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Shirt, clothing, or topwear. It's a term with a range of meanings, from the loose and accommodating to the svelte and fashionable. The shan doesn't simply cover, it caresses, concealing and revealing to perfection. Cheongsam is Cantonese for long shirt; in Mandarin the term most often used is qipao, literally banner gown, qi being the term for a Manchu military division.
My Mother's Dress
I remember when I first noticed my mother in a cheongsam. She was dressed up to go out to dinner, and didn't really look like my ordinary mother anymore: suddenly she was so refined, her body seemed slimmer, straighter, and really noble. Her head was held up high, and she moved more slowly because of the slits and the cut of the dress. You have to be disciplined in your movements when wearing a cheongsam, and of course you need a good figure. But when a woman puts it on, like my mother, a metamorphosis takes place-she's taller, more elegant, in a state of grace.
To me, the cheongsam is really a homemade dress, because we made most of our own clothes. I remember my mother taking me to the tailor to see the huge bolts of cheongsam fabric in his shopsilk brocades, jaequards, and great printsa flood of color and texture. Then we'd go to the street market and find a stall that sold fabric remnants. My mother said we could make better combinations with the pieces we bought there, because remnants were unique.
I would watch my mother make her own cheongsams. She knew her body, and never had to use patterns she just drew straight onto the fabric, picked up thescissors, and began cutting. She even made her own fastenings by twisting ribbons of fabric into all sorts of shapesflowers, butterflies, or geometric patterns. The neck could be lower for everyday, or really high for formal wear. The dresses always fit her perfectly.
She made Western clothes for me, everything from party dresses to school uniforms. She taught me how to work with my hands; I learned how to knit and crochet, and to do needlepoint and embroidery. She would say, Don't dress like everybody else, it's better to be different.
I've been collecting cheongsams since high school. I love the beautiful embroidery and dragon beading, the lined lace from the sixties, the crochetwork from the seventies. Good friends know I love old clothes. I remember once walking down a street in Wanchai and hearing someone call my name. It was a friend who said, "Hey, I found a cheongsam for you, I think it'll fit!" He was rightit was a red printed satin jacquard number that he'd found in the rubbish on the sidewalk, and I still have it in my collection!
When I first tried them on, the best way to describe the way I felt is to say that the cheongsams made me feel like a young woman. It was like playing dress-up, partly because I'd always connected the cheongsam with my mother. I felt more mature, and the structure of the dress immediately forced me to be more disciplined. I still remember my embarrassment when I ripped the side slit climbing on a bus too quickly.
The problems with wearing the cheongsam were obvious: the collar was so restrictingtoo stiff and impossibly hot in the summer. The shape of the torso was also confining-you can't really eat much in a cheongsam! The wearer becomes very body-conscious, in both good and bad ways. She might worry about her figure, but she also becomes more aware of how her body feels when she moves, stands, or sits.
As I got more used to the cheongsam, I started to experiment. The essence of the cheongsam is in a few basic details: the cross opening, the high neck, the close fit to the body, and the side slits. These elements make up a kind of grid-you can change the variables but not the basic form . Nothing else really matters. The sleeves don't matter at all; the tailoring can be nipped with darts or fall straight from the shoulder. The cross opening is unique to Asian dressing, and I find it very inspiring. I like to wear the collar unbuttoned, creating a new slit from neck to armpit. Even if no skin is exposed, it's very sexy. It might be suggestive of a Chinese bordello, but it's also very liberating.
The way the cheongsam shapes the body is unique. The collar makes the wearer hold her head up high, totally realigning her posture and separating the head from the body; she looks proud, and a little bit up in the clouds. The narrow cut holds the body in, but the slits at the hem liberate the legs. The body is revealed, every movement means more.