Local designers are putting a contemporary spin on the traditional cheongsam

With more designers making cheongsam in comfortable styles and fabrics, women can now make this traditional outfit work for any occasion

The high slits and body-hugging fit of traditional cheongsam were a no-go for Ms Jennica Khew, 42, who used to avoid wearing the one- piece Chinese dress except during Chinese New Year.

Her job as a property agent requires her to be constantly on the move.

"Cheongsam used to be made mainly of silk and lace, with an inner polyester lining that was not breathable - it would stick to my body when I perspired, making me feel very warm," says Ms Khew, a married mother of three.

"Also, traditional cheongsam have high slits, which I feel are inappropriate when meeting clients."

But with a new wave of homegrown designers offering cheongsam in quirky prints and comfortable silhouettes, she now has no qualms wearing one to work.


Ms Toh Chern Yi likes cheongsam with slits that are not too high. PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM, WARNER BROS

Her favourite is a $189 red cheongsam made of embroidered cotton, from home-grown cheongsam label Qiqing Qipao.

It has a zipper at its collar, in place of the traditional frog-button closure. And the cheongsam has no slits.

"If I am meeting clients, I can zip up my dress to look more formal. For evening drinks, I can lower the zip for a more relaxed look," says Ms Khew, who owns five other cheongsam from other brands.

She is among a growing pool of women who are turning to the modern cheongsam.

Unlike the tight-fitting traditional floral versions, popular in 1920s Shanghai and worn by Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung's character in Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's movie, In The Mood For Love (2000), the modern ones come in looser cuts, such as with an A-line skirt or straight-cut silhouettes.

They are also made of fabrics such as linen, tweed and cotton, and come in quirky prints.

For example, home-grown modern cheongsam label Lark & Peony has a qipao design using cheetah-print fabric, giving the dress a fresh spin.

Home-grown cheongsam-makers and stores such as Mama & Misse, Golden Scissor Cheongsam and Fuchsia Lane say they have seen a jump in sales for their modern designs.

Mama & Misse, which opened in 1992 and has two stores, at People's Park and International Plaza, as well as a by-appointment-only office in Sin Ming Lane, specialises in cheongsam and evening wear.

  • Wear it right

  • Here are some tips on choosing a cheongsam

    CHOICE OF COLLAR
    The collar of a cheongsam is usually 5.5 to 6 cm high. If that feels uncomfortable, or to flatter a shorter neck, go for shallower collars of 2.5 to 3 cm high.

    Deeper collars, though more formal-looking, make one’s neck seem shorter, while thinner collars help elongate it visually.

    SLEEVES
    Cheongsam typically have cap sleeves, which most women do not find flattering. Designer Josephine Hoof cheongsam label Qiqing Qipao says cap sleeves are more suitable for women with thin arms.

    Those with fuller arms may opt for sleeveless versions, so the arms will generally look leaner and longer. Ho says halter neck- and racer back-style designs are suitable for women who want to show off their shoulders.

    TIGHTNESS
    A cheongsam should not be so tight that one cannot sit properly or eat in it. Designer Junie Yeo of modern cheongsam label Lark &Peony recommends that customers always do a “sit” test to make sure the qipao does not ride up too much when one sits down.

    It should not go past the mid-thigh and one should be able to cross one’s legs without difficulty.

    TYPE OF SKIRT
    Women with heavy bottoms should opt for an A-line skirt design.The gentle flare of this silhouette will divert attention from the lower half of the body.

    Fabrics are also important, says Vivienne Lin, designer and founder of Fuchsia Lane, an Asian-inspired fashion label with Peranakan influences.

    She advises choosing a fabric with stretch so that the qipao conforms to the body nicely, instead of opting for an ill-fitting cheongsam, which might have unsightly creases.

Its modern-style cheongsam with prints such as batik and red-and- white polka dots are more popular than its silk brocade designs. The modern range accounts for the majority of designs offered.

Newer modern cheongsam labels such as Qiqing Qipao, which launched last November, and Lark & Peony, which is in its fifth year, say response is good. Sales at Lark & Peony, for instance, are up 25 per cent year on year.

At Tangs at Tang Plaza, a spokesman says the department store's pop-up cheongsam section this year, which is selling a mix of modern and traditional-style cheongsam, has so far chalked up double the expected revenue.

Fashion designer and stylist Keith Png thinks the qipao's popularity has received a boost from Chinese designers such as haute couturier Guo Pei, who catapulted into mainstream fashion consciousness after United States- based singer-songwriter Rihanna wore a yellow gown of her creation to the Met Gala in 2015.

Fashion-forward cheongsam designs by home-grown designers Peter Kor and Priscilla Shunmugam of womenswear label Ong Shunmugam have also revived the dress' appeal.

Png adds: "More women should embrace the cheongsam beyond Chinese New Year and weddings.

"A beautifully tailored cheongsam brings out the curve of a woman and is classy and timeless."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'Qipao for work and play'. Print Edition | Subscribe