In The Mood For Love, A Classic Tale of Cheongsam (I).

Con­tro­ver­sial in his­tory, restrict­ive by nature and trend­set­ting for tens of dec­ades. Tem­per Magazine has a quick cuddle with the cheong­sam : Past, present and future.

The cheongsam carries within more than a dress code ; it’s part of dress politics.

Wong Kar-Wai’s — aka the Wes Anderson of the East — 2000 visually stunning and emotionally melting melancholy masterpiece “In the mood for love” not only struck a cord with cinematographic cities everywhere, but sparked a fashion crowd run for protagonist Maggie Cheung’s wardrobe of tight-fitting cheongsams (or qipaos). Worn in all its glorious and colorful variety throughout this movie, a scene set in 1962 Hong Kong, the cheongsam in general continues to withstand the test of time. The urban outfit avant-la-lettre truly is a classic and sui generis piece of art which has survived the throes and woes of  recurring regime changes — from Imperial rule (-1912) to the Republican era (1912−1949) to the People’s Republic of China (1949-present) — and the subsequent multiple reorganizing of social order. Politics dressed in sheep wool — or silk.

TAIWAN-CHINA-US-POLITICS-PERRY
Katy Perry and the 2015 Sun­flower Beds. Copyright@Getty Images.

Rainbows And Butterflies

Truth be told, you don’t need an actu­al cheong­sam (the Cantonese pro­nun­ci­ation ; qipao is Man­dar­in) to cas­u­ally dress up in polit­ic­al tur­moil in the PRC or Taiwan. Enter :

Katy Perry’s 2015 Sun­flower Dress con­tro­ver­sy. Some saw Perry’s spark­ling green dress emblazoned with sun flowers plus an over­sized Taiwanese flag-inspired cape she wore dur­ing her Pris­mat­ic Tour Taipei per­form­ance as wav­ing a pro-Taiwan flag. The PRC and Taiwan have been gov­erned sep­ar­ately for more than six dec­ades and to this day many (nations) do not view Taiwan, aka the Repub­lic of China, as a sov­er­eign state from China, aka the PRC. The U.S., for example, does not sup­port Taiwan inde­pend­ence and con­siders Taiwan to be part of the PRC. The Neth­er­lands, for example, con­sider Taiwan a sep­ar­ate, sov­er­eign entity. From polit­ic­al views back to pop per­formers, then.

Oth­ers saw in Perry’s earli­er-men­tioned flowery pat­tern, Rorschach or not, the rather lit­er­al sym­bol of the Sun­flower Stu­dent Move­ment, a 2014 protest by young people accus­ing their gov­ern­ment of see­ing through a con­tro­ver­sial trade deal with China, when a 100,000-strong crowd gathered to rally in front of the pres­id­en­tial build­ing in Taiwanese cap­it­al Taipei. Hold­ing up sun­flowers by day. And their light-beam­ing phones by night. Talk about day-to-night access­or­iz­ing.

In The Mood For Love, A Classic Tale of Cheongsam (I).
In The Mood For Love, A Clas­sic Tale of Cheong­sam (I).
Show Taiwan some love ! Copy­right@Toronto Star.

Now, des­pite yours truly’s strongly instilled adversity to the ser­i­ous busi­ness that is the polit­ic­al game, even I’ll admit that refus­ing to par­ti­cip­ate does indeed res­ult in being gov­erned by your inferi­ors — it’s the ulti­mate “Annie or Tilda” Catch 22, one might say. So we pick — Tilda here. And choose. And vote. And play along, moan­ing, groan­ing and at times flab­ber­gast­ing along the way. And when all seems lost and only hope remains, rain meets sunny rays and a rain­bow appears. In oth­er words, when people take polit­ic­al action as their highest respons­ib­il­ity, some actu­al good can come of it…

