Temper Magazine and Chic Xique embrace the cheongsam: From the desire to repeal all dusty imperial customs and reinvent China — Republican style; from sexual to national symbol… It’s the evolution of a cultural revolutionary.
As the old Chinese saying goes, “if one seeks to identify a true beauty, then one must look at her appearance in a cheongsam”.
Chic Xique, founded by Yolanda Luo and based in Hong Kong, is the first 21st Century cheongsam lifestyle blog, bringing together everything and anything concerning the historical, cultural and revolutionary classic that is the cheongsam (FYI, this is Cantonese word for the dress; in Mandarin Chinese one talks about a qipao). Yet the question beckons… Showered with love and applause in the foreign corner, even daring to wear the garment — often a lusted-after symbol of exotic frivoulness — from time to time, why aren’t too many people in the Middle Kingdom itself doing the exact same thing?
Do they, ironically so, perhaps not dare to wear due to certain cultural or historical connotations? Or perhqps it’s a mere matter of superficial flamboyance vs. cautious modesty. Most of the time you will only see people wear the nation’s ultimate traditional dress on serious occasions, rather than frivolous ones, such as weddings, graduations, international conferences,… Basically any other event than that of daily life.
Luo and Chic Xique in 2017 up the ante and set out to change this attitude of caution and are bringing the sexy, in whatever fashion that may be, back. Nevertheless, to get to the heart of this story, you have to go back to the beginning — or at least a little bit back in time.
A Cultural Revolutionary
After the Republic of China was established in 1912, it was widely felt in China that, after an extended period of foreign intrusion — and the subsequent plummet in national pride, accompanied by a steep rise in prejudice — the newly found Republic found itself brimming with enlightened citizens who needed to quench their thirst for new knowledge and exploration in all facets of life. These men and women consequently felt an untameable desire to rid themselves of the dusty imperial customs, that had been seeping in from outside the Kingdom for nearly one century, in order to compete with the other nations of the modern world. And so began the Republic of China’s quest for a new wardrobe incorporating styles that were both considered modern and Chinese. Women, in particular, set out to bag themselves some new clothes in their newly established liberalist freedom. And a bargain hunt, it was not.
China’s women’s movement set up base camp in 1920s Shanghai, prompting many a missionary and merchant across the Delta Pearl to open up schools for girls. Education, as it always has and forever will, proved key to the feline gender to move onwards and upwards. In fact, more than one fashion historian believes it was these female students daring to wear a Plain Jane yet fashion game dress, aka the modern cheongsam, who in fact laid the ground patterns for the new clothing style — “designed” by the New China Woman, for the New China Woman. A new intellectual (aesthetic) had entered the scene and was there to thrive.
On this note, another rather intriguing theory has been making the underground rounds over the past decades… The theory states that another category of women gave the cheongsam new life in Shanghai: That of the older prostitutes. And we quote Worldcrunch:
“In the first half of the last century prostitutes led Shanghai’s fashion taste. The prostitute was the fashion model of her time. In pre-war Shanghai the competition among prostitutes was intense. Russian and Japanese girls flooded in looking for riches. The Chinese girls were forced to use their traditional dressmakers’ talent to fashion a dress that did wonders for the figure, making each girl tall and elegant, while the tight fit worked wonders on men’s imaginations.”
Tomayto, tomahto, I say — though the latter theory does carry that little bit extra saucy-meets-sumptuous appeal to it. To sum things up, the dress soon became popular with the celebrities and upperclassies of the times. After a standstill during the Cultural revolution (1966-1976) — and most of the Mao Zedong reigh for that matter — , fashion tiptoed back into China by the end of the 1970s, with the proclamation of the (post-Mao) “Four Modernizations” steps program towards economic reform. By the early 1980s, the cheongsam witnessed a revival, both in China and abroad. Worn both as formal wear that signaled a sense of national pride and as a traditional dress for women in the hospitality industry, such as stewardesses and waitresses, the cheongsam was back in town.
And thus we enter the year 2017…
Chic Xique Tells A Modern Cheongsam Tale
Enough with the Temper rambling and on with the Chic Xique talking. Luo, start spreading that love!
