A view on the cheongsam

There were a number of comments on my last post “A jolly and pretty cheongsam”, mainly on the collar length. The mandarin collar is a signature feature of the cheongsam, and in the traditional form, it is rather high. There are old advertisement posters showing dresses with collars that literally wrapped round the neck. Anyway I decided that for this post, instead of the usual review, I will provide a follow-up view on the iconic dress from my first post “I love Cheongsam” dated 9 March 2011.

In that post, I mentioned I was biased towards the traditional cheongsam form. Though now, I am open to the modern cheongsam and do find that the dress with flared or pleated bottom more convenient to move around, especially when I have to carry my son. But I still have a preference for higher collar, partly because I think it looks good (on me), and partly because I find the high collar rather regal. Besides I have no problem wearing it since I have a long neck, and never experienced my neck sweating in humid Singapore. But I do understand that I am in the minority.

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A high-collared cheongsam from Haha

Like what a regular reader, Vincent, mentioned in his comment, the high collar is like having a scarf wrapped round the neck. Well, guess what? I wore a scarf with my suit/jacket when I used to embrace the office dress code. So yes, I am absolutely used to something wrapped around my neck. Though now those scarves are gathering dust inside the wardrobe.

Many modern cheongsams, particularly those for everyday wear, come with shorter collars. Melanie of OBP stated that they are not designing high-collared cheongsams because their dresses are made for everyday wear. Actually, even with higher collar at 5cm, like those cheongsams from Blum, the dress doesn’t have to be worn only for special occasions. They can be work wear which is what I use them for. To me, the below simple pink dress from Shanghai Tang with its high collar wouldn’t be considered for a special occasion. I see this as a work dress or a Friday dress.
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Besides, what constitutes everyday wear or special occasion wear is more than just collar length, but also the fabric and design of the dress. The Hana dress above with the red lace on white lining is for special occasion, because of the intricate lace material. The same goes for fabric which is embroidered or comes with sparkles.

The below Blum cheongsam has a shorter collar than previous collections. It can certainly pass off as a typical work dress.
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I think there should at least be a minimum length for the collar. Otherwise, a short collar has a stunted look to it. Besides I also feel that a short collar dilutes the distinctive essence of the cheongsam. OBP’s flared bottom dress has collar length of 4.5cm, and the A-line sleeveless dress (the like of Abstract Art Berry) has length of about 4cm. This casual Miz Apparels denim cheongsam below has collar length of 4cm. So I think that perhaps a happy median is a length of between 4-5cm.
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According to the book “In The Mood For Cheongsam “, the dress was commonly worn in the 1960s’ in Singapore. A number of Chinese women had cheongsams for work wear and special occasions. The iconic dress sets them apart from other women in western frocks, and it made them felt special. I can certainly understand that feeling, particularly in this age when far fewer women wear cheongsam.

Considering that women in the past had to tailor make their cheongsams, it is even more remarkable that they embraced the dress, high collar, straight cut fit and all. In fact you would think that with the multiple variations of modern cheongsam available now, women may be more inclined, but that is not the case. Still with the proliferation of more online boutiques offering easy-to-wear cheongsam, I believe we will see a comeback of the dress.

I will also recommend to those ladies who love Cheongsams that, if possible, have one tailor-made. Wearing a dress that fits you beautifully is amazing. Of course you have to find a master tailor (师父) who can create gorgeous dresses, though they don’t come cheap. There is also no point getting one done online. It is very important for the master to take measurements from you directly, and he can then make the appropriate recommendations. (As far as I know, the master tailors are mostly males, just likes most Michelin-starred chefs are men.)

I had tried a few tailoring services, and the most impressive is Gary Lau from Kang’s Boutique. He made a wedding cheongsam and one for everyday wear for me. Unfortunately I don’t have the simple cheongsam now, as it had a tear and I dumped it without checking if it could be repaired. Yes, such a pity! I only have the wedding cheongsam, which I had only worn twice, since it was made almost 14 years ago. I looked through my wedding pictures and unfortunately, because the pictures were so old (there was no digital camera then), they don’t do justice to its beauty. So I took it out of the vacuum wrap and took pictures of it (pardon the wrinkled look).
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The dress has 8 pairs of flower buttons, because I wanted them to run alongside the bodice. When I went for the fitting, Gary complained that his fingers were so sore, and he swore off making so many buttons for a dress. But the buttons are beautiful!
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I picked the fabric at the boutique, and it is a beautiful embroidered organza from India. Initially I wondered if the color was a little too pale, but I love the embroidery too much and accepted it. Because the organza is light, it has a backing made from a stiffer fabric, likely Tussah silk (I checked my silk fabric guidebook), to give it structure, and held together by the piping. Underneath that is China silk lining. By the way the collar length is about 5.8cm.

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At that time, the tailoring cost was slightly less than S$500, the cost of each pair of buttons was S $10, and plus the fabric cost, the total cost of the dress came up to more than S $800. I guess compared to what Gary charges now, that was really a bargain. I only found out, a couple a days ago, when I checked out the boutique website that the starting price for his bespoke service is S $1,500! But I have to say that Gary’s tailoring skill is fantastic, and you may have to pay for that level of workmanship.

I have also had a dress made at Hana, using my own fabric, several years ago. I paid S $800 just for workmanship, and it didn’t even include piping or buttons. I wanted something like the cheongsam worn by Maggie Cheung in “In The Mood for Love” and so the dress has ultra high collar of 7cm.

This dress is first featured in my first cheongsam post “I love Cheongsam” dated 9 March 2011. The workmanship is pretty good, but because it is a basic dress, I can’t say for sure how it will compare to Gary’s. Anyway I won’t be surprised if the tailoring cost is higher now.
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A few years ago, I tried out another boutique with tailoring service, Lady Xiang, and had a dress made in the same design as a cheongsam clad beauty printed on Tung Lok moon cake box. The collar length is about 6cm. (This is also featured in the same post.)
The cost was about S $470 that includes fabric, piping and buttons. Again the price may be higher now. The workmanship is quite good, but not quite that of Hana’s and definitely not Gary’s.
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Several years ago, I tried out the tailoring service of My Mandarin Collar, a boutique that offers modern cheongsams. I had a short halter neck dress made, and if I recall correctly, it was around S$350.
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To be honest, I didn’t have a good impression of the service. Despite a few fittings, the dress still didn’t fit me well. The owner then arranged for me to go to an alteration shop to fix the problem. Even then I still had to return a few times to get the fit right.

Moral of the story when you decide to have a tailor-made cheongsam is that you cannot go for cheap service. You do get what you pay for. However you also have to be careful of over paying, especially if you are in cities like London or New York. You might be seen as a lamb for slaughter. Make sure that the workmanship and fabric are worth the price you pay for, and more importantly, shop around for tailors.

(Note. Apologies for this rambling post. I worked past midnight to meet the posting deadline, despite being sleepy, as well as keeping tab on the score between the German and French world cup match. So might be incoherent in certain sections. )

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2 thoughts on “A view on the cheongsam

  1. I think it’s fantastic that you believe the cheongsam is not just an occasion wear and can be carried off at work. I would love to see the day where majority of women here re-embrace the cheongsam as a everyday dress.

    • Hi Elaine,
      Thanks for your comment. I certainly hope so. I think that with more and more online boutiques offering a wide range of cheongsams available, increasing number of women are including the dress in their wardrobe. Right now, the problem is that a lot of women tend to blindly follow the western trend, particularly those of the American celebrities.

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