Handmade and Fabulous: The Cheongsam

Twelve years ago, my then-boyfriend-now-husband brought me a present from one of his Hong Kong trips. It was wrapped in a  paper bag bearing the unmistakable Shanghai Tang colours – fuchsia pink, lime green, tangerine, and vivid red. The present itself was as colourful as the bag it came in – a lime green (yes, lime green) cheongsam in a non-traditional lacy fabric. One look and I fell in love. Since then, the cheongsam has become one of my go-to outfits for those occasions requiring one to play dress up.

The cheongsam or qípáo ( pronounced ch’i-p’ao) is a study of contrasts. The high neckline, the figure hugging silhouette, and the high side slits speak of sophistication with a hint of sensuality that few garments have combined oh so harmoniously. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least tastefully copied piece of clothing in the world. One only has to walk into a souvenir shop in Chinatown to see its different reincarnations in cheap ‘silk brocade’ which seem to only come in the plum blossom variety. And so my love affair with the cheongsam waned and I was no longer in thrall.

Then I saw Lust, Caution, an espionage film by the acclaimed director Ang Lee. Set in Hongkong and Shanghai during the Imperial Japanese occupation and starring Tony Leung and Tang Wei, it had sex love scenes so explicit  they would have made even the die hard asexual blush . But it wasn’t Tony Leung’s blatantly brandished derrière that captivated me as I watched the film; Tang Wei, fully clothed in 27 gorgeous cheongsams, did. Seeing those beautifully cut creations in motion reawakened my dormant feelings for cheongsam. A recent visit to an exhibition entitled “In the Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity and Singapore Women”  fuelled such feelings.  As I stood in that room at the National Museum of Singapore surrounded by cheongsams old and new, in the most beautiful fabrics and colours imaginable, I was enthralled once again. Then and there, I vowed to make myself one someday.

Well, that day has finally come. I just finished my first ever custom-made cheongsam and I am so pleased with myself I can’t stop grinning :-D. See, there it is again 😀

Anyway, since it was my first attempt at making such a famous garment, I was understandably petrified. What if it turns out to be completely unwearable or worse, a disgrace to the cheongsam legacy? Yes, it is a very simple dress but it is this simplicity that requires it to be very well-made  – the fit must be impeccable, the details simple yet precise. And to be honest, I didn’t know where to start – I knew how a cheongsam looks like but clueless about how everything comes together. Thankfully, I found this free pattern online (don’t you just love the internet?) and with fingers crossed, printed out the MEDIUM pdf file (there was no way I was going to fit into a SMALL with a 25-inch waist now, would I?). I decided to make a muslin first, planning and expecting to amend the pattern considerably, as it wasn’t made to measure. To my surprise,  except for a few tweaking here and there, the muslin fit better than expected. But that’s not even half of the battle!

After a few days of buying materials, making the muslin, alterations to the pattern, countless fittings, and numerous trips to my local haberdashery (I am getting forgetful in my old age), my cheongsam was ready. Here are some photos of my finished dress and of me trying hard to do a Tang Wei 🙂

My very first custom-made Cheongsam
View from behind. Thanks to my son’s pencil for the makeshift bun. You may notice that my right hip is slightly shapelier than my left. It maybe excess fabric or my right hip’s been doing pilates on its own. That will have to be rectified 🙂
The detailed front piece
Close up of my slightly wonky handmade decorative frog buttons
The collar and sleeve up close. I kinda did myself proud here 🙂

And so another chapter in my sewing history has come to pass. I meant to post a tutorial along with this but after slaving on the cheongsam for days, I have no energy left to think! There will be one, though, so please check out the tute (a crafty slang I picked up recently) page in the next few days.

Thanks for visiting and hope to see you again soon! Happy stitching!

UPDATE: Cheongsam Tutorial is now online. Please visit the tutorial page!

You may also like:

Tutorial: Anatomy of a Cheongsam
Tutorial: How to Attach Invisible Zippers


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