The Cheongsam As A Cultural Revolutionary. Starring Chic Xique. (II)

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.

The Cheongsam As A Cultural Revolutionary. Starring Chic Xique. (II)
The Cheong­sam As A Cul­tur­al Revolu­tion­ary. Star­ring Chic Xique. (II)
Always hold your col­lar high. Copyright@Chic Xique.

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 ‘ 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.


The Cheongsam As A Cultural Revolutionary. Starring Chic Xique. (II)
The Cheong­sam As A Cul­tur­al Revolu­tion­ary. Star­ring Chic Xique. (II)
From school to (dat­ing) pool. Copyright@Chic Xique.

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 Cheongsam As A Cultural Revolutionary. Starring Chic Xique. (II)
The Cheong­sam As A Cul­tur­al Revolu­tion­ary. Star­ring Chic Xique. (II)
Cas­u­ally ador(n)ed. Copyright@Chic Xique.

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.





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Written by Elsbeth van Paridon.
All images come courtesy of Chic Xique.
Copyright@Temper Magazine 2017 All rights reserved

Syn­dic­ated from Tem­per Magazine

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