Wearing Your Heritage: All About Cheongsams

Published/Updated on:
February 1, 2022
Considered an icon of the fashion industry in China, the cheongsam also known as a qipao, is a traditional, tight-fitting dress that was said to have originated from the 17th Century. Over the years, the style of the cheongsam has evolved together with the changing times and is still worn by many women today. 

The Evolution Of A Cheongsam 

After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the country moved towards being a democratic society based on Western standards, and women were allowed to enter the education system. These women then adopted the early form of cheongsam, which was designed as a looser cut than the modern cheongsam. 

Evolution of the Cheongsam
Evolution of the Cheongsam

This became the regular outfit of urban women in metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai. More than just a fashion statement, the cheongsam of the 20s was a symbol of Chinese women’s newfound freedom. 

red cheongsam dress
Red Cheongsam

The design of cheongsams continued changing through the 1930s and 1940s as it centres around accentuating the femininity of the urban Chinese women. The cheongsam became more fitted and body-hugging, and most women often paired it with high heels. Various fastenings such as fur-lined cuffs and collars were often added to the design of the cheongsam. 

Cheongsam paired with a Fur Coat

By the end of the 60s, the popularity of cheongsams started declining as Chinese women began adopting a more westernised style. Instead of donning cheongsams every day, women are now wearing blouses, pants, and dresses. Aside from the shift in fashion trends, cost also played a role. Compared to the cheongsam, western clothing can be mass-produced easily, making them more affordable to the masses. 

Even though women in the 21st century no longer wear the cheongsam on a daily basis, the dress and its elements still make their appearance in modern adaptations and on formal occasions like weddings, parties, and even beauty pageants. Certain design elements of the cheongsam such as its vibrant colours, bold designs of dragons and phoenixes have also been incorporated into western clothes by brands like Shanghai Tang

cheongsam-inspired blouse
A qipao-inspired collared blouse by Shanghai Tang

Also, many modern Chinese brides who have the flexibility of changing into various outfits during their wedding will often choose to wear a cheongsam, as a means of incorporating a sense of Chinese flair to their overall bridal look. While it may look very fitted and tight, the cheongsam is in fact, a practical dress for brides to wear, making it easy to walk and even kneel for the traditional Chinese tea ceremony!

Design Elements Of A Cheongsam 

1. The Material 

A cheongsam can be made from various materials, however, the more traditional ones are usually made using silk fabric and have embroidery on them. Some of the common embroidery designs on this heritage apparel include dragons, phoenixes, and florals. 

Qipao embroidered with a dragon (Source: Google)

2. The Colour

While a typical wedding cheongsam is red to symbolise good luck and joy, other colours can also be incorporated into the design. Some popular secondary colours of cheongsam include purple, white, yellow, purple, and pink. Other bolder colours of cheongsam are dark blue, or even black. 


3. The Collar

No cheongsam is complete without its signature mandarin collar. The collar is often made from a single piece of material to wrap around the neck, with the two ends meeting at the centre front. It is typically two to five centimetres in height, but most cheongsams these days are around three to four centimetres for comfort purposes.

Source: The Pankou

4. The Pankou

The pankou is one of the key features in the apparel design of cheongsams. Pankou refers to traditional knotted buttons that are used on cheongsams. The pankou typically runs down from the base down the front of the cheongsam mandarin collar, to the side of the body. However, in modern cheongsams, the pankou often runs in a series of three on the collar and chest area.

Source: East Meets Dress

5. The Fit

There are typically two kinds of cheongsam fits. The most common and classic one is known as the Shanghai-style. Shanghai-style cheongsams are figure-hugging with very narrow piping. On the other hand, there is the slightly more conservative and less common fit - Beijing-style. Beijing-style cheongsams are A-lined with large-scale embroidery designs.

Learn How To Make A Cheongsam 

Red Cheongsam Dress Pattern

In addition to apparel design and fashion design courses, TaF.tc also offers courses that equip you with the skills to incorporate and adjust patterns to make your very own cheongsam. 

Enroll yourself in the Textile And Fashion Industry Training Centre for their cheongsam or dressmaking courses today, and learn more about how you can create your own stunning piece of traditional cheongsam. 


Au Wai Ling

Wai Ling is known by many as an unconventional thinker, a creative problem solver with a hunger to experiment, ideate and explore. Major clients whom she has worked with include Maybank Singapore, Vantage Automotive Limited, Resorts World Sentosa, Kele, and Swee Seng Motors Pte Ltd.

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