Cheongsam Exhibition

 

Introduction

Cheongsam in Hong Kong is one of the most representative traditional Chinese costume. It reflects the evolution of the traditional craftsmanship in its long history. Through this exhibition, we discover and showcase the characteristics of traditional Hong Kong cheongsam through exploring the relationship between its craftsmanship and modelling.

 

Measurements and cutting structures of examples  in the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi) female cheongsam collection have been measured, analyzed, and categorized. This exhibition closely examines and evaluates the development of cheongsam throughout different periods in Hong Kong and their stylistic changes: from two‐dimensional to three‐dimensional modelling, from whole panel cutting to divided panel cutting, from complicated to simpler craftsmanship, from hand‐sewn to predominantly machine‐finished, and from bespoke tailoring to mass‐production. Lastly, the exhibition further explores the meaning of cheongsam to the wearer. Through such we learn, understand, and promote the craftsmanship, development, and culture of Hong Kong‐style cheongsam.

The Development of Female Cheongsam in Hong Kong

 

Late 1920s

The cheongsam was initially known as qipao in Shanghai structurally it underwent two different stages. The first stage was based on the traditional tailoring: there were no shoulder seams; sleeves were not cut out separately and set in; both the front and the back of the bodice had a central seam. A pair of trousers had to be worn underneath. The two‐dimensional cutting structure was similar to male robes. In the second stage, this female dress form was designed into various styles: the waistline became increasingly obvious; soft and lightweight fabrics were used; trimming and frog closures were attached; the central seams were dispensed with in order to avoid disrupting the decorative patterns on the bodice; the additional fabric on the right under‐flap was skillfully sewn on and hence the term toujin, literally “discreet  under‐flap” or “shift jin closure”. For fabric of normally over two feet width, sleeve extensions were not always necessary for short or mid‐length sleeve.

 

1930s – 1940s ‐ Shanghai Vive

Before the Second World War, Hong Kong looked to the big cities in Mainland China for fashion inspiration. Hong Kong enjoyed access to a wide range of Chinese and Western consumables, and these were often promoted through calendar pictures, posters, advertisements, wrapping labels and leisure magazines all featuring beautiful women dressed in the latest Shanghai fashion. As a result, the cheongsam saw its popularity grow in Hong Kong. In the late 1940s, many rich families and tailors migrated into Hong Kong from Shanghai. Hong Kong, as a colony, was influenced a lot by the western culture. The female cheongsam, as kind of traditional Chinese clothing, integrates with the aesthetic, cutting and sewing techniques of the West to become a unique “Hong Kong-style cheongsam”.

 

A turbulent decade: The 1970s

Fashion is the reflection of society and everyday life, and is naturally tied to fluctuations in the economy.  From the mid-1960s onwards, the Western-style fashion industry flourished. Affordable ready-to-wear in various styles and fabrics were offered in the market. Women’s fashion was overwhelmed by a tide of Westernisation.  The rapid pace of life in Hong Kong in the 1970s also left people with less time and leisure to shop for fabrics and engage tailors to have their dresses custom-made.  The golden age of the cheongsam faded away.

As the price gap between bespoke cheongsams and ready-to-wear Western fashions continued to widen, those who could still afford to wear a cheongsam on a daily basis were mostly women of higher means.  Gradually but inevitably, the cheongsam became an indicator of status.  Furthermore, the majority of silk stores and Chinese emporiums offered only expensive silk fabrics and were unwilling to make cheongsams from fabrics bought by customers.  The high price of fabrics combined with high tailoring costs to make the cheongsam from fabrics brought by customers.

 

Faithful Transmission of the Art – The New Generation

The Hong Kong-style cheongsam permeate the collective  memories of our living culture, which has been witness to the city’s social development over nearly a century. However, still more cherishable are  the dextrous and meticulous tailors who wove the charisma into this cultural carrier. Unfortunately the prevalence of western-style ready-to-wear has greatly endangered the traditional sewing technique of the cheongsam.

