A new color, a different fabric, a button here, a collar there … That’s how fashion designers keep us interested season after season. Every few years they make a bigger change, often one that’s directly related to our bodies and how much of them we show.
Skinny jeans that reveal our derrieres have been in style for a while now. So have sleeveless dresses. (Thank you, Michelle Obama.) For a long time waistlines were out. Now they’re in. We don’t see as many bare midriffs as we did in the 1970s. Maybe that’s next.
Historically, though, women’s clothing has been more about hiding the female form than in revealing it. And yet, even those floor-length Victorian dresses often had low-cut necklines. And Japanese women covered by their kimonos still bared the backs of their necks.
For centuries in China, the high-class female body was well hidden. Then in 1920s Shanghai, the cheongsam (also known as the qipao) was born, and suddenly everything was revealed: arms, breasts, waistline, hips, buttocks, and legs. The Manchu dress on which it was modeled was wide and loose, covering everything except the wearer’s head, hands, and toes.
Not long after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, the dressmakers in Shanghai found a way to totally revamp the Manchu dress. They nipped it in at the waist, cut off the sleeves, shortened the skirt, and cut a slit up the side. Celebrities, the upper class, and courtesans were the first to wear the daring style.
Meanwhile, in the West, the flapper look of the 1920s required a flattened bust under a straight-line chemise or a loose low-waist dress. The main things a “flapper” revealed were her arms and legs. It wasn’t until the 1930s that fashion in America and Europe began to reveal every part of the female form. (See “The Way We Look Now” in The Atlantic, May 2014.)
In my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, the women all wear cheongsams for some occasions. It was the 1930s and ‘40s, and the cheongsam was popular all over China. Upper- and middle-class women had cheongsams for summer and winter, for parties and for everyday wear. Some dresses were long; others, short or knee-length. They had high slits and slits that were more modest.
In 1949 when the Communists came to power, the cheongsam disappeared in Mainland China in favor of more simple wear. It survived, however, in Hong Kong and among the Overseas Chinese throughout the world. In recent years, it has made a comeback in China, where it’s worn now on special occasions.
You can find qipaos/cheongsams on-line in every price range, from under $100 for a simple ready-made dress to over $1000 for an exclusive tailor-made style. Just one warning: A fitted cheongsam shows every curve and bulge. Plus, you have to stand up straight and hold your tummy in when you’re wearing one. When you’re sitting, you have to squeeze your knees together. And it’s not a good idea to sit on the floor in a cheongsam.