Republican-China Cheongsams and Traditional Craftsmanship

Museum of Ethnic Costumes, Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology

A Glimpse of Cheongsams of the Republican China Era Housed in Museum of Ethnic Costumes, Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology

Republican-China Cheongsams and Traditional Craftsmanship
As a signature of traditional Chinese women's attire, cheongsams of the Republican China era, which could be worn either for daily wear or for grand occasions, were popular among aristocrats and commoners, the wealthy and the poor all across China for a long period of time. Adaptive to new requirements of the times while keeping ethnic features, cheongsams have become a globally-recognized classic attire type developed via innovation based on tradition, thus counting as the harbinger of modern Chinese women's fashion. A review of the cheongsams of Republican China is of two-fold significance, namely, aesthetic and practical, as it enables us to not only appreciate the fashion aesthetics and cultural value, but also understand the ancient oriental conception and craftsmanship of hand-making.  In order to unveil the general picture of cheongsams of the Republican China era, here we have selected the highlight pieces housed in the Ethnic Attire and Adornment Museum of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, including both exquisite, sumptuous formal attire and simple, practical daily wear of typical models through early, mid and late periods in the development of cheongsams in the Republic of China.

Lady of Republican-China Era in Cheongsam with High Standing Collar

Picture from Far East Photo Album by Andersson, taken by the Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874-1960 AD), housed in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, Sweden.

This elegant, decorous gown with a proper size and fit features a “厂”-shaped placket, regular long barrel sleeves, and a round standing collar with a height of 5 cm. With no obvious lines of bust, waist or hip on its silhouette in a “A” shape generally with two slightly expanding laps, this piece has the smallest girth around the armholes. It is concluded that this item was made in the early 1920s based on its characteristics of collar and sleeves.

Finished with ingenious craftsmanship and meticulous, thoughtful work, this cheongsam in a simple model is very much appealing to the eye with the elegant main tone going with super fine 2 mm-wide sapphire piping. The tailor took great efforts to make sure that the floral patterns, though not conspicuous to the eye, along the seam of the left and right front panels look consistent, as if they were on a single complete piece.

Long-sleeve Warm-silver Jacquard Satin Cheongsam with Gourd Motifs

As a well-known iconic component of Chinese women’s clothing, cheongsam, or chi pao, boasts an almost century-long history. Cheongsams were commonly seen in the daily wear of women of various ages and social classes around the 1930s in China, though they are more often seen nowadays in fashion shows, TV programs and movies. Chinese cheongsam tailors of that period of time, based on a strict conformity to traditional Chinese apparel-making techniques, reference to western ideas and a never-ending pursuit of perfectness, created the classic style of clothing that integrates oriental traditions and spirit of that age.

This cheongsam was made of a dark blue twill interwoven with silk and wool and padded with flannel via a technique known as “flannel padding”. In this way this item realized the function of warm-keeping while being spared from a heavy, thick look of winter wear.

What makes this gown rare lies in its double diagonal plackets, the right one of which functions with hidden snap fasteners while the left only serves as an ornament. The symmetrical plackets make this already simple piece only adorned with three wrapped buttons look even more elegant and decorous.

Embroidery patterns, threads, and thread winder

This simple but practical piece of gown features a slight trim of waistline, a “厂”-shaped placket, regular long barrel sleeves, and a round-corner high-standing collar with a height of 4 cm. Stripes in red crossing those in grey were woven on the fabric, resulting in checkers of the two colors. It is estimated that the original fabric used for this piece had a width of 73 cm based on the length of 71 cm between two sleeve seams, plus the width of selvage.

Though simple and unadorned, this item shows traces of meticulous work all over, indicating that it belonged to a middle-aged woman of medium wealth for winter and autumn wear in the 1930s.

Both traditional Chinese silk and imported western fabrics can be found on cheongsams in era of the Republic of China, a testimony to the open-mindedness and close watch of international fashion by people of that period.

One of the eye-catching features of cheongsams is the standing collar, which serves as foil to the beautiful face while highlighting the decorum of the wearer. The shape and height of the standing collar is undergoing subtle changes as fashion trends evolve.

