The cheongsam is a body-hugging (modified in Shanghai) one-piece Chinese dress for women; the male version is the changshan. It is known in Chinese as the qipao and is also known in English as a mandarin gown. The stylish and often tight-fitting cheongsam or qipao (chipao) that is most often associated with today was created in the 1920s in Shanghai and was made fashionable by socialites and upper class women.
The English loanword cheongsam comes from cheuhngsaam, the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese term or "zansae" (long shirt/dress), by which the original tight-fitting form was first known. The Shanghainese name was somewhat at odds with usage in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, where changshan (the Mandarin pronunciation of cheongsam) refers to an exclusively male dress (see changshan) and the female version is known as a qipao.
In Hong Kong, where many Shanghai tailors fled to after the Communist takeover of the Mainland, the word cheuhngsaam may refer to either male or female garments. The word keipo (qipao) is either a more formal term for the female cheuhngsaam, 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 (qi), mostly Manchu, who as a group were called Banner People (qi ren). Manchu women typically wore a one-piece dress that came to be known as the qipao (banner quilt). The qipao fitted loosely and hung straight down the body. Under the dynastic laws after 1636, all Han Chinese in the banner system were forced to wear a queue and dress in Manchurian qipao instead of traditional Han Chinese clothing, under penalty of death. However, after 1644, the Manchu relinquished this edict, allowing the main populace to continue to wear Hanfu, but gradually even they began to wear the qipao and changshan. In fact, only court officials were forbidden from wearing Ming court dress. 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 after 1900, after the Qing Dynasty fell. People eagerly sought a more modernized style of dress and transformed the old qipao to suit their tastes. Slender and form fitting with a high cut, it contrasted sharply with the traditional qipao. However, it was high-class courtesans and socialites in the city that would make these redesigned tight fitting qipao popular at that time.
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.
In the 1950s, women in the workforce in Hong Kong started to wear more functional cheongsam made of wool, twill, and other materials. Most were tailor fitted and often came with a matching jacket. The dresses were a fusion of Chinese tradition with modern styles. Cheongsam were commonly replaced by more comfortable clothing such as sweaters, jeans, business suits and skirts. Due to its restrictive nature, it is now mainly worn as formal wear for important occasions. They are sometimes worn by politicians and film artists in Taiwan and Hong Kong. They are shown in some Chinese movies such as in the 1960s film, The World of Suzie Wong, where actress Nancy Kwan made the cheongsam briefly fashionable in western culture. However, they are sometimes used as Halloween costumes in some western countries. They are also commonly seen in beauty contests, along with swim suits. They are only common in daily living for some people as a uniform.