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Gen Y Speaks: I thought cheongsams were old-fashioned. How wrong was I

Few dresses have been as iconic in history as the cheongsam, also known as qipao, save the "little black dress" or the white wedding dress.Yet, growing up, I never liked cheongsams.

Gen Y Speaks: I thought cheongsams were old-fashioned. How wrong was I

The author (pictured) in her favourite cheongsam. She says she likes it because of its functionality for both casual and semi-formal occasions.

Few dresses have been as iconic in history as the cheongsam, also known as qipao, save the "little black dress" or the white wedding dress. Yet, growing up, I never liked cheongsams.

My oldest memory of it was an outdated, old-fashioned long dress worn by my strict, nondescript middle-aged primary school Chinese teacher who spoke in a monotonous key.

At that time, the garment reminded me of a gloomy and backward society of the past, seemingly lagging behind the pace of contemporary times.

How my attitude changed when I entered my early 20s.

It started when I watched a 2011 Zhang Yimou movie, The Flowers of War, and was captivated by the mesmerising way the strong and witty female protagonist wore the cheongsam.

But it was an earlier 2007 film Lust, Caution which cemented my interest in the dress. The stunning collection of 23 cheongsams wore by actress Tang Wei was a feast for the eyes.

Thereafter, I read up on the history and context of the cheongsam, only to find out just how little I knew about this symbolic piece of clothing.

It was born in the aftermath of the Republic of China in 1912 as a symbol of the emancipation and education of women during that period.

For instance, Shanghai schoolgirls wore it as a uniform when girls finally had the opportunity to go to schools.

As someone who is fascinated not only by fashion but by the empowerment of women, I naturally became even more drawn to the cheongsam.   

I began to look for cheongsams to buy and wear.

It wasn’t as easy as I thought as I had to grapple with three questions:

  1. How much should I pay for one? 
  2. Do I need a perfect figure to wear a cheongsam?
  3. What occasion would it be practical to wear one?

Eventually, I settled on my first cheongsam at the age of 25: A sleeveless red piece I bought online for under S$30. In fact, that was the price point for another five cheongsams I subsequently bought.

I reckoned that investing in a tailor-made cheongsam of over S$300 was not worth the risk, even though it is likely to be of superior quality.

It would be more prudent to try out cheaper ones and to opt for a tailor-made cheongsam only when I am used to wearing one and understand what sort of cheongsams suits me.

After all, they come in different styles: High or low slit, sleeveless or with short or long sleeves as well as different patterns of frog buttons and so on. Some even have a modern twist by using different fabrics, cuttings and patterns.

It was through trial-and-error that I found sleeveless cheongsams with a low slit fit me best. A low slit would be more modest for most occasions, and I personally prefer a sleeveless dress which is usually less warm in Singapore's humid weather.

My favourite cheongsam is a red knee-length piece with no slit, because of its functionality and effortless appeal for both casual and semi-formal occasions. It is also the cheongsam that I've worn the most to date.

I also learn that it is a myth that one needs to have a perfect figure to don the cheongsam. Like most clothing, it comes in all shapes and sizes, and it is a matter of finding a suitable style for yourself.

I have seen many plus-size women wear cheongsams with great sophistication.

It is also not true that cheongsams are impractical because they can only be worn during Chinese New Year or at weddings.

I recently saw a Malay woman wearing a bright yellow cheongsam at Gardens by the Bay’s Flower Dome exhibition with her husband and children. Not even the finest flower with all its splendour could boast of superior beauty.

It was clear that the wearer's confidence and exuberance brought out the beauty of the cheongsam, rather than the other way around.  

The boundaries of cheongsams are pushed even further especially when some are in fact similar to an A-line Western dress, but with added oriental styles of Chinese frog buttons and mandarin collar. This makes it ideal for casual day wear or work wear.

Personally, I have worn a cotton cheongsam-style western dress while shopping along Orchard Road with my friends, and did not feel out of place at all.

In fact, I feel an immense sense of joy being able to put on the cheongsam and remind myself of its origins in this modern era.

Nobody has passed snide remarks on me wearing one so far. However, most people find it peculiar for a young lady to have endless fascination for the cheongsam.

Some would be curious why I like them so much and even compliment me for having the guts to wear something that is still relatively uncommon among the young.

Nowadays, I wear the cheongsam about once a month or so, ranging from formal events such as a corporate dinner to casual occasions such as a stroll in a garden.

I have several friends who are also enthusiastic about cheongsams, but they tend to thsoe who appreciate Chinese culture in the first place. However, these friends are hard to come by and few in number. My guess is that we are still the odd ones out in the general population.

Last month, at an International Women's Day online sale, I bought another cheongsam to celebrate the strength of women and the end of discrimination against them, including women's lack of education, which was in fact still prevalent during my grandmother's generation.

I hope to spread the word on the beauty and historical significance of the cheongsam. Hopefully, that will encourage more millennials to wear it.



Alvona Loh Zi Hui, 26, is a junior doctor working at a hospital in Singapore.

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