Exquisite hand-made frogs in the shape of flowers

Details of velvet with floral motifs

Featuring a silhouette with the shoulders and sleeves in one seamless piece, narrow single-color piping, few simple frogs but many hidden snap fasteners, a diagonal placket stretching from collar to the right side of waist, this piece of gown serves as a testimony to the trend of reduced use of traditional techniques while keeping the essence of traditions in the cheongsam-making industry of that era.

Made of dark-color velvet with a gleaming luster and burnt motifs, this piece, trimmed with a decorous shape without any unnecessary adornment, was a perfect choice for the elderly women in the past. The smooth, soft-touching textile accentuates the feminine figure of the wearer even without a tight-fitting cut.

While being highly-decorative, the piping with various embellishments also plays a role of preventing the cuffs, placket and lower hem from fraying. As the fabric silk, the super soft and delicate textile most cheongsams are made of, gets deformed easily, the piping sewn with ingenious techniques functions well to keep the edge of the fabric from getting frayed.

The piping of this cheongsam is where the highlight of this piece lies.

This well-worn long-sleeve padded chi pao has a typical style of a casual garment which was common in North China during the 1930s and 1940s. Soft-feeling jacquard crepe in smoke grey with small unnoticeable floral patterns was used as outer fabric with plain crepe of the same color as lining. There is also 2.2cm-wide hem covered with same-color glossy satin, revealing the thoughtfulness of the designer in the selection of palette and textile. It is estimated that the original fabric used for this dress had a width of up to 70cm, and that this gown is padded with silk cotton due to its light weight. With a well-trimmed shape, the tailor of this cheongsam took beauty of the feminine figure into consideration while satisfying the need to keep warm.

Bride of Republican-China era wearing an embroidered cheongsam

Cheongsam decorated with embroidery are usually for grand occasions. Embroidery typical of oriental beauty serves as a significant supplement to the charm of cheongsams.

Details of seeding embroidery.

This long-sleeve cheongsam for autumn and winter wear still shows a tight-fitting silhouette although it was padded with a thin layer of cotton batting beneath the firm, thick black satin adorned with golden floral motifs. Typical of cheongsams made in the 1940s, this piece features a traditional shape with the shoulders and sleeves in one seamless piece, an obvious trim of waistline, a diagonal placket and two lower side slits.

Ingenious techniques were applied to the 0.8 cm-wide black satin hem inserted with super fine pipes. The frogs were designed into shapes of flowers to go with the large floral motifs on the fabric foundation, a testimony to the fine taste of the wealthy people during that era.

Details of bi-color frogs

Process of frog-making

The neck size of 33 cm and cuff size of 12.5 cm of this long, elegant, decorous piece of cheongsam implies that the owner of it had a slim figure. But it doesn’t have a tight waistline, indicating that the tailors of that time pursued fitness rather than tight-fittingness.

Deemed as one of the best of the adaptive cheongsams made in the 1930s in terms of both modeling and fabric, this piece features a “厂”-shaped placket, short sleeves, round high-standing collar.

Featuring a diagonal placket stretching from collar to the right side of waist, the classic style of traditional Chinese garments, cheongsams of the Republican-China era were usually long and well-fit, constituting an unwitting testimony to the lithe and gentle beauty of Chinese women although they did not accentuate the female figure purposefully.

Firmly-woven thick but soft-feeling drapable black satin with inconspicuous floral patterns was chosen for this chi pao. Big hardly-visible flower motifs with subtle silk gloss on a matte black ground create an elegant and graceful charm. It is estimated that the original fabric could have a width of up to 70cm or more based on the seams on sleeves. Dark tile grey crepe with loosely-woven threads for lining and the wide black satin hem are in line with the overall color tone, which is dark but not dull.

The hem is also where the artisan’s ingenuity lies in. The wide black satin hem, coupled with the seemingly-redundant thin piping in the same color and textile with the hem and the foundation fabric, actually plays a role of adding light to the entire garment. They highlight the well-cut curvy lines, creating a sense of solemnity and grandeur.

It is estimated that the original jacquard satin used for this dress had a width of 70cm based on the length of seams on sleeves. Soft-feeling silk tabby with a similar color was used as lining. Small jacquard motifs and wave-shaped patterns can be seen on the dark coffee ground, adding a sense of rhythmic movement.