Such as the right to mar­riage equal­ity — which is a birth­right, not a polit­ic­al decision, if you ask me. Taiwan’s decision on May 26, 2017, giv­ing same-sex couples the right to marry has proved a huge pick-me-up for the gay rights move­ment across Asia. The PRC will most likely not for many years to come approve any such (sim­il­ar) meas­ures, given the deeply ingrained res­ist­ance present in some sec­tions. China until 2001 lis­ted homo­sexu­al­ity as a men­tal dis­order and paired with the huge (fam­ily) pres­sures on China’s young­er gen­er­a­tions to get hitched and have chil­dren by the age of 27, homo­sexu­al­ity per­haps often can find itself play­ing hide and seek in the closet, refus­ing to come out (pun inten­ded) and play out­side in the sand­box — no offense inten­ded. Non­ethe­less, it is not illeg­al to be gay and many of the Middle Kingdom’s first- and second-tier cit­ies fea­ture a fab­ulously flour­ish­ing-meets- fluor­es­cent gay scene. Taiwan’s decision, the first such res­ol­u­tion in Asia, firmly cements (and cel­eb­rates) the nation’s repu­ta­tion for shar­ing pro­gress­ive val­ues — and host­ing the biggest annu­al gay pride event in the region. Taiwan, we salute Thee !

The above rul­ing is one worth men­tion­ing and applaud­ing, hence my includ­ing it here. Often described as a beacon of lib­er­al­ism, Taiwan takes nation­al pride in these lib­er­al val­ues and the under­ly­ing “freedom for all” thought. And so we move seam­lessly (ahem) from lib­er­al­ism and “fight for your right” protests to nation­al­ism and the sym­bol­ism of nation­al dress, as we circle back to the cheong­sam.

In The Mood For Love, A Classic Tale of Cheongsam (I).
In The Mood For Love, A Clas­sic Tale of Cheong­sam (I).
Cheong­sam design by Hong Kong’s very own Ranee K. Copyright@Chic Xique.

“The beauty of a cheongsam lies not in its fabric — fabrics can be purchased, skills cannot.” Fashion maven Joana Fung.

May The Cheongsam Fourth Be With You

How on Earth are “lib­er­al­ism, “nation­al­ism” and the (mod­ern) cheong­sam dress code related, one might ask. I give you three words : May Fourth Move­ment. And I quote (the great Encyl­co­pe­dia Brit­tan­ica):

“In 1915, in the face of Japan­ese encroach­ment on China, young intel­lec­tu­als, inspired by ‘New Youth’, a monthly magazine edited by the icon­o­clastic intel­lec­tu­al revolu­tion­ary Chen Duxiu, began agit­at­ing for the reform and strength­en­ing of Chinese soci­ety. As part of this New Cul­ture Move­ment, they attacked tra­di­tion­al Con­fucian ideas and exal­ted West­ern ideas, par­tic­u­larly those of sci­ence and demo­cracy. Their inquiry into lib­er­al­ism, prag­mat­ism, nation­al­ism, anarch­ism and social­ism provided a basis from which to cri­ti­cize tra­di­tion­al Chinese eth­ics, philo­sophy, reli­gion, and social and polit­ic­al insti­tu­tions. Moreover, led by Chen and the Amer­ic­an-edu­cated schol­ar Hu Shi, they pro­posed a new nat­ur­al­ist­ic ver­nacu­lar writ­ing style (baihua), repla­cing the dif­fi­cult 2,000-year-old clas­sic­al style (wenyan).

These pat­ri­ot­ic feel­ings and the zeal for reform cul­min­ated in an incid­ent on May 4, 1919, from which the move­ment took its name. More than 3,000 stu­dents from 13 col­leges across Beijing on May 4, 1919, held a mass demon­stra­tion again­st the out­come of the Ver­sailles Peace Con­fer­ence, which drew up the treaty offi­cially end­ing World War I, to trans­fer the former Ger­man con­ces­sions in Shan­dong Province to Japan. Over the fol­low­ing weeks, demon­stra­tions occurred through­out the coun­try ; sev­er­al stu­dents died or were wounded in these incid­ents, and more than 1,000 were arres­ted. In the big cit­ies, strikes and boy­cots again­st Japan­ese goods were begun by the stu­dents and las­ted more than two months. For one week, begin­ning June 5, mer­chants and work­ers in Shang­hai and oth­er cit­ies went on strike in sup­port of the stu­dents. Faced with this grow­ing tide of unfa­vour­able pub­lic opin­ion, the gov­ern­ment acqui­esced ; three pro-Japan­ese offi­cials were dis­missed, the cab­in­et resigned, and China refused to sign the peace treaty with Ger­many.”

