There is something uniquely feminine and undeniably romantic about the silhouette of a wedding cheongsam. With its signature standing collar and sleek sheath, the wedding cheongsam conjures the grace and elegance of bygone times – Shanghainese socialities sipping on champagne out of coupe glasses. However, the cheongsam is undergoing a renaissance. Before choosing to wear one on your wedding day, take some time to understand the history and symbolism of China’s most iconic dress.
Sometimes referred to as a“qipao” or a “Mandarin gown”, a cheongsam is a classic garment traditionally made from embroidered silk, featuring a high collar and delicate cloth buttons on the front. The cheongsam has experienced many iterations through a long and complex history.
There are a number of different theories about the origin of the cheongsam including that it originated from the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. However, one of the most common theories is that the design was actually influenced by the West following the Revolution of 1911.
At that time, designers in Shanghai and Beijing reformed the outmoded Manchu dress with modern tailoring. The new patterns soon became popular among female students in Shanghai, and before long, the trend attracted more and more women among the upper classes and performers. However, after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1919, women in China were prohibited from wearing cheongsams.
Madame Wellington Koo, a Chinese-Indonesian socialite and First Lady of the Republic of China, is commonly credited with popularising the cheongsam in the early ’20s. In more recent times, cheongsams have been seen on high fashion runways with contemporary interpretations of the cheongsam seen in collections from Anna Sui, Louis Vuitton and Jean Paul Gaultier.
The wedding cheongsam has also adapted and evolved with time. Its elegant and glamorous design is flattering for most body shapes and makes a striking choice for modern brides. However, if you are not Chinese and are considering wearing a wedding cheongsam, be mindful that there can be a fine line between a respectful nod to a foreign cultural reference and cultural appropriation.
We spoke with Novita Sanjaya, the designer at Cinobi, about Chinese wedding traditions, cheongsam dos and don’ts and how best to accessorise a wedding cheongsam.
1. What are your tips for choosing a wedding cheongsam?
The first and most important thing is to know the personal style and preference of the bride to be able to determine the design, details/embellishments and colour that suit personalities and skin tone. The second is the venue and nature of the celebration – will it be indoor or outdoor, is it a big ballroom reception where you can rule out a dress with a long train and dramatic embellishments or small intimate dinner in the garden which needs a simpler silhouette for mingling? The season in which the celebration falls is also an important factor. Whilst most fabrics are suitable for use year-round, some are more appropriate for warm weather.
2. Are there any cultural symbols that brides should be aware of when choosing a wedding cheongsam?
In Chinese culture, there is a strong connection with the symbolism behind certain colours and animals and these aspects show up in Chinese wedding traditions. For example, red is often regarded as a sign of happiness, life and good fortune. Gold symbolises wealth, nobility, luxury and power. Traditional Chinese brides will therefore often wear a red wedding cheongsam with touches of gold.
Many modern brides tend to skip the traditional colour selection and expand their colour palette to lighter colours, like pastels, which suit their personalities or wedding concept. However, to honour tradition and culture, they keep the traditional motif and silhouette. It’s common to see phoenixes, which are a sign of femininity, virtue and grace, embroidered into the wedding cheongsam, along with other decorative auspicious symbols, such as pomegranates (for fertility), peony flowers, lotus flowers, bats, goldfish, butterfly and birds.
3. Are there any dos or don’t that you can share for brides looking to wear a cheongsam?
For very traditional Chinese brides, it is best to avoid mourning colours like white or black for the base. When it comes to motifs, avoid white chrysanthemums which are placed at funerals or ancestral graves and motifs in arrangements of four because the number “four” in Chinese sounds the same as the Chinese word for “death”.
4. What are your go-to accessories for a wedding cheongsam?
- Matching earrings and pretty nail art is a must.
- Modern oriental hairpin or small flowers/hair pieces beautifully complement a wedding cheongsam.
- A very simple bracelet or ring or simple modern Chinese inspired fan can be considered as additional accessories.
See here for tips on how to choose a wedding cheongsam that is right for you.