and use images from your site. I will continue to follow your collections and update my blogs.

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4 thoughts on “The cheongsam: Looking back with nostalgia, and forward with anticipation

  1. Hi!

    Do you know where I can find RTW classic, cotton print cheongsams in Singapore for an affordable price? My budget is less than $100. Thanks!

    • Hi Marie,

      Can I know what is RTW classic?

      As for cheap cheongsam (yes, anything below $100 is cheap), you can check out Native Country Boutique at level 1, Square2 at Novena. You can see an example of it in my post “the search for cheongsam continues” dated 6 Feb. Bear in mind that cheap doesn’t equate good. More often than not, the print is really boring or downright awful. It’s better to spend a little more or wait for 50% sales at Blum for a beautiful piece.

      Regards Maria

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

  2. Thank you for doing so many in-depth posts on your thoughts on cheongsam, a few of my friends love your posts on cheongsams because according to them ‘this lady knows her stuff!’ our online store selling modern cheongsam-inspired dresses has been up and running for about a year now since we moved to Japan. We’ve been quite popular with the locals here and we would appreciate it if you could pop by and let us know what you think from a local and global perspective because we do sell worldwide too 🙂

    P.S. I’m guessing RTW is Ready to wear? I could be wrong.

    • Hi Junie,

      Thank you for leaving a comment. I’m flattered by your friends’s remarks. Thank you also for inviting me to your site to check out the dresses. This is pretty timely as I’m in the midst of writing another post on cheongsams and I welcome more materials. With your permissions, I’ll lift off images for my post.

      Yes, I think you could be right that RTW is “ready to wear”. Goes to show I’m not too up-to-date on fashion terms.

      Regards Maria

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

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