The Cheongsam, originally called “qipao”, is a Chinese garment that has been around for literally centuries. The name “Cheongsam” comes from “cheuhngsaam” (Cantonese), meaning “long dress”.  It comes down to us from the ancient Nuzhen tribes in China, and was originally a collarless, tube-like gown that evolved into a wide, loosely fitted long gown that only exposed a woman’s head, hands and the tips of her toes. This garment was very popular among the ladies of royal families.

Hong Kong 1904

Hong Kong 1904

The modern version we westerners recognize today came about in the 1920’s when the influence of western dress shows up in the narrowing of the cuffs and shortening of hem lengths, and by the 1930s, it was the most popular fashion for women of all classes all over China. For the longer versions of this narrower dress it was necessary to add slits at the sides for ease of walking.

Soap advertisement from the 1930s

Soap advertisement from the 1930s

By 1940, it was hugging the body more and more and became sleeveless (or cap-sleeves were added) for summer wear.


It reached “wiggle” dress tightness in the 1950s and early 1960s and was a lovely garment for accentuating the beauty of a woman’s curves.


I became fascinated with the elegance of the cheongsam as a teenager the first time I saw the movie, “The World of Suzie Wong”, (on late night TV), based on the book of the same name by Richard Mason and starring William Holden and the alluring Nancy Kwan. It’s about an American architect turned artist who relocates to Hong Kong and gets involved with a Chinese prostitute and their resulting tumultuous relationship.

World of Suzie Wong 1

William Holden and Nancy Kwan

The book's cover artwork

The book’s cover artwork

Ms. Kwan bringing the glamour, exoticism and provocative sides of the cheongsam to the big screen:

world of suzie wong 2

Nancy Kwan of the cover of "Life" magazine

Nancy Kwan of the cover of “Life” magazine

A more recent movie that showcases the cheongsam is director Ang Lee’s 2007 WWII espionage thriller film, “Lust, Caution”. In it the female lead, Tang Wei, wears 27 different cheongsams.

Lust, Caution 1

Lust, caution 5

Lust, Caution 3

Lust, Caution 2

Nicole Kidman wears an interesting version (note the large keyhole design of the bodice) in the movie “Australia”:

Nicole Kidman

Some contemporary cheongsams. Nowadays the cheongsam is only worn on special occasions.

cheongsams modern

I found this photo on the web of this real life, sweet looking couple’s engagement portrait:


And here I am in my late cousin’s goth version of the cheongsam. Notice the pvc straps and hardware in place of the usual silk cord knotted frogs:

Sonia's cheongsam sm

In my next post I’ll talk about cheongsam sewing patterns.