The vintage cheongsam (Updated)

Some time ago, a reader, Ed, forwarded a few pictures of 1950s/60’s cheongsams to me, and I like to share them here. I have also taken pictures of a couple of pages from the book “In The Mood For Cheongsam”, which provides an amazing history of the iconic dress in Singapore. This book was published in conjunction with the cheongsam exhibition held in 2012 at the National Museum of Singapore, which I wrote about in my post “Who’s In The Mood For Cheongsam?” dated 12 April 2012.

Below are two pictures of formal events held in the 1960’s (the second photo, taken in Singapore, is also found in the book). The women wore the classic figure-hugging cheongsams with high collars. There is this elegance about their styles that is not commonly seen nowadays. I have to admit, despite the convenience of side pockets and flare skirt of the modern design, few can match the gorgeousness of a well-made classic cheongsam. I guess this is also why there are some who still prefer the classic form.

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Ed also forwarded me a picture of a singer from the 1950’s in the clsssic cheongsam. (The hourglass figure was made possible with corset, which was popular then.) [Ed updated me that she was a Singapore singer by the name of ‘Chong Sit Fong’.]
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Here is a 1960's picture I found online. (Archive picture from Sotherby.) To be honest, it has not been easy to get hold of such photos. When I did a Google search for 1960’s cheongsams, a lot of 21st century pictures turned up instead.
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According to the above-mentioned book, the cheongsam became an everyday dress, wore even by working women, in the 1960’s in Singapore. Though some chose to wear a loose fit for comfort, there were many who wore the figure-hugging design, which they felt portrayed a feminine look.
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The 1960’s were the heyday of the cheongsam in Singapore, unfortunately it’s popularity started to wane in the 1970’s because women found the dress constricting. Since then it has never regained it’s footing. Maybe with more
modern versions appearing in the market, there will be more women wearing it. Still, I only see more glimpses of the cheongsam during the Chinese new year period. There are only a handful of women who wear it on a regular basis, me being one of them.

Going back further, in the 1930s and 1940s, we have here a picture of Soong Mei-Ling or Madam Chiang Kai Shek, wife of the generalissimo who fled to Taiwan after being defeated by the Chinese Communist Party in late 1940s. Madam Chiang was known to wear the cheongsam almost everyday. (Picture taken from cultural-china.com.)
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Another picture of Madam Chiang with a group of older women, also in cheongsams. These women did not have the slim physique of the younger ladies, but they sure looked rather dignified. The dresses are loose fitting and the sleeves are elbow-length, which allow even women without the”right figure” to look presentable. (Photo from shme.com and also found in the book.)
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Another reader, Dionne, approached me in end January if I would be interested to purchase her mother’s vintage cheongsams which appear to be the loose-fitting design. There are three of them, and the workmanship seems pretty decent. I declined though, since I find them too old style for me. I suggested to her to approach the museum. If any reader is interested to collect any of them, do let me know and I can connect you to Dionne.

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On a separate note, there is something which has intrigued me about the design of the cheongsam: the layout of the front flap or faux flap. In the traditional form, the flap has been on the right. But some modern cheongsams have it on the left. I asked a couple of designers for their thoughts. Lai Chan remarked that he was told during the Qing dynasty, the Chinese wore the dress with the flap on the right, whereas the foreigners (barbarians) wore it on the left. But this is not verified. While Lilian from Dayglow Vintage told me that her most recent designs have functional buttons, and she felt that it would easier for the right-handed wearer to button the flap on the left. So it was just a practical reason for her to change the design. If anyone knows the real reason why the flap was placed on the right, let me know.

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6 thoughts on “The vintage cheongsam (Updated)

  1. I love your post. I did not know what cheongsam were, I have seen them a few times in movies but did not know the importance. Your post was really helpful and the fact that u have showed so much about the history of cheongsam was really good. It would be nice to know where did the original come from of like their origin.

    • Hi Krishas,

      Thank you for the compliment, though I don’t think I provided a comprehensive history of the cheongsam in the post. One reason why I didn’t talk about the origin of the cheongsam is because the information is widely available in the Internet. Just Google “cheongsam” and you can find a huge load of info, or you can also check out Wikipedia.
      The post wasn’t meant to be a history of the cheongsam anyway, but to showcase pictures of the vintage cheongsam.

  2. Hello I just started following your blog because I simply love cheongsams. Never knew that ladies in the olden days wore corsets so I always wondered how come they had such amazing waistlines. Do you have any photos of the corsets they wore, and if they were similar to the ones worn in the west?

    Would you mind sharing the contact with me so I can find out from Dionne more about her mom’s cheongsams?

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for your comment. I think there is a telltale sign of the corset in these women pictured in the 1960’s: the line along the waist, a little like VPL. Anyway I don’t have photos of corsets wore by the Chinese women, but I think they were no different from those wore by the women in the west.

      I will connect you separately with Dionne on her mom’s cheongsams.

  3. Hey there, I just came across your blog as I’m looking to buy a cheongsam for the upcoming new year and I actually love Dionne’s mom’s cheongsams.

    Possible to let me know her contact so I can check if they are still available for sale? Thank you!

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