THE CHEONGSAM – INTO HYBRIDITY [Extract of Chapter 1 of Fusionable Cheongsam]

Emblematic of the dichotomies of tradition/modernity, Western/Eastern, masculine/feminine, and marked by its Chineseness, the cheongsam was first worn in the form of the men’s changpao (long robe) before its gradual transformation into a feminine dress. It is now purposefully worn to invoke a sense of Chineseness. Its Oriental feminine image continues to seduce the male and Western gazes and has been embraced by many cheongsam wearers from around the world. Regularly revived in the fashion marketplace, the cheongsam has become a desirable fashion commodity legitimised by contemporary fashion designers throughout the past century. The desirability of the cheongsam suggests a versatility that has much to do with its hybridity. Hybridity, in Lowe’s definition, is a ‘formation of cultural objects and practices that are produced by the histories of uneven and unsynthetic power relations’ that marks ‘the history of survival within relationships of unequal power and domination’.

A background of political chaos saw the emergence of the cheongsam as an effort to survive and negotiate with uneven power and desire. The rise of the cheongsam in 1920s China coincided with the May Fourth Movement (1917-1921), cultural resistance to the West, and the divided nation’s search for reintegration and wenming (civilisation). It became the official formal dress during the Republican Era (1911-1949) but its associations with the bourgeoisie and capitalism saw it being banned during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chinese and Western modernisation however, had transformed the cheongsam into a purchasable commodity, crossing boundaries and territories, and inspiring a global following. The silver screen too has assigned it roles and has revamped its image over the decades. Celebrities have endorsed it as having a refreshing appeal, increasing its desirability. Fashion designers have transformed its novelty and exoticism into luxurious fashion. Much like a hybrid species, the cheongsam caters for all. Over decades of modern development, it has kept changing with the times, reproducing over an endless span whilst intermingling with multiple social and cultural forces. Its hybridity channels its production, re-production and consumption, rejuvenating its stylistic evolution along the way.