What Is Cheongsam? It’s History, Meaning, Style & More

Cheongsam is an attire that is typical in China. Alternatively known as qipao in Mandarin, the dress has transformed into an icon of Chinese fashion today. The costume has been in vogue for a long time and is a favorite with both celebrities and common women in America and other parts of the world.  

Red cheongsam on display at SHQ (20180101102112).jpg
By N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This apparel is an ankle-length close-fitting dress with a slit on one side. Traditionally, the sleeves of this costume are short (though many modern versions have long or quarter sleeves). What makes the garment look really beautiful is its collar style – the mandarin collar is a specialty. It is a round, stand-up collar worn close to the neck area. There is also a fastening across the right side of the upper chest area.  

History of Cheongsam  

Cheongsam dress has evolved a lot with time, and like the apparel itself, its history is equally interesting. The origin of this one-piece Chinese costume dates back to the 17th century when Manchu ruled China. It was during this period that chieftain Nurhachi established the banner system. The banner system acted as a structure for the organization of Manchu families into different administrative divisions. Manchu women wore traditional dresses, which came to be known as qipao (means, banner gown). Post-1636, it became mandatory for Han Chinese men under the banner system to wear changpao, which is considered the male version of qipao. 

In Shanghai during the 1920s, the apparel gained immense popularity and was mainly adorned by upper-class women and celebrities. In 1929, China declared it as one of the official national attires. However, in 1949, with the commencement of Communist Rule, the popularity of cheongsam declined as traditional ideas were being erased. The people of Shanghai carried this garment to British-controlled Hong Kong (where there was a considerable Chinese population), and it gained immense popularity there. 

Han women during the Manchu Qing dynasty.jpg
By S.T. , CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Hong Kong then adopted this apparel as a uniform for the service industry since the 1960s. With the reunification of Hong Kong and China in 1997, the popularity of cheongsam experienced a boom. American and western designers made different versions of the costume, and gradually, it became a dress with a style statement. 

Cultural Importance of Cheongsam 

Cheongsam has prominent significance in Chinese culture and identity. Ask any older Chinese woman in the country, and you will know that they consider this attire as an elegant and dignified formal dress, reflecting their ethnic and traditional roots. On the other hand, the younger lot treats this apparel more as a fashion statement instead of considering it an ethnic-cultural marker. This is the reason they love to adorn the modern variety of qipao. It helps them in standing out in the crowd and is suitable for their busy lifestyles too. 

Cheongsam #7

Modern Cheongsam 

Modern cheongsams are available in different styles, materials, and shapes. Although some variations have been made in the attire, certain distinguishing and iconic features are retained, like the side slits, mandarin collar, and the asymmetrical opening. The buttons and the collar design of the qipao have also been retained as it represents the cultural identity.  

Chinese woman in Qipao.jpg
CC BY 2.0, Link

While the traditional style is body-hugging, the current trend is of A-line cut. In modern times, the costume is paired with jeans, western-style pants as well as skirts. You can widely see this style in America and many western countries. Italian silk and French lace are also used to make the garments look vibrant and beautiful. High heels go very well with a cheongsam dress. 

Cheongsam Wedding Dress  

You are surely going to fall in love with a Cheongsam wedding dress. In the majority of the cases, red is the dominant color for Chinese wedding attire for women; however, some women prefer white, as well. This apparel is also adorned at weddings in Hong Kong and Shanghai. One can choose from multiple shades of red. Moreover, the styles of traditional cheongsams also vary. Generally, high-quality Chinese silk is used in the making of these wedding apparel adorned with pankou knots. The perfect use of lace gives these costumes a fairytale kind of appearance. Hand embroidery in golden color makes them bright and dazzling.  


Cheongsam Mini Dress 

Cheongsam mini dresses are pretty popular among modern women in America, Asia, and Europe. These can be worn to parties, informal meets, and at various events. The majority of these attires are crafted in luxurious silk, satin, or velvet. Intricate embroidery work is common, along with lacework and traditional buttons and knots. The style of the sleeves of these qipaos vary from one another – choose the one which suits you best. While some of these costumes maintain their conventional style, others have evolved as a fusion of various modern styles and trends. With proper accessories and the right attitude, women can be the center of attraction in any event or gathering in this mini dress.  

20160915-DSC 8145 (29116412094).jpg
By Koichiro Ohba, CC BY 2.0, Link

Cheongsam Prom Dress 

Dressing up to look gorgeous for prom is every girl’s dream. How about making this event special by wearing something that perfectly represents your ethnic and cultural heritage and individuality? Well, if you are from Shanghai, Hong Kong, or China, you can never go wrong with a cheongsam prom dress. The qipao not only symbolizes cultural pride, but it also comes with an excellent flattering fit. Flaunt your curves in style with this fashionable attire. The side slit enables smooth mobility and ensures that you hit the dance floor without worrying about any discomfort.  

You can choose materials like silk or satin for proms as they are light and easy to carry. Go playful with the colors and designs – after all, it is prom night! And most importantly, do not forget to adorn the right accessories to complete your look and style statement. Pair with high heels, and you are ready to rock! 

In the mood for Pingtan - the Cheongsam exhibit (20170204141547).jpg
By N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Whether you are based in America, China, London, or Argentina, you must definitely give it a try if you are yet to wear a cheongsam to date. With the lovely fit, the beautiful colors, embroidery, and the varieties of styles and designs, you will surely be a showstopper at any event. This traditional garment for a Chinese woman has made a grand entry into the fashion world today, albeit with variations!