Temper: What’s your fashion prerogative?
Luo: “Xique is pinyin for 喜鹊 (magpie) in Chinese, my lucky bird. “Chic” is, obviously, a Western word. I’m combining East and West with my personal elements. Just like my preferred cheongsam style. I would call myself a cheongsam advocate who strives to build a platform that brings together in one place all cheongsam designers/brands/tailors and becomes the CHICkipedia of Fashion Oriental in an attempt to create a new trend of the most iconic Chinese dress. I do in the end want to spread the essence, history and culture of the cheongsam. But if you try to do so in a mediocre way, nobody will pay attention. I hope to use a chic way to grab people’s attention, show them the most creative presence of the cheongsam and eventually lead them to think ‘oooh..so a cheongsam can actually be worn like this or that” or ‘I had no idea you could create a cheongsam out of denim’! After you have their attention, you can gradually instill a more subtle message.”
Temper: What makes the cheongsam stand out in China’s fashionable history? How about the fabrics used to make it?
Luo: “Well it actually can take up to a week to explain the history part. The cheongsam’s origin is rather controversial. The teacher of my Cheongsam Design and Production class thinks it does not originate from the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], but instead was an adaption of the Western-style dress during the Republican era when people were more open to the cultures seen in the West and were creating a hybrid of traditional Chinese costumes and Western costumes — like the waistcoat and the one-piece dress. As far as the fabrics are concerned, the dress used to mostly be crafted from silk, cotton, wool or twill. Nowadays, however, especially as the cheongsam is gaining in popularity once again, its production material varies and there’s little difference to be made between the materials used by top notch brands to those present in ZARA and H&M.”
“I want to spread the essence, history and culture of the cheongsam. Nevertheless, if you do so in a mediocre way, nobody will pay attention. One must go all in.” Luo in her own words.
Temper: What’s your personal relation with the garment?
Luo: “To be honest, this will be a shallow reply. I was studying at a Foreign Languages University in Jilin [Northeast China] and 70 percent of my fellow students were female. Jilin is close to South Korea, so most girls in my school dressed in that typical K-style. I really found myself reaching high levels of aesthetic fatigue, haha. At that age, you simply want to be different. I set out to find that ‘just right’ unique type of clothing online and the cheongsam just appeared in front of me — out of the blue. With that intended ‘trying to be different’, I found a lovely piece boasting a contemporary print and a simple, neat cut. I still remember the day when i first took it for a spin outside and almost every one who passed me by, much to my surprise, looked at me — not in a ‘this is too much; type of way, but sporting more of an ‘interesting!’ sort of vibe. I started to buy more and more of the dresses; not because i want people to pay attention, but simply because I wanted to steer clear from the ‘mass fashions’. To this day, I try not to buy that one ‘hot item’ every blogger on the planet is wearing or recommending.
Through Chic Xique, I aim to alter the way people view the cheongsam. After quitting my job as a Mandarin teacher a few years back, I took on a tougher role in sales and marketing, helping out an independent designer with her retail store at Hong Kong’s PMQ [the creative design hub in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district where Temper and Luo first met]. At that very same time, HKU SPACE set up a certified course entitled Cheongsam Design and Production. I registered and was admitted to the course. And it proved very tough — all of my classmates either had experience in fashion design or had been working in the industry for a long time. I had to start from scratch. You’d always find me struggling in the classroom and being the slowest of them all ha! But I just had to find out exactly how this dress was made. Because it mattered/matters to me! The fact I created a dress that, truth be told, wasn’t anything to write home about, doesn’t matter in the end. I learned. A lot. Technique and skill can be trained and practiced.”
Fashion is art and art, for me, is to create a connection between you and the viewer; there must be a ‘vibing’ of some kind between both parties.
Temper: The revival of the cheongsam in 21st Century China: Wherein lies the attraction; what’s the modern design twist; what’s the new way to wear it; what are the fabrics used for its production nowadays?
Luo: “To me, its attraction can be found in many aspects – first it’s the charm of oriental culture. People always crave the greener grass they see on the other side. Chinese people love Western styles and vice versa. I think the cheongsam reminds Western people of the exotic charm of Asian women. Many movies that have featured the cheongsam (‘World of Suzie Wong,’ etc,) also help amp up attraction levels.
