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The Modern Woman and her Cheongsam at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall
Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall launches a new exhibition that dives into the evolving roles of women throughout history. We transport you back to a time when the cheongsam was a fashion phenomenon.
The qipao, more frequently known as the cheongsam, was at the height of its popularity between the late 1920s to 1960s, when it was the standard dress for women residing in Shanghai, as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Calendar posters from Shanghai, then an influential fashion capital, featured beautiful women dressed in cheongsams that helped boost the popularity of the dress. After the rise of the Communist government, the cheongsam, which was considered bourgeois, disappeared from everyday life in mainland China. Among the overseas Chinese communities, it became largely seen as a traditional outfit only worn during formal occasions until it made a comeback in the 1990s.
The appearance of the cheongsam in popular Chinese films such as Center Stage (1992), In the Mood for Love (2000) and Lust, Caution (2007) increased the visibility of this traditional dress. Together with photographer Tiger from Intricked, florist Claire from Huahee, and Queenie Cong Makeover, as well as dresses from designer Amanda Lee and jewellery from Carrie K. Jewellery, we recreate the style of the influential Chinese calendar poster girls of the 1930s, within the premises of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.
History of the qipao, or cheongsam
So how did the sheath-cut silhouette of the elegant cheongsam come about? There were two schools of thought. In the first case, the cheongsam is believed to have evolved from a long robe worn by Manchu women during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in China. The long gown was cut in a single piece that hung straight down to the ankles. There was a slit on either side of the gown and pants were worn underneath to prevent the legs from showing.
In the second case, the design could also have emerged from the men’s one-piece gown worn during that period, known as the changshan or changpao. They were loosely fitted and had a low hemline that reached the ankles. In a bid for gender equality in the early 1910s, a group of female students wore the cheongsam as a modification of the men’s long robe. The students’ version of the cheongsam was made of cotton, plain and loose-fitting with bell sleeves. This bold fashion statement piqued the interest of other women and it soon became trendy. Who knew there could be so much meaning behind a dress design?
The popularity of the cheongsam in Singapore
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the cheongsam continued to change, accentuating the femininity of the cosmopolitan Chinese woman. Chinese women in Singapore soon caught on to the fashion trend, and those working as schoolteachers and other white-collar occupations started wearing the cheongsam, but of simpler designs and of thinner material to suit our climate.
As women became more modern and progressive in their thinking and values, the cheongsam’s hemline became higher. In addition, collars were lowered to a more comfortable height, zips and press studs replaced the traditional Chinese knotted buttons, and, influenced by the nipped-in waists of Western dress, cheongsam became more figure hugging. The side slits also grew higher to show off the wearer’s legs, and designs grew more experimental with short-capped sleeves, and even sleeveless designs.
Shanghainese tailor shops in the business district contributed to the popularity of the cheongsam. However from the 1970s onwards, the popularity of the cheongsam began to decline. The younger generation of Chinese women preferred Western clothes that were more affordable and practical.
The bridal cheongsam is modern yet iconic
Thanks to film directors Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar Wai and Lee Ang, and of course, actress Maggie Cheung—who wore the cheongsam so well—the cheongsam is no longer seen as old-fashioned, but a fashion statement that can be worn at all ages. The modern cheongsam comes in a variety of styles, shapes and materials: evening and bridal cheongsam dresses made from French lace and silk, contemporary cheongsams that come with an A-line cut… the modifications can be endless. What keeps the cheongsam iconic is the retaining of distinguishing features such as the mandarin collar, asymmetrical opening and side slits.
Fashion was a means of self-expression for women from even as far back as the late Qing period, through post-independence Singapore, and even till today. Whether it was loose-fitting robes, or form-fitting cheongsams, the stylistic evolution of women’s clothing reflects social and political changes that took place over the century and also shapes what we now know as the “modern woman” and her roles in society.
Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore
From 12 June to 12 December 2021, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) will be presenting its latest special exhibition, Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore, which uses fashion as a barometer of societal change to shed light on the changes in women’s status, roles and lifestyles since the late 19th century. The exhibition will display close to 100 artefacts and photographs, focusing on Chinese women’s clothing and accessories from China and Singapore that span almost a hundred years. There, you can have a clearer view of how the cheongsam has changed through the times, and marvel at how fashion can be so influential, even a hundred years ago.
Ms Tan Yan Ni, assistant curator at SYSNMH, said: “Fashion, besides being a form of self-expression, is often a reflection of the times. This is why we chose fashion as a medium to tap into broader conversations, to discuss women’s multi-faceted and ever-changing roles across history, and how their contributions are integral to the political, social and economic development of a society. It is also timely for us to explore this topic as 2021 is the Year of Celebrating SG Women, and we hope to spark off more discussions amongst Singaporeans about what constitutes a modern woman today.”
The exhibition at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesdays to Sundays (closed on Mondays). Admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. For more information on SYSNMH and Modern Women of the Republic: Fashion and Change in China and Singapore, please visit sysnmh.org.sg.
Hair and Makeup Artist: Queenie Cong Makeover
Cheongsams: Amanda Lee Weddings
Jewellery: Carrie K. Jewellery
Venue: Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall
Model: Yihan / Looque Models