29 November 2021
Think of cheongsam and what pops into mind? Is it the old photo of your mother wearing the Chinese dress, the literary writings of the cheongsam belle Eileen Chang, or the graceful figure of Su Li-zhen from In the Mood for Love?

“Cheongsam” and “qipao” describe the same type of garment, but the former, popularized since the early Republican period, referred to long dresses for both men and women when it was first brought into being. In the post-war era, the male changpao fell out of favour as western suits become de rigueur, and the female cheongsam went from a baggy A-line to a more figure-hugging form – the modern version that is seen as the typical cheongsam in Hong Kong.

In the 1950s and 60s, many Shanghainese tailors fled to Hong Kong and they adopted Western techniques to transform the two-dimensional cheongsam into a voguish dress with a slender, more three-dimensional form, thereby unlocking a golden age that lasted two decades. The iconic dress, as modelled by members of the educated upper class, gradually became a marker of identity and the craft became increasingly sophisticated with expensive fabrics.

The 1970s were a period when businesses – especially the clothing industry – thrives. A wind of change blew through the local fashion landscape and the days where cheongsam was worn as everyday wear was over. People gradually turned their attention to the modern, ready-to-wear garments.

Today, the quintessentially Chinese dress is still a cultural symbol. It is a popular choice of outfit on formal, important occasions and Chinese celebrities often make public appearances wearing the dress.

As a listed intangible cultural heritage, interest in cheongsam has now been rekindled with a new generation of fashion designers giving the century-old craft a new lease of life. Among this new wave is local fashion band 18 and 22. They just opened a new store in the recently revitalised Central Market and their cheongsam collection marry soul, craftsmanship and period costume, reviving the slow fashion and making it shine once again in a world dominated by fast fashion. (Left) LK Chan, founder of 1822