While Chinese New Year is the only day my family hosts an open house, it’s also the only local festival I celebrate without traditional costume. I admittedly own more baju kurungs than I do cheongsams. In fact, I own just a cheongsam and samfoo each! I’m sure it goes about the same for you too, and I don’t blame you – cheongsams just aren’t the easiest things to wear or sit in, especially not on one of the hottest days of the year! There are a few things Maggie Cheung has taught us about cheongsams in In the Mood for Love. If not to learn, let’s just ogle! 

As you probably already know, the cheongsam (or qipao in Mandarin) is a one-piece body-hugging Chinese dress for women. It was originally worn loose by the Manchu during their Qing dynasty reign, hanging straight down the body or flared slightly in an A-line. Over the years, the cheongsam was tailored to become a lot more form-fitting.

The modern version we’re familiar with today was first developed in Shanghai in the 1920s, and was popularized by high-class courtesans and celebrities. By the 1950s, women began to wear more functional cheongsams made from wool, though these were eventually replaced by further comfortable clothing from the West.

These days, you’ll generally see cheongsams as traditional formal wear, Halloween costumes, service industry uniforms, or on Street Fighter. It’s become a representation of Chinese clothing, as opposed to something that can be revered as fashionable. Although understandable, it is an undoubted shame.

In 2000, Wong Kar-wai directed a movie called In the Mood for Love starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. It was well received and critically acclaimed for successfully depicting sensuality through music, light, space and tone alone. The lovers remain unconsummated, and you never see sexual interaction of any sort. What you see a lot of instead, is artsy fartsy slow pans. What you’ll walk away from watching it, is how to wear a cheongsam.

There are several elements that come into play here. First, there’s of course Maggie Cheung. Armed with a lanky frame, a perpetual nonchalant expression, and most importantly a crane’s neck, Cheung makes the cheongsam elegant, modern, sophisticated and conservative without even trying. 

It helps that Cheung plays a secretary to a shipping company in 1962. It’s become unusual for us to see the cheongsam as a fixture in metropolitan style. Because Cheung treats her cheongsam as clothes rather than a costume, we see it as fashion. Because her outfits include slight intricacies to set her apart, we see it as high fashion.

Then there’s William Chang. For In the Mood for Love, Chang is credited with art direction, film editing, and costume and make-up design. Essentially, he made the movie a fashion editorial in motion. 

Chang did a phenomenal job with the cheongsam. Sticking to the way history played, he used a mixture of Chinese and Western prints on unconventional material alternatives to the traditional brocade silk. Think floral on cotton sateen, or mod geometric patterns on linen.

That aside, he had Cheung fitted down to a tee. Even the collar was significantly higher and stiffer to accommodate her neck and shoulder!

Wong Kar-wai just did his own thing as an auteur – because the music, tone, space and light were stylized into his signature desaturation, every cheongsam simply popped. 

Their efforts combined culminated in a look that remains the most iconic for the cheongsam. And to think it’s even stitched in a material that’s comfortable! Steven Meisel tried to recapture the look for Vogue Italia in October 2001. I personally think the editorial lacks depth.

Wong Kar-wai eventually moved on to iconizing Zhang Ziyi in a cheongsam with 2046 in 2004.

But he really had me at Maggie Cheung. There’s just something about a woman who effortlessly looks good. As opposed to one who tries a little too hard.

But what say you? What do you think of Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams in In the Mood for Love? Will you be wearing a cheongsam this Chinese New Year? 


[Photo Credits: cheongsamfashion, effinnerds, yeschinatour, fmlgirls, eclecticflies, simonferrari, thatdamngreendress, brns, nicksflickpicks, theglamour, princesspandasuziwongcreations, aarondembskiboden]