updated 17 May 2011, 09:01
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Sat, Jan 16, 2010
The Star/Asia News Network
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Ageless attire

The cheongsam or qipao can be likened to the UFO of Planet Fashion: sightings are uncommon, but the appearance of a side-slit, high-collared number can send rumours of a new comeback through the ranks of style-watchers.

These days, it is more likely to be spotted at theme parties (Shanghai nights, anyone?); festive occasions such as Chinese New Year, when women want to affirm their ethnic credentials; anniversaries; and in the movies, from the classic World of Suzie Wong to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution.

In recent years, the strongest flash revival of the qipao has been in director Wong Kar-wai’s art house hit In The Mood For Love. Maggie Cheung’s impeccably-tailored wardrobe was like a glorious trip down memory lane to the 1960s heyday of the cheongsam.

Every outfit, made from vintage fabric found in Argentina by the costume designer, was more riveting than the last. All were sexy but decorous — the secret of the cheongsam’s appeal. Unsurprisingly, enthusiasm for the shapely stunner spiked among fashionistas after the release of the award-winning movie.

But, as with any newfound success, keeping interest alive is a hard act to follow. The problem is that the cheongsam is often fetishised as an object of desire rather than something to be worn in daily life.

“Some younger women seem to think that wearing the dress makes them look ‘old’,’’ laments designer Sunny Ng.

“When a woman is young, she has the figure, the looks, the right package to carry a cheongsam. It plays on the natural female form and creates the illusion of slim legs.’’

Nothing beats this style for showing off cellulite-free thighs and shapely calves.

It’s definitely not a look associated with a wearer in her dotage; the fusty image is something of an irony. Far from being traditional attire, the garment — so strongly cherished as a symbol of the Chinese cultural identity — evolved from the long, handsome robes of the foreign Manchu conquerors.

There’s a theory that says that the tantalisingly high slits — a standard cheongsam feature these days — were inspired by the Charleston craze of the Roaring 20s. The high-kicking and fast-stepping pace of the dance demanded agility, and Shanghainese actress Butterfly Wu is the one credited with slashing the sides of the outfit for easy leg movement.

Thus was the modern cheongsam born.

However daring it may be, the outfit can feel out of place in the hurried pace of today’s T-shirt and jeans era.

“A woman in cheongsam must pay attention to the way she walks, take graceful steps,’’ Ng points out, adding that the outfit is usually seen at celebratory events to re-assure observers that tradition is well and alive.

“I have young brides who want a short version for the tea ceremony during the day, and a long style for the evening dinner. It’s popular with the in-laws as well.’’

The outfit is suitable for every woman, he insists, citing the example of a young cheongsam-clad Middle Eastern customer he first spotted in a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. Wearing a cheongsam, Ng opines, is not about having the perfect figure, but “finding the perfect fit’’.

“Lydia Shum (the late Hong Kong TV comedienne) used to wear a double X-large. I have done up to triple X-large!’’ Ng says.

But finding the dressmaking specialists with exacting skills required for a well-made outfit is literally like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack these days. But that’s another story.

-The Star/Asia News Network

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