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By Beverly Cheng     9 Dec 2016

Accentuating every curve of a woman’s body and crafted from the finest silks and satins, the traditional Chinese cheongsam is a design classic that defies the test of time

The cheongsam (also known as qipao in Mandarin and zansae, as it was first called in Shanghai) is a dress defined by its stiff Mandarin collar, side buttons and slim-fitting silhouette with a side split.

The style became mainstream during the 1920s in Shanghai, when it was believed that courtesans modified existing Manchurian-style silk robes into elegant dresses that contoured the body.

It later became fashionable among the Shanghainese elite and made its way to Hong Kong when many Chinese, including a handful of skilled Shanghainese tailors, fled the mainland during World War II and brought with them a wealth of knowledge in the latest Chinese fashions.

In 1950s and ’60s Hong Kong, the dresses took on different forms to suit the needs of a growing number of women entering the workforce.

Cheongsam made from cotton, linen and other fabrics in on-trend, Western patterns as well as a two-piece version prioritized comfort and functionality over formality, and were common office attire.

Leung Ching-wah, owner of Linva Tailors, has been making cheongsam for over 50 years
The skills needed to craft cheongsam can take decades to perfect

Master tailor Leung Ching-wah, owner of Linva Tailors (38 Cochrane Street, Central, Hong Kong), established his shop more than 50 years ago and is among the few traditional tailors who remain from his generation.

‘After a few years of elementary school, I needed to go out and earn a living, so I followed a master to hold a needle and slowly moved up the ranks,’ recalls Leung, who is rumored to have crafted actress Maggie Cheung’s cheongsam for Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love—though he remains elusive whenever asked about his involvement.

These days, Leung caters mainly to tourists who flock to his small boutique for tailor-made dresses that they cherish as souvenirs of their time in Hong Kong.

Cecilia Yau’s design is a blend of Western wearability and Oriental traditions
Chegonsam on display alongside bridal gowns at Celia Yau’s showroom

Other couturiers in the city, such as designer Cecilia Yau, carry a range of daring styles that meld Western influences with classic cheongsam characteristics.

In her boutique on Queen’s Road Central, it’s common to see a stand-up Mandarin collar and side-button detailing paired with a voluminous flouncy skirt.

Yau’s bold designs are decked out in sparkling sequins, made from lace and cut with revealing keyhole backs that seem to be a stark departure from tradition, such as her recent range of feather-trimmed cheongsam from her autumn/winter 2016 collection.

While the designer offers ready-to-wear items, she advises her customers to craft a cheongsam according to their specific tastes.

‘The cheongsam is very representative of Chinese people and a way of connecting with our heritage,’ says Yau, who also designs Western-style wedding dresses and evening gowns.

‘I think that despite the changing times, the cheongsam is very timeless and eternal.’

Workshop technician S.W. Chu at Shanghai Tang’s studio

Experimenting with the latest fabrics while staying true to a Chinese design sense is nothing new for the creative team behind Shanghai Tang—a Hong Kong–based fashion house that started as an upmarket tailor in 1994 and has now expanded to 48 boutiques worldwide.

Their latest collection features cheongsam-inspired dresses made from rich velvets and jacquards. S.W. Chu, who has worked at Shanghai Tang for the past 20 years as a workshop technician manning the atelier, has seen cheongsam designs evolve with changing trends both through his experience at the brand and throughout the course of his 50-year career as a tailor.

‘Since we’ve adopted Western clothing in recent times, young people find that Chinese dresses are too stiff and uncomfortable,’ he says, noting that he believes that it is still possible to make Chinese designs suitable for everyday wear and attributing Shanghai Tang’s success to coming up with consistently wearable styles.

Modernized cheongsam covers everything from body-hugging occasion wear to versatile everyday dresses

‘It used to be that the only variation on cheongsam was a choice of different types of sleeves: long sleeves, cap sleeves or no sleeves.

‘But as we modernized the dresses, we can change them a great deal by altering the types of fabrics we use,’ Chu explains.

Apart from its ready-to-wear collection, the brand retains its roots by offering custom design services whereby clients can choose from a plethora of Shanghai Tang fabrics and craft their own cheongsam, allowing for a customized fit.

‘The cheongsam makes a woman look very elegant. We can accentuate certain features by making the split higher, or having a very revealing back or sexy low-cut neckline.

‘It’s a very versatile design,’ Chu says. ‘When we design dresses, we make them very body-hugging for a young lady or loose for a grandma to hide her tummy; it all depends on the look you like and how you’d like it to flatter your figure.’

Janko Lam at her studio

Modern cheongsam and readapted Chinese clothing styles with an eco-conscious spin are what designer Janko Lam of Classics Anew is known for.

Lam won the 2011 Redress EcoChic Design Award for her Chinese-inspired designs made from recycled materials.

For those interested in learning the skills of Chinese design, Lam also holds cheongsam-making workshops.

‘The classes are about promoting Chinese fashion and history as well as making people appreciate the technique of making clothing by hand,’ she says.

‘It’s also for environmental reasons because once you make something by hand, it becomes something of value. You won’t want to throw it away like fast fashion.’

Lam’s eco-friendly cheongsam designs won her the 2011 Redress EcoChic Design Award

Lam is among a new crop of designers keen on reviving traditional Chinese design but adapting it to modern sensibilities.

As a fashion design student in Hong Kong, Lam was only taught Western techniques and it wasn’t until she later worked as a costume designer for a local television series set in imperial China that she began her apprenticeship in crafting Chinese clothing.

‘There’s a big difference between Western and Chinese design. The way of making clothing is drastically different,’ Lam explains.

It’s become her goal to bridge the two disciplines: Chinese craftsmanship with Western wearability in an effort to revive traditional dress.

‘I want to pass on this art form before it’s lost and educate people on how to appreciate Chinese fashion.’

What’s your favorite cheongsam look? The classic, the contemporary or the in-between? Snap a pic and tag #momentumtravel.

Main photo: Alamy; body photos: Beverly Cheng

Beverly Cheng
Beverly Cheng

Beverly Cheng is a design, travel and wellness writer and producer who freelances for the SCMP’s Post Magazine, The Peak, Jing Daily and a host of other regional publications. When she’s not searching every nook and cranny of her hometown in search for a good spot to read, she is holed up in her home office where she’s currently working on her first novel.

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