Slightly fitting with curvy lines, this mandarin gown is 87cm wide between two cuffs and 135cm long from collar to bottom hemline, which rests at the ankles. It has a typical style of those cheongsams commonly seen in women’s daily wear the 1930s and 1940s, as shown in many old pictures handed down from that period of time. But the palette, textile, hem and frogs of this item are all mediocre.

This lining-less cheongsam for young ladies of the late Republican China era (1912-1949 AD) features an innovative design by going beyond the dull conventions. Given the fabric texture and in order to fit the wearer, this piece, with its bottom of lap hanging a little below the knees, adopted proper shoulder slopes rather than following the traditional design with shoulders and sleeves on one seamless piece.

Though with neither piping nor obvious frogs, this simply-adorned cheongsam with a diagonal placket only stretching to hip line looks simple but lively and trendy.

The museum extends its gratitude to Mr. Chen of Beijing who donated this piece.

With the emergence of Chinese film industry and the development of modern newspapers and magazines, the evolution of cheongsams had attracted attention from across Shanghai and the entire country at large in the 1930s.

Though in a traditional structure with shoulders and sleeves in one seamless piece and adorned with a wide single-color piping, this piece of cheongsam, or chi pao, which belonged to a young female in the late Republican China era (1912-1949 AD), still looks elegant and decorous, anything but out of style.

Only several “一”-shaped frogs can be seen on this piece, while most buttons are hidden under the diagonal placket which stretches from collar to the right side of upper hip. The wide monochromatic piping, extending from the bottom hem all the way up to the shoulder, accentuates the height and figure of the wearer while making the gown fashionable and highly-decorative.

The museum extends its gratitude to Mr. Chen of Beijing who donated this item.

Collar details of cheongsam with burnt pattern

Short-sleeve Red Velvet Cheongsam with Golden Burnt Motifs

While expensive hand-made embroidery embellishments getting replaced gradually by simple, practical hems, the ordinary people gained more access to exquisite cheongsams, which had been exclusive to the noble and the wealthy.

This simple, unadorned cheongsam made of machine-woven cotton fabric with printed pattern was designed for daily wear. Its model which shows influence of western apparel-making features sleeves sewn onto shoulders, a trim of waistline, and a shrink of lower laps known as “flower pot foot” during that era.

Without any frog or piping, this gown adopted snap fasteners and zippers onto the diagonal placket. The waist darts on the back, as well as the way the standing collar was sewn, all show signs of reduced use of traditional techniques in the cheongsam-making.

Donated by Ms. Yan of Beijing, this item was worn by her mother around the year 1949.

This cheongsam applied satin with machine-embroidered lace floral and foliage patterns, which add a sense of movement and liveliness to the textile. It is not costly at all although it has embroideries all over.

Without lining, this gown is a testimony to the trend in the 1930s when single-layer cheongsams often went with underskirts.

On this jacquard satin cheongsam, or chi pao, the highly-decorative almost 9cm-wide black lace hem, which is highly-decorative, poses an interesting contrast to the foundation fabric, which is in the popular salmon pink color. And the bold palette of pink and black accentuates a mysterious feminine beauty. While hemming with lace, the maker of this gown carefully pleated the lace tapes when necessary to make it more adaptive to the curvy edge of the bottom lap, collar and cuff. The noticeable black piping together with the” 一”-shaped frogs on the right-side slit serves as a bridge between the decorative elements on the upper half with those on the lower.

Pleasantly-looking ivory charmeuse covered with colorful butterflies of various forms was used as textile for this dress. Special designs on shoulder slopes and bust darts were made to accentuate the beauty of shoulders and bust. With a waistline of 69cm and hipline 94cm, this garment is an exaggerated testimony to the slim-waist fat-hips features of women. Moreover, this mandarin gown witnessed changes to the structure of traditional Chinese apparel-making under the influence of western tailoring since the 1940s.

This picture was taken in Shanghai in the 1930s or 1940s. Most of the ladies in this photo, with curled hair arranged in forehead-exposed hairstyles and fashionable accessories such as glasses with slim golden frames, stylish watches and cute small earrings, are in sleeveless cheongsams, which are full of varied details though in similar models. The selection of textiles, for instance, varies from cheongsam to cheongsam, ranging from plain cotton cloth, burnout velvet, jacquard satin to printed patterned silk fabric.

Credits: Story

Museum of Ethnic Costumes, Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology

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