What is a Cheongsam?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A cheongsam is a form-fitting Chinese dress, also called a Mandarin gown in English and qipao in Mandarin Chinese. The word cheongsam is an Anglicized version of the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese name for the garment, zanze, literally "long dress." The cheongsam was created in 1920s Shanghai. The dress is traditionally ankle length, with slits on the sides of the skirt, a high collar, and sleeves ending above the elbow. Cheongsams are made in a variety of materials, though perhaps the most traditional is bright, embroidered silk.

The cheongsam was created in 1920s Shanghai.
The cheongsam was created in 1920s Shanghai.

The cheongsam invented in Shanghai is a modernized version of the traditional qipao, a garment worn by Chinese women since the 17th century. While the original qipao was wide and loose, the version invented in the 1920s was form-fitting, and cut high on the sides. The dress was first worn by socialites and courtesans, and soon became immensely popular. By the 1950s, cheongsams were also made in materials like wool and twill for women to wear in the workplace. The dress also became briefly popular in the West during the 1960s.

Though the cheongsam is a very attractive garment, it can also be fairly uncomfortable due to its high, stiff collar and its tight shape. Traditionally, the dress is made of a material that does not stretch, such as silk. Consequently, cheongsams are usually only worn for formal occasions today. They are also sometimes used as uniforms, for example by hostesses at Chinese restaurants, flight attendants on Chinese airlines, and students at some Chinese girls' schools.

Today, there are many variations on the cheongsam, including two-piece versions, long-sleeved and sleeveless styles, knee-length or shorter skirts, and stretchy materials. There is also a male version of the cheongsam, called the changsan, literally "long shirt." Like the female variety, the changsan is usually worn for formal occasions today. It also features the high, stiff collar known as a Mandarin collar, and is traditionally ankle-length.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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