The cheongsam is one of China’s great contributions to world fashion. Local chain Shanghai Tang and star designer Vivienne Tam have long championed the classy dress, having westernised it for a more cosmopolitan market.
Directors Ang Lee and Wong Kar-wai have shown on the silver screen what beauty, when worn by the right actress, the dress can evoke. Audiences the world over have swooned as Maggie Cheung Man-yuk sauntered across the screen in numerous, immaculately tailored cheongsams in Wong’s classic In the Mood for Love.
Desperate for a foothold in the mainland market, the cheongsam style is being imitated by Western fashion powerhouses, from Louis Vuitton to Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.
Yet, sadly, as the Post recently reported, the highly skilled trade is dying in Hong Kong. Only a few old-time garment makers still produce the fully hand-stitched, traditional cheongsam, also known as qipao, subtly designed to accentuate a woman’s curves without being vulgar.
The demand is there, but not the supply. Young local design students are all too eager to learn from the Western masters. And few young dressmaking apprentices bother to learn a trade that requires great skill and patience.
A possible remedy is for local design schools, such as the fashion institute at Polytechnic University, where Tam once studied, to start offering training in the making of classical cheongsams.
The cheongsam was taken to the height of fashion and sensuality by the socialites and tai-tais of 1920s Shanghai. Chinese women, at least those from an older generation – and many men – have long known its sensual secrets.
A tradition of great beauty and femininity is there right under our very noses. Let’s make sure we do not lose it.