SINGAPORE: A Chinese New Year tradition that many still practise today is new clothing for the new year. However, not many women will turn to the traditional cheongsam – loosely translated as "long dress" – as their outfit of choice for the festive season.
Between the late 1920s and 1960s, many Chinese women in China, Hong Kong and Singapore wore cheongsams as part of their everyday wardrobe. It faded out of fashion over time as women found the high-slit, tight-fit silhouette impractical for everyday life.
That could change with modern cheongsams on the market. Channel NewsAsia met with two designers who have reinterpreted the traditional cheongsam in a spectrum of styles for the modern woman.
Tong Tong Friendship Store, for one, was born out of a desire to give a fresh take on the tired stereotypes of Chinese clothing.
“When I first started, Chinese clothes were always associated with special occasions like probably weddings … or what restaurant waitresses would wear. That was the perception,” founder Tan Sheau Yun told Channel NewsAsia.
“If you want people to wear Chinese clothes on a daily basis, or if you want people to be more receptive to Chinese fashion, it’s got to keep up with people’s lifestyles,” she added. “We’re all busy, we’re all short of time, and our movements are much bigger than when they were worn as a daily attire like the fitted cheongsam. So now, it has to be different.”
Ms Tan would also like to bust a myth about the cheongsam – that it only looks good on slim and svelte silhouettes.
“I decided, if you wanted to make cheongsams a part of women's lives again – like in the 50s and 60s – the silhouette has to change. So we started adding fit and flared designs, so that it’s easier to move around,” she said.
The “fit and flare” silhouette complements women who consider their figure to be pear-shaped, or bottom-heavy, Ms Tan explained.
Mother-daughter pair Melissa Teo and Ruth Tan have gotten their matching Chinese New Year outfits from Tong Tong nine years in a row. (Photo: Victoria Ong)
Even women who consider themselves apple-shaped, or heavier on top, can own a flattering cheongsam. Ms Tan recommended something with a loose silhouette, or cute prints to offset the cut which could end up looking frumpy.
Ms Tan helped mother-daughter pair Melissa Teo and Ruth Tan – who have vastly different fashion preferences – put together matching outfits this Chinese New Year to highlight the point. Ruth would normally avoid skirts or dresses, but the cheongsam top she got helped skirt the problem.
“It’s like our truce ground, like we both agree on certain themes,” said Mdm Teo.
CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH
Online store The Happy Cheongsam would also like to encourage women to wear cheongsams more often.
The modern cheongsam has a slightly lower collar, said its founder Tay Yeow Ming. “Asian girls who feel like they don’t have a very long neck, they can choose to wear the modern cheongsam. It’s quite comfortable with the lower neck, and yet it has the shape of a cheongsam collar.”
The Happy Cheongsam was born out of adversity, after Ms Tay was diagnosed with cancer. During that time, her family banded together to take care of her. Upon Ms Tay’s recovery, she wanted to express her gratitude, especially to her mother who had been a seamstress for decades.
“For my mum, what was she really good at for her whole life? At making clothes. And that was the trigger for us to think about making cheongsams, to continue her mastery in this area,” she said.
Mother-daughter outfits from The Happy Cheongsam. (Photo: The Happy Cheongsam)
Following the birth of her daughter, Ms Tay also decided to introduce mother-daughter outfits, especially as the trend was catching on in the United States.
The Happy Cheongsam also incorporates cute prints into its designs. For instance, the store stocks a cheongsam made just for the Year of the Rooster, which is the Chinese zodiac symbol for 2017.
A modern cheongsam for the Year of the Rooster. (Photo: Victoria Ong)
With the introduction of different cuts and quirky prints, perhaps these design updates will help breathe new life into the traditional cheongsam and see it make a comeback beyond the usual airings at weddings and the Chinese New Year season.