The image of a typical Shanghai woman is usually a gentle lady wearing cheongsam, carrying a sandalwood fan, with a handkerchief made tucked inside the slanted rim of her dress. Over the past century, whether during the war or in troubled times or in a thriving age like today, Shanghai women have always been able to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, and between norms and outlandish creations. Their graceful cheongsam, with a salient flavor of old Shanghai, has become a sensational epitome of Eastern culture mixed with Western ingredients.
The modern cheongsam originates in Shanghai. In 2007, the “Tailoring Techniques for Shanghai-Style Cheongsam” was included in the first batch of Intangible Cultural Heritage List in Shanghai.
A Shanghai-style cheongsam, with its techniques and workmanship invented and modified in the city, must be tailor-made by hand. From top to bottom, 36 parts of the body must be carefully measured. The common tailoring techniques include inlaying, binding, inserting, collaring, coiling, embroidering and attaching. There are also several hundred kinds of buttons. The whole sewing work calls for a skilled tailor to apply all techniques so as to ensure the harmony of design and style of a cheongsam. Such fine workmanship by hand, however, is time-consuming because an ordinary cheongsam requires 3,000 to 5,000 stitches and a complicated one calls for 8,000 to 9,000 stitches. Nevertheless, it is because of such fine techniques and flawless sewing work that a cheongsam can smartly bring out the beautiful contour of a gentle lady.
Excellent Hongbang Tailors
Hongbang tailors were the most popular in Shanghai in the old times. Hongbang or Fengbang in Ningbo dialect, a port city in neighboring Zhejiang Province, originally referred to a particular group of tailors who came from Fenghua, an area in Ningbo. Later on, the term was used to describe all tailors from Ningbo. Hongbang tailors once set the style of Chinese-style suits, Shanghai-style suits and modified cheongsam. After 1949, some Hongbang tailors joined Shanghai Guild for Western-Style Suits Tailoring, which accounted for more than 80% of the Western suit market shares in Shanghai. Since then, fewer tailors have continued to make cheongsam by hand. Hongbang tailors have adhered to the principle of the master-apprentice instruction. As a result, there are now fewer than 100 Hongbang tailors left in the city and most of them are advanced in age and physically weak. A Hongbang tailor today can be seen a living advertisement for any quality cheongsam shop in Shanghai. As a matter of fact, even veteran tailors from other neighboring places of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are rare in Shanghai today.
A Hongbang tailor, now working as an advisor in a cheongsam shop, still remembers how as an apprentice, he spent three hours braiding a single Chinese frog, a knotted button, and sewing up the slit slant front of a dress. “When we were apprentices, 40 to 50 of us practiced together all kinds of skills, such as sewing, embroidering, making Chinese frogs and measuring. It took us six full years to finish our apprenticeship.” The Chinese frog buttons attached to the cheongsam varied with the season and customers’ age. For instance, the good-luck frogs and phoenix-tail frogs were designed for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), longevity frogs for old ladies’ birthday, exquisite orchid frogs and coiled-incense-shaped frogs for young ladies. Owing to the cut-throat competition in the city’s cheongsam market, all shops attached great importance to the meticulous details of their products. For example, a common straight stitch had to be hand-made with three specific techniques and a bottom rim binding had to achieve the same look on inside and out. Also, each stitch length was fixed and all stitches had to be absolutely even. It was not unusual that it took a skilled tailor a whole day to finish just a single task.
Many women, in fact, are emotionally attached to their cheongsam. When they were in the prime of youth, a cheongsam perfectly fit the contours. As they aged, the cheongsam was put aside as a memorabilia of their youth; and they would also tell their daughters and granddaughters the stories about the cheongsam.
The true beauty of cheongsam is best brought out by a nice figure. As modern slimming methods were not introduced at that time, many women, who did not have a perfect figure like stars, used steel-wire straps to constrain their waists in imitation of the methods adopted by fair ladies in the United Kingdom in the 17th century. Cruel as it was, the straps did make their waists look slimmer. Why women were willing to purse cheongsam at any cost? The cheongsam itself is beautiful. Say you are walking, your gait will certainly be different if you are clad in cheongsam. When wearing pants or skirts, you tend to walk ad libitum. But you get to walk with a style when wearing cheongsam. You never make big strides in cheongsam. It’s all about elegance and grace.