What Makes a Vintage Cheongsam?

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage

I recently acquired this elaborate sequined silk cheongsam which was described by the seller as "vintage". I wasn't sure. It's such a classic style, it could have been made at any time, I thought. Unable to find much about vintage cheongsams online I went to the go to experts at the Vintage Fashion Guild. If you haven't been to their website you must check it out as it has some wonderful resources for dating vintage clothing and accessories, such as the Labels resource and Fur and Fabrics resources. In addition, there is a public forum where anybody can post a question about their vintage item and experts from around the world will reply. So I posted my thread - does anyone know much about Chinese vintage and can anyone actually read the Mandarin on the label?

 Green Cheongsam

I received a number of very helpful responses. I was not the first one to inquire on this subject and was given links to the previous discussions and to a very interesting website.

This is what I had already observed for myself:

  • The dress is silk
  • The collar is interfaced with a very stiff material, it almost feels like cardboard beneath the silk - not modern, but maybe seen in China?
  • The dress is entirely hand-stitched, including every seam as well as all the beading
  • The dress is stitched with cotton thread, not modern polyester thread. This could be observed on the back of the beading. Also, the little snaps (which were brass colored, not silver) needed to be restitched as the cotton thread had perished.

  • The dress closes the entire length of one side, closing with silk frogs (and snaps at the shoulder)
  • The sequins are metal
  • The beads are glass

The very helpful respondents taught me this about my dress:

  • It is more correctly called a qipao, as it comes from Shanghai. Somebody was able to read this on the label. Cheongsam is the term used in Hong Kong for this style of dress
  • There are no bust darts, indicating a very old dress. Darts were introduced in the 1950s when very fitted dresses were in vogue. 
  • The sleeves were not cut separately and sewn to the dress, but cut in one with the front and back dress pieces, again indicating an old dress
  • The dress is ankle length, suggesting the 1930s style qipao. Dresses made later than the 1930s are more likely to be mid-calf or below knee length
  • The label indicates that the dress is from the Sincere department store in Shanghai. During the turbulent times of the Chinese Revolution in the 1940s Sincere had to flee Shanghai and opened a store in Hong Kong. This too indicates 1930s. Eventually Sincere was able to return to Shanghai, where it is still in business today.

All these facts considered together, it appears that this is a 1930s qipao. It is extremely ornate and I have not been able to find a picture of another like it. I wondered if it may be a theatre costume, but it seems unlikely that a costume would be sold in a department store. It is certainly for a very special occasion. If anyone is able to give me additional information about this style of dress I would appreciate it. 

It's certainly a show stopper of a dress, or as I've called it, a firecracker!

The Vintage Fashion Guild helpers also referred me to this interesting website which has some interesting general information on the history of the qipao.

The Pankou

1930s Qipao available here

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