The cheongsam is a body-hugging (modified in Shanghai) one-piece Chinese dress for women. It is known in Chinese as the qípáo (旗袍), qípáor (旗袍儿), Wade-Giles ch'i-p'ao, and is also known in English as a mandarin gown. The modern cheongsam is a modernized version of the qipao of the Manchurians who ruled China in the 17-19th century (Qing Dynasty).
In Hong Kong, where many Shanghai tailors fled to after the Communist takeover of the Mainland, the word chèuhngsàam may refer to either male or female garments. The word keipo (qipao) is either a more formal term for the female chèuhngsàam, or is used for the two-piece cheongsam variant that is popular in China. Western countries mostly follow the original Shanghainese usage and apply the name cheongsam to a garment worn by women.
When the Manchu ruled China during the Qing Dynasty, certain social strata emerged. Among them were the Banners (qí), mostly Manchu, who as a group were called Banner People (旗人 pinyin: qí rén). Manchu women typically wore a one-piece dress that came to be known as the qípáo (旗袍 or banner quilt). The qipao fitted loosely and hung straight down the body. Under the dynastic laws after 1644, all Han Chinese were forced to wear a queue and dress in Manchurian qipao instead of traditional Han Chinese clothing (剃发易服), under penalty of death. In the following 300 years, the qipao became the adopted clothing of the Chinese, and was eventually tailored to suit the preferences of the population. Such was its popularity that the garment form survived the political turmoil of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty.
The original qipao was wide and loose. It covered most of the woman's body, revealing only the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. The baggy nature of the clothing also served to conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age. With time, though, the qipao were tailored to become more form fitting and revealing. The modern version, which is now recognized popularly in China as the "standard" qipao, was first developed in Shanghai around 1900, after the Qing Dynasty fell. At that time, Chinese could freely wear whatever they liked without the fear of penalty from the government (the Qing government had strict control over their citizens' dress code). After the World War I, prostitutes from overseas flocked to Shanghai, wearing their exposing and body-hugging dresses. This brought pressure to local prostitutes, whom were still wearing the original baggy qipao. Thus, high-class brothels in Shanghai redesigned the qipao to be body-hugging with side slits for their prostitutes. However, only high-class prostitutes could wear these redesigned qipao at that time. Slender and form-fitting with a high cut, it contrasted sharply with the traditional qipao. In Shanghai it was first known as zansae or "long dress" (長衫 = Mandarin: chángshān, Shanghainese: zansae, Cantonese: chèuhngsàam), and it is this name that survives in English as the "cheongsam".
The modernized version is noted for accentuating the figures of women, and as such was popular as a dress for high society. As Western fashions changed, the basic cheongsam design changed too, introducing high-necked sleeveless dresses, bell-like sleeves, and the black lace frothing at the hem of a ball gown. By the 1940s, cheongsam came in a wide variety of fabrics with an equal variety of accessories.
The 1949 Communist Revolution ended the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai, but the Shanghainese emigrants and refugees brought the fashion to Hong Kong where it has remained popular. Recently there has been a revival of the Shanghainese cheongsam in Shanghai and elsewhere in Mainland China; the Shanghainese style functions now mostly as a stylish party dress.
Women in video games are often in cheongsam, so cosplay showgirls may wear a cheongsam in show times. These cheongsam usually made of rubber or silk, reflective in color to catch camera focus, with short sleeves and the bottom of the cheongsam to mid-thigh. They are commonly worn with short socks and white shoes.
Some airlines in Mainland China and Taiwan have cheongsam uniforms for their women flight attendants and ground workers such as China Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, and Xiamen Airlines. They are in a plain color, hemmed to just above the knee, with a close fitting wool suit jacket of the same color as the cheongsam. The workers wear stockings and low heeled shoes. Their working places are often air-conditioned so they remain cool.
A few primary schools and some secondary schools in Hong Kong, especially older schools established by Christian missionaries, use a plain rimmed sky blue cotton and/or dark blue velvet (for winter) cheongsam with the metal school badge right under the stand-up collar to be closed with a metal hook and eye as the official uniform for their female students. The schools which use this standard include True Light Girls' College, St. Paul's Co-educational College, Heep Yunn School, St. Stephen's Girls' College, Ying Wa Girls' School, etc. These cheongsam are usually straight, with no waist shaping, and the cheongsam hem must reach mid-thigh. The cheongsam fit closely to the neck, and the stiff collar is hooked closed, despite the tropical humid and hot weather. Although the skirts have short slits, they are too narrow to allow students to walk in long strides. The seams above the slits often split when walking and are repeatedly sewed. Many schools also require underskirts to be worn with the cheongsam. The underskirt is a white cotton full slip, hemmed slightly shorter than the cheongsam, and are slit at the sides like the cheongsam, although the slits are deeper. A white cotton undershirt is often worn underneath the cheongsam. The cheongsam's length, styling, color and sleeve length varies between schools. Many students feel it an ordeal, yet it is a visible manifestation of the strict discipline that is the hallmark of prestigious secondary schools in Hong Kong and many students and their parents like that. In summer wearing this for a school day would be sweaty and un-hygienic. Some rebellious students express their dissatisfaction with this tradition by wearing their uniform with the stand-up collar intentionally left unhooked or hemmed above their knees. The Ying Wa and True Light Schools have set questionnaires to their students about uniform reforms but not passed. But Madam Lau Kam Lung Secondary School of Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery ended their cheongsam uniform in 1990 after student unions suggested.
Many waitresses in Chinese restaurants over the world wear suits and skirts but some, especially the receptionists, wear cheongsam uniforms. These cheongsam (referred to as qipao in China) are long, often foot-length or floor-length. They have slits high to the waist or hip, and are usually sleeveless or have only cap sleeves. They are often made of brightly-colored silk or satin with rich Chinese embroidery. Some nightclub waitresses, ritual girls in ceremonies, and competitors in Chinese beauty competitions wear similar cheongsam uniforms. They may wear pantyhose but not an underskirt so walking shows their legs. These uniforms are considered too sexy for ordinary wear so they are worn and kept at work. The waitresses change into casual clothes before going home.