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The Vicissitudes of Shanghai Style Costume

Published: 29 Dec 2008 01:49:59 PST

Costumes are an important symbol of social civilization. Besides satisfying the living needs of people, costumes also represent the culture of particular periods and areas. In the modern times, due to various factors, the Shanghai fashion has formed its own unique style, occupying an important position in the development history of Chinese costumes.

 Shanghai style: East meets West

In a mere one hundred years, starting from the opening of its port, Shanghai developed from a little coastal town into a prosperous and open international metropolis by absorbing both Eastern and Western cultures, which later shaped the unique Shanghai style culture with the city's costumes as one of its main colorful features.

The Shanghai-style costume culture began to take shape in the mid 19the century, when Shanghai opened its port to the world. Shanghai soon overtook Guangzhou of South China's Guangdong Province to become the biggest foreign commercial center in China in 1860, which resulted in the swarming-in of not only foreign capital but also western cultures and fashion.

The stylishness of costumes became the essence of Shanghai fashion, and as Shanghai turned into a place where the East met the West, so did its fashion. The merchants, students, and compradors (Chinese business agents of foreign companies), the first group to be influenced by Western cultures, were the pioneers and promoters of Shanghai's new fashions.


"Everyone imitates the Shanghainese, but never successfully; once they successfully imitates one style, Shanghai fashion has already progressed to another level." This idiom prevailed in the 1930's and 1940's, highlighting Shanghai's significant position in the fashion world.

 Paris of the East

When a costume culture enters in an unprecedented booming and active era, one of the most noticeable symbols is the appearance of fashionable dresses. Besides being influenced by economic and political factors, Shanghai style costume also has an intimate relation with the prevailing custom, habit, and cultural life of modern Shanghai. Enjoying the reputation of "Paris of the East," Shanghai became, and still is, the popular and propagating center of fashions.

The following four factors promoted Shanghai's fashion's generation and popularity long ago: First, at that time, foreign trade was so prosperous that Occidental textiles, such as camlet, woolen cloth, and lace, entered the Chinese market continuously, updating and broadening people's selection and concept of costume; second, there were various fashion columns in all big newspapers and magazines, popularizing the latest fashion information from the West; third, some department stores held many fashion shows regularly; and fourth, fashionably dressed movie actors and actresses became the models of many people.

In Shanghai, the fashion center of China, all the latest styles popular in the Occident was blown (or brought) here in only three or four months. And other areas in China all imitated the Shanghai style.

At the beginning of the Republic of China(1911-1949), the men fashion mainly adopted the Ma Gua (mandarin jacket worn over a gown) and the Chang Pao (long gown); both costumes, when worn as formal attire, had a certain form in style, material, color, and size. During the beginning of spring or late autumn, men usually wore a sleeveless waistcoat, instead of the Ma Gua, outside the Chang Pao.

Following the western trend, the men in Shanghai, especially the staffs of many foreign companies, were among the first group to wear the western business suits. But the traditional costumes like the Ma Gua and Chang Pao costumes were still in use.

At the same time, the intellectuals and young students favored the "students' costume," which Dr. Sun Yat Sen (Sun Zhongshan) was very fond of. Dr. Sun made some changes to the costume, which was later named "Zhongshan Costume" after him.

In the 1920s, Shanghai's women fashion gradually adopted a gorgeous style, mainly featuring the Qi Pao (cheongsam, a close-fitting woman's gown with a high neck and slit skirt), which can easily display a woman's figure. The cheongsam is fit for Chinese women with a slim figure; as Shanghai women are especially slim, the Shanghai-style cheongsam became the leading feature of Shanghai's fashion culture in the 1930s.

Cheongsam: Classical Shanghai Style

Originally the cheongsam was a kind of broad-sleeved and baggy robe worn by Manchurian women. This style went on for about 300 years without any change. But it wasn't until the 1920s that the cheongsam began to be popular among people all over the country, due to the influence of Occidental fashion, which changed the cheongsam's style in ways such as reducing the length and tightening the waistline.

The style of the cheongsam in the 1930s, absorbing the peculiarity of western dress into the traditional Chinese dress, became a combination of Chinese and Western dresses, which brought forth new ideas and changed continuously, led by Shanghai.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese modern couture (fashion) reached its peak, with the 1930s in particular being the gorgeous pinnacle. At that time, the cheongsam became the representative and typical attire. Overnight, the cheongsam, formed in the Shanghai style that is modern in touch and Chinese in feel, came into fashion all over the country and even the world.

The lifestyle of Shanghai's swelldom (people of rank and fashion) and gentlefolk (prominent families) followed the fashion and enjoyed luxury, enjoying Western leisures such as swimming, promenades, dance and golf. Influenced by the Occidental fashion, the cheongsam became more slender, slinky, and skintight with a high kick pleat (allowing the wearer to walk easily) so as to match the delicate and lively figure of the Shanghai women in the 1930s.

The cheongsam of that time had two traits: combining Chinese with Western style and varying a lot.

Elegant ladies, including movie starts and noblewomen, had many different ways to wear the cheongsam: a partial Western style with a matching surcoat (an outside coat of rich material). Partial western style meant that the collar and sleeves were tailored according to the western-style fashion's craft such as the lapel, lotus-leaf-like sleeves, flouncing lap and so on.

However, the majority of women preferred to wear the cheongsam with a western-style costume, such as, for example, wearing a cheongsam with a western-style coat, fur coat, or woolen coat and vest outside. Or the women would tie a scarf around the cheongsam or attach fancy decorations to the dress. All of these styles could show the women's brilliant and charming figure.

Neatness was a new trend of the cheongsam in the 1940s, reflected most progressively in summer, when the cheongsam generally was sleeveless, shorter in both length and collar height, and not over-laden with decorations, which made it lighter and more suitable for the body.

At the same time, the slender cheongsam, with a woman's marcel (deep wavy hair), silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, necklaces, earbobs (earrings) and handbags, was the most fashionable attire for women. Later, a kind of improved cheongsam with western tailoring craft developed, which made the cheongsam more fitted and applicable. The cheongsam, then, turned into a Chinese national dress with a unique style.

It can be said that without modern Shanghai's opening to the world or the combination of the Chinese and Occidental cultures, there would be neither the Western-style cheongsam nor the Shanghai-style cheongsam.

 An International Fashion Center in Modern Times

In the 1950s and early 1960s, people wore simple dresses, usually blue ot gray, and no make-up. Men wore Zhongshan, Lenin, and student dresses as the main attire, while women mostly wore short Chinese-style coats and skirts with the buttons down the front and narrow sleeves.

In the mid 1960s, the grass-green-color military uniform was very popular among the people, no matter male or female.

Since the reform and opening-up in the 1980s, the national economy has been developing rapidly, enabling people to pay increasingly more attention to their attire and make-up, according to the trend of individualism and fashionableness. Accordingly, Shanghai has again gradually become one of the international fashion centers just like Paris in France and Milan in Italy.

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