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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Written by Elsbeth van Paridon.
All images come courtesy of Chic Xique.
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