Across many generations, underlying the cultural significance of Lunar New Year has been the prideful adornment of new, traditional Chinese apparel: the changshan (long jacket or tunic) and the cheongsam or qipao (a form-fitting dress). Unveiling the look was an event in itself.
Since the early 1900s, the cheongsam/qipao has undergone countless evolutions, beginning with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of globalization and feminism when Chinese women began wearing what was originally reserved for Manchu noblemen. Around the same time, Hollywood started rampantly employing yellowface, a racist modification with makeup, accents, and traditional clothes, to portray a person of Asian descent in film and theater. As the biggest perpetrator of whitewashing, the cheongsam/qipao got involuntarily swept under their prejudiced tide, reducing these clothes to become ethnic costumes, a gimmick.
But there's an active desire for change, especially among the fashion industry's young designer set. Ahead, NYLON spoke with eight Asian fashion designers who have all included modern interpretations of Chinese traditional garments in their collections about what these pieces mean to them personally, along with Lunar New Year traditions, paying homage to historical roots through clothes, and why younger generations and the Asian diaspora have included these pieces in their wardrobe. Read on to find out how they're taking back what's theirs.
Danica Zheng of DANZ
On younger generations modernizing traditional Chinese dresses:
"I think cultural identity has been a stronger-than-ever concept for the younger generation. A lot of us grew up within a mix of cultures and sometimes can feel overwhelmed or somewhat lost as to where we belong. So it's important for us to look back to our roots and give an updated interpretation to make it our own."
On designing modern pieces while still paying homage to its historical roots:
"Oftentimes, it's the intention behind the designs that makes a difference. If I am incorporating elements from the traditional outfits, the idea is to appreciate its beauty but never to create a 'better' version of it. One of my favorite styles from the Danz collection is, in fact, a qipao corset where the neck and shoulder parts resemble that of a traditional qipao, yet the construction of the waist area is inspired by the Victorian corset."
Daisy Wang of DAWANG
On making sure cheongsam designs aren't a gimmick:
"This is a legitimate concern. I recently received feedback from a customer who had one of our dresses on. She was worried people would judge her outfit as a gimmick or costume. There are more and more appearances of cheongsam in western pop culture, from music videos to personal styling, and some are even too extravagant. I would say these appropriations definitely attracted more people's attention towards cheongsam and modern chinoiserie. But, at the same time, it also gave the non-Asian community the impression that these clothes are similar to a 'gimmick' or 'costume.' I think it's less about the design itself but more about understanding the cultural and historical significance of traditional Chinese apparel."
On her inspirations and hope for the future:
"I was lucky enough to go to school and lived in a city full of young talented inspiring artists like Ada Chen, Juno Shen, Eda Yu, who come from all different backgrounds and platforms, like Chop Suey Club, who supports and celebrates Asian designers. And one of the quotes from the founder of Uniqlo, Tadashi Yanai, really inspired me, as well: 'It is clothes. It is parts. Therefore, you combine the parts differently to create your own unique expression.' I’m trying to achieve this by reintroducing the traditional as single parts/elements and offer our consumers the chance to combine and style to their own aesthetics and taste. As someone who grew up in China, I hope to find my own way to interpret different pieces of its rich culture, as a way to educate our ever modernizing and globalizing society."
Samuel Gui Yang of SAMUEL GUÌ YANG
On including changshan tunics, which are traditionally worn by men, in his womenswear collection:
"If you approach and embrace masculinity and femininity as different moods or aesthetics rather than codes to define gender, you will realize they blend and mix in a seamless way. We all carry both masculine and feminine traits and it is important that your wardrobe allows you to express both, regardless of your gender."
On reintroducing traditional outfits to the mainstream:
"We believe we are in an exciting time where we can start to enjoy the beautiful richness and plurality that makes up human culture. But for that to happen, all creators should take it on them to present their own unique point of view and try to shine a light on the parts that are missing to create more diversity. One beautiful effect from looking into 'traditional' outfits is that they also come packed with local and old (sometimes ancient) knowledge. It can be knowledge about pattern cutting, fabric weaving, embroidery. or printing, and these are important to consider when we challenge the technology of the moment to create for the future."
