Who can forget the gorgeous cheongsam-clad Maggie Cheung, silently yearning for her neighbor in Wong Kar-wai’s classic Hong Kong film In the Mood for Love?

The movie set off a temporary craze for a garment that had long been out of favor with Chinese sophisticates.

The Chinese woman’s indifference to an item so closely identified with her in the global imagination is less perplexing if you consider that men, rather than the women themselves, have always decided what women in China should wear.

In Changing Clothes in China, the scholar Antonia Finnane writes that after Western powers forced open Imperial China in the nineteenth century, they made a point of emphasizing the country’s supposed backwardness. Chinese women, with their bound feet, were an especially visible symbol of China’s unworthiness. Humiliated, China’s male elite focused on the emancipation of women in their quest to catch up to the West. Women’s dress provided an easy target—and styles were dictated according to the prevailing ideology of the political leadership.

The earliest incarnation of the cheongsam represented the newfound seriousness of the Chinese woman, a rupture with the traditional ethos of “a woman with no talents is a good woman” (for noblewomen at least).1 As women went to school for the first time, they donned this drab and sexless garment, designed to resemble the somber changpao of male scholars.

In the Twenties and Thirties, as the Nazi German aesthetic found favor among East Asian elites, the ideal woman was now athletic and broad shouldered. There was a new emphasis on the formerly obscured breast, resulting from the anti-breast binding movement and the subsequent introduction of the brassiere (swapping old bonds for new ones). As Chinese society became more militarized, the earlier androgyny gave way to a more pronounced femininity, contrasting with a more pronounced Chinese masculinity.

The later incarnation of the cheongsam was perfectly suited to showcase the feminine ideal of the Thirties. Its shorter length revealed unbound or natural feet that were shod in smart high heels. Cut close to the shoulders and breast, it highlighted the figure.

 

Yet, there was something quite un-modern about the “modern” cheongsam.

 

Women, who had long woven their own textiles, now purchased them off the shelf at Shanghai’s department stores. The industrialization of fashion deprived these women not only of a source of income but also of what was once the sole outlet for their artistic expression. Moreover, women still had limited agency in what they wore. The same patriarchy that once told Chinese women that they had to cover up to avoid tempting their men now told them that they had to discard all those layers to show the world how enlightened their men were.

I suspect Wong Kar-wai understood this. As the camera films Maggie Cheung gently swaying up the stairs, her cheongsam constrains her sinuous curves and its mandarin collar corrals her swan-like neck; the garment thus becomes a perfect allegory for the quivering impotence of the character herself.