The May Fourth Move­ment (May 4, 1919) cre­ated a new arena of lib­er­a­tion for Chinese women. After sev­er­al social move­ments dur­ing the 1920s, which saw hun­dreds women enrolling at Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity — among­st oth­er things, the women of Repub­lic­an China began to look for gender equal­ity in their daily go-abouts, includ­ing their dress­ing habits. This woman ready to shake off the shackles of  was the prot­ag­on­ist in her own make-over show and, like the Phoenix, rose from the ashes of the oppress­ive, repress­ive Imper­i­al­ist days dur­ing which China’s women were basic­ally kept in the dark — or rather lit­er­ally “indoors” due to their inab­il­ity to walk (foot­bind­ing). The New Made In China Woman had arrived. The social aspects of May Fourth con­sisted of attempts to eman­cip­ate the Chinese woman, although this was often lim­ited to move­ments to bring foot­bind­ing to a halt. Non­ethe­less, in the cit­ies newly lib­er­ated women, mod­ern girls who had been edu­cated, became a loud voice for fur­ther changes.

In The Mood For Love, A Classic Tale of Cheongsam (I).
In The Mood For Love, A Clas­sic Tale of Cheong­sam (I).
1912 – 2012 : The evol­u­tion of a cul­tur­al sym­bol. Copy­right@Vogue China.

Fash­ion his­tory mon­it­ors often seem to inter­pret the evol­u­tion of the cheong­sam as an adapt­a­tion of the West­ern dress dur­ing China’€™s Repub­lic­an era. The ori­gin­al cheong­sam style of the late 1910s and early 1920s boas­ted wide sleeves and a very loose fit with lower calf-length, con­ceal­ing the curves and con­tours of the wear­er. The sil­hou­ette and style of this cheong­sam was sim­il­ar to that of the male long robe. This par­tic­u­lar shape res­on­ated not only with the Chinese dress beliefs at the time — namely that a robe was not meant to be gender-bound or, in oth­er words, was sup­posed to be andro­gyn­ous — but also sym­bol­ized the newly adop­ted con­cepts of gender equal­ity and the pur­suit of freedom for women as full-fledged mem­bers on all levels of soci­ety.

The Han women’s cheong­sam, aka the “In the mood for love” style as us mere mil­leni­um mor­tals know it, came up in the cos­mo­pol­it­an city of Shang­hai around 1927. Espe­cially made to accen­tu­ate a woman’s fig­ure in all the right places and hide or smoothen out any “flaws”, this new­born dress imme­di­ately attrac­ted a large fol­low­ing among Shanghai’s upper crust and celebrit­ies. Occur­ring changes in the cheongsam’s sig­na­ture style over time echo the nation’s evolving trends in cul­tur­al and con­cep­tu­al notions. The gar­ment was inten­ded to be worn in pub­lic and was an expres­sion of indi­vidu­al­ity, fem­in­in­ity and the rising status and assert­ive­ness of women. Across 1930s Shang­hai, Chinese women were given their first taste of freedom and indi­vidu­al­ity.

In The Mood For Love, A Classic Tale of Cheongsam (I).
In The Mood For Love, A Clas­sic Tale of Cheong­sam (I).
1912 – 2012 : The evol­u­tion of a cul­tur­al sym­bol. Copy­right@Vogue China.

Only a small num­ber of schol­ars, yet a few more fash­ion his­tor­i­ans, con­sidered cloth­ing in gen­er­al part of hard­core polit­ics before the 1990s, let alone did they take into regard how clothes through­out the years have been used to express polit­ic­al iden­tity. Aside from becom­ing a cul­tur­al sym­bol, a fine example of nation­al pride, and the staple nation­al women’s dress in our 2017 present, the cheong­sam has in the past served as an essen­tial expres­sion of ideo­lo­gic­al val­ues and polit­ic­al ambi­tion. The cheong­sam as an ele­ment of dress polit­ics. And dress code.

 

The cheong­sam, both in its sus­tained theme and detail work, is a step in class above many a recent design sent down the run­way. Ima­gin­a­tion and the flow of cre­at­ive juices must have been restric­ted as of late. As Tem­per Magazine embraces all that is found out­side the box and passed out next to the cat­walk, we now pre­pare to cuddle up next to mod­ern-day Hong Kong cheong­sam pro­mo­tor Chic Xique : Start spread­ing the love ! 

Click right here to read Part II : The Chic Xique Inter­view.

 

 

 

 

Follow Chic Xique on Instagram and Facebook!
Written by Elsbeth van Paridon.
All images come courtesy of Chic Xique.
Copyright@Temper Magazine 2017 All rights reserved

 

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