Suzzie Chung & Phyllis Chan of YanYan
On incorporating Chinese design elements within knitwear:
"Cheongsam is probably the most well-known and iconic representation of traditional Chinese clothing, but we feature a lot of different elements from our culture, such as the pineapple knot closures and motifs, like clouds and children, to be part of our designs. In a way, we wanted to show that Chinese clothing goes beyond cheongsam, and there are many parts of our culture and Hong Kong heritage that are interesting and fun to explore and share." — Suzzie
On balancing designing pieces that still pay homage to its historical roots:
"There is a lot of unpack here, and obviously there is the whole sexualized/fetishized thing going on with the cheongsam and the 'chopsticks in hair,' etc. But there is also a long history of 'orientalism' and 'chinoiserie' that produced a lot of interesting work, in which 'oriental' product was designed by or for the west, that was really not used by locals. And there are elements of cultural appreciation, in its own way. Hong Kong was just a small fishing port that built much of its business from tourism and marketing Chinese culture out, through 'silk pajamas' or ceramics, or prints, and all of this is part of our rich history here, too.
"Suffice to say we are pretty aware of exotic gaze, and are very interested in what foreigners think is 'cute' or 'interesting' about our culture, versus how we perceive our own. Personally, I want to celebrate different parts of our culture, especially those that are unfamiliar to the west, but we are by no means making traditional clothing. I think our approach is more like if Fair Isle pullovers and blazers and peasant tops can be so easily accepted and integrated into everyday clothing, why can't saamfu (traditional matching top and pant sets) and lucky knots and Chinese illustrations of clouds and children — without it being 'cheesy' or 'ethnic'?" — Phyllis
Snow Xue Gao of SNOW XUE GAO
On celebrating Lunar New Year:
"I usually celebrated with my family in China when I was a child, but now that Lunar New Year usually is right before New York Fashion Week, I can't go back and celebrate with my family in person, especially this year with Covid. Instead, I celebrated with my friends with a Chinese hot pot and watched the Spring Festival Gala live together. The Spring Festival Gala is a big thing for the Lunar New Year. It's tradition to watch it with your family the night before New Year. I also FaceTimed with my family in China, which usually takes hours. I need to talk with all four generations in the family: my grandmother, my uncles, my cousin, and my nephew. People are passing the phone one by one."
On what the cheongsam means to her:
"Cheongsam, for me, is a signature dress from Chinese culture. My grandmother always wears a new cheongsam on the Lunar New Year, and it has been tradition to guess what color of cheongsam she will wear."
Siying Qu & Haoran Li of Private Policy
On why their Fall 2021 collection might resonate with the younger generation of Asian Americans:
"The phenomenon of the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers is still very hidden in textbooks after more than a century, as is the xenophobia against Asians at that time and the ongoing anti-Asian hatred. We hope to bring awareness to this lesser-known historical event and the actual human stories of these railroad workers. Thus, encouraging Asian-American youth to be proud of their heritage; invite them to learn more about their culture; start conversations on solving the xenophobia issues; and, create respect among communities today." — Siying and Haoran
On turning to Chinese culture for design inspiration:
"We are very conscious of this balance on drawing inspiration from Chinese traditional clothing and breaking stereotypes. This requires a tremendous amount of research and deep consideration. The key is to truly understand each garment’s details and its historical and cultural origin. Then, we interpret and present the elements with respect and innovation.
"For example, part of the Fall 2021 collection is the braided bamboo hats. We put a lot of thought into the hat design because of the historical bias that the hats have always connoted with a lower class, due to xenophobia and prejudice against Asian laborers in the 19th century. Today, we don't see a lessened group of people when we see the workers in their hats. Instead, we feel proud and inspired by their epic journey of building a railroad, through painstakingly hard and dangerous work. These bamboo hats should represent a deeper symbol of their achievements and something we proudly present.
"Our reinterpretation in a modern aesthetic includes colors of pink, mint, and black, and incorporates the Private Policy chunky chain detail, to further declare this moment of changing perceptions of Asian immigrants. Akin to how people feel inspired and empowered to wear a cowboy hat, because of glorified western culture, why can’t the Chinese workers' bamboo hats represent their bravery and perseverance? Our hope is that Chinese clothing is no longer seen as an exotic costume, but instead is seen and respected for what it truly is, similarly to how American denim workwear or British suiting is widely celebrated internationally." — Siying and Haoran