Secondly, the design: It can be about the mandarin collar, which adds a certain elegance and grace to your upper body; it can be about the body-hugging cut, showing off the beautiful female curves or even a looser cut offering up a more carefree feel. The slit, too, is not too overtly sexy, but brings just enough appeal to the table to avoid becoming too boring.
My take on the wearing of the dress is simple: Try not to think it as a cheongsam, but think of it as a normal dress. To me, any type of dress can adapt the cheongsam style by adding one or two or three of the above-mentioned key elements!
Remembering the 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern, I’d like to sum up her feelings towards the current fashion scene, the cheongsam topic and the Chic Xique part in it, by quoting this ‘pioneer of 20th Century art’, ‘Where i was born and where and how i have lived is unimportant. It is what i have done with where i have been that should be of interest.’ ”
The Sex Appeal Of A Rise In Status
Highly feminine and with a hint of subtle sex appeal, the cheongsam is often, as Luo already mentioned, described as the embodiment of a kind of classic Chinese sex appeal. A wardrobe hit in ultimate China Director Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War”, one of its most memorable frames portraying 13 swaying women wearing qipao dresses; a hotly debated protagonist worn by the magnificent Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and a true symbol of seduction in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”… The cheongsam was destined for legendary Hollywood Studio Era fame from its very first stitch.
The most famous woman associated with the cheongsam would have to be none other than the Empressive-and-then-some Soong Mei-ling, second wife of Statesman Chiang Kai-shek and thus former First Lady of the Republic of China. Soong hailed from a prosperous and well-connected family, spending much of her tweens and teens in the United States before heading back to China at the age of 20. When she, along with Chiang, returned to the United States during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) to promote the Chinese cause, la Grande Dame cast a charmed spell on many an American politician, including President Roosevelt. Soong had obviously mastered the English language to a T during her studies and her informed cultural demeanor left quite the impression. As did her display of appealing aesthetics in the shape of her much-admired cheongsams. The First Lady dressed in the cheongsam. In terms of “vertical expansion,” as far as the status- and style-stakes are concerned, one cannot go any higher than that. “Broader”, on the other hand, is a whole different adjective ball game.
Luo and her Chic Xique consorts aim to expand the number of Chinese people who find joy in wearing the cheongsam in their modern 2017 daily lives, at the work, on vacation; that applies to anyone, at any time, in any place. “Horizontal expansion” — no sexual innuendo intended here — is the name of today’s game.
“The cheongsam’s No.1 attraction lies in its Oriental charm. People always crave the ‘greener’ grass on the other side,” Yolanda Luo of Chic Xique.
To this day, the cheongsam remains — and I might catch some flack for going down this road — China’s No.1 fashion export. The dress is, from a Western point of view, arguably the most recognized Chinese garment, viewed as the pinnacle of China’s cultural tradition, accessorized with the assigned sexual symbolism and stylish nationalism.
The New Made In China fashion, in Luo’s words, is still “in the process of finding itself. Most of the designs are relatively mainstream or chase the styles of other countries; not too many of these pieces will blow your mind”. Yet those who are trying to incorporate Chinese elements, sometimes tend to take things to the extreme. They either go down an ueber-conservative road or exaggerate the number of China-affiliated symbols gathered on one piece of fabric. “You often don’t get to see the story, the personality and the soul of the designer through their design right now and this is a regrettable occurrence. A regrettably re-occurring one, at that. For now. Who knows what tomorrow will bring!” Luo adds.
The roads that lead to renewal are paved with discovering, exploring, re-thinking and re-inventing, all of which have been key to the art of cheongsam dressing for more than one hundred years. That’s one century of sexism, republicanism, liberalism, nationalism, communism, feminism and capitalism during which one garment, collar held high, re-invented itself from a 1920s celeb advertising trademark to one of national tradition and pride. At the same time symbolizing the invention of the liberated New China Woman. That’s quite the ®evolution, if you ask me.
Written by Elsbeth van Paridon.
All images come courtesy of Chic Xique.
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