Following its inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Hong Kong in 2017, “Hong Kong Cheongsam Making Technique” has successfully gained a higher honour in June 2021—being inscribed on the “National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China”. It is hoped that through diversified promotional and educational plans, the public will learn more about the sewing techniques of the cheongsam, and the young generation will inject vitality into this dress form before passing it to future generation.

Cheongsam Displays

 

Cheongsam of five different styles and, periods are shown:

1. Traditional men’s cheongsam / robe

  • There are no shoulder seams; sleeves were not cut out separately and set in; both the front and the back of the bodice had a central seam.  A pair of trousers had to be worn underneath. The dress is predominantly atwo-dimensional instructure.
  • Men’s unlined cheongsam of silk cotton jacquard. The large irregular patterns continue across centre-seams are perfectly matched. Muchextra yardage of fabric used to achieve this. (Made by Dr. Ng Kwok Hei, Haze)

 

2. The Delicacy of Authenticity 20-30’s dress form and craftsmanship

  • In the late 1920s: The female the cheongsam was similar to male robes in form. It came in various styles: the waistline became increasingly obvious; soft and lightweight fabrics were used; trimming and frog closures were attached; the central seams were dispensed with in order to avoid disrupting  the decorative patterns on the bodice; the additional fabric on the right under-flap was skillfully sewn on and hence the term   toujin , literally ‘discreet under-flap’ or “shift jin closure”. For fabric of normally over two feet width, , sleeve extensions were not always necessary for short or mid-length sleeve.
  • A red lightweight cotton unlined cheongsam with blue and white floral printed, high standing collar, short sleeves, hand-sewn broad blue binding throughout, ten pairs of straight knotted buttons, toujin design and loose waistline. (Made by Ms. Lee Chun Sze Eunice)

 

3. Elegance at the Time and The Blazing Grace 50’s-60’s

  • The 1950s and 1960s was the peak period for Hong Kong-style female cheongsam integrating Chinese and Western sartorial elements. Cheongsam became the everyday dress for stars of the show business and office ladies.
  • Modern women of the 1960s favoured cheongsam with matching Western-style jacket. This simple cheongsam suit bespeaks self-confidence and elegance (Courtesy of Professor Faith C.S. Ho)

 

4. The Era from Bespoke to Ready-to Wear

  • Although cheongsam was not as popular as before, its unique features bespeaking elegance and gracefulness were still well-liked by women. A cheongsam of exquisite craftsmanship and classy materials even became a symbol of personal taste. Bespoke or or ordered ready-to-wear cheongsams were often commissioned or bought from Chinese emporiums for formal occasions.
  • Cheongsam with embroidered borders and zipper in back worn by Madam Leung Sing-tak in 1989 when she was presented with the MBE medal by Sir David Wilson. (Courtesy of Professor Faith C.S. Ho)

 

5. Faithful Transmission of the Art – The New Generation

  • Under a rapidly changing society, many precious traditional craftsmanship, which often require time, patience, and perseverance to learn, practice, and immerse, are facing the problem of lacking successors. The existing veteran master tailors of male and female cheongsam are retiring one after another, there is an urgency for us to preserve, succeed, and transmit the art to the new generation. In light of the situation, HKDI,THEi and PolyU have been organising transmission schemes in cooperation with renowned cheongsam masters, scholars, and cultural heritage preserving organisations, including the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office, and Hulu Culture, to promote the culture of cheongsam and nurture new generation of successors. The transmission schemes aim to launch diverse preservation events and projects, including tailoring workshops, exhibitions, fashion shows, seminars, and archive building. This section showcases a selection of creations achieved by students and teachers with aspirations in succeeding the art.
  • Student Work – Mr. Lee Shing-hung

Neckline Binding and Standing Collar

Traditionally, a binding reinforces the neckline before a stand-up collar with well-finished upper and lower edges is mounted onto it. The collar is basically rectangular in shape, with straight upper edge and round-off ends. The lining of the collar is slightly made tighter so that it will curl in naturally. A stiff cord has been inserted into the neckline binding shown here.

  • Binding and knotted buttons made from fabric in sharp contrast to the cheongsam fabric accentuate the decorative effect. (Made by Ms. Lee Chun Sze Eunice)