In 2018, then 18-year-old Utah native Keziah Daum, who has no Asian heritage, tweeted prom pictures where she was wearing a red qipao, also known as a cheongsam, that she had purchased from a local thrift store.[1] The Twitter community erupted into a fervor over whether her donning the form-fitting dress, which has come to be synonymous with Chinese culture, was cultural appropriation or appreciation. Daum had failed to acknowledge the cheongsam’s history, which is steeped in early Chinese feminism and botched Westernization.[2]
Although there are three main theories about the cheongsam’s origin, the most popular originates from the Qing Dynasty, which started in 1644 and lasted until 1912. The Manchus, a nomadic group that lived north of China, began ruling the majority Han-Chinese population in 1644. Under the Eight Banner system, which was a tiered system of officials and armies, Han males were mandated to wear Manchu styles—especially if they held positions of authority. The early Manchu cheongsam became associated with education, status, and power. One could also distinguish another’s station in life according to their dress. The Manchu dress was a one-piece robe with narrow sleeves, a small round collar, and most importantly, side slits that allowed for easy movement (the Manchus relied heavily on riding horseback). During its integration into Chinese society, the Manchu cheongsam adopted parts of Chinese fashion, including auspicious colors such as red or gold and symbols such as the dragon.[3] 
3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs
H.E. Chao Ersun, Manchuria, ca. 1882-ca. 1936, 1882/1936, one lantern slide, 8 x 8 cm, Wikimedia Commons.
3 showgirls with large feather headdresses on stairs
Photograph of Han Chinese women wearing traditional clothing with Manchu influences, 19th century, Wikimedia Commons.
After the XinHai Revolution of 1911, the Republic of China was established and Chinese women’s fashion began reflecting the ideals of feminism. As women began assuming positions of power, they either adopted trousers or the cheongsam, which was established as the outfit of educated individuals through the Manchu Eight Banner system. Women who donned the cheongsam heralded the feminist ideals of equality and represented a world where women could perform the same jobs and assume the same societal roles that men had. The cheongsam’s evolution from the baggier Manchu dress to the current form-fitting style can be attributed to the 1920s “natural curves” movement, where feminists advocated for celebrating women’s natural bodies. In 1929, in an effort to reclaim the cheongsam as “new culture attire,” the Republic of China designated an ankle-length cheongsam as the national dress, thus increasing its popularity as a Chinese garment. Figures such as Soon Ching-ling, who was President Sun Yat-Sen’s wife, publicly wore the cheongsam and advocated for the use of Chinese silk when creating the dress, thus solidifying the political nature of the dress as a nationalist icon.
Black and white portrait of showgirl in small feather headdress
Photograph of Soong Ching-ling wearing a cheongsam, 1930s, Wikimedia Commons.
The introduction of the cheongsam to the West occurred through trading ports like Shanghai and was popularized in movies and advertisements. The effects of the hybridization of Western and Chinese cultures that occurred during this time include cheongsams being paired with Western-style jewelry and shoes, which were often worn in Shanghai and portrayed in Western films. While certain characteristics of the cheongsam such as auspicious colors and symbols were retained, hemlines and sleeves were shortened and the silhouette slimmed down. Calendar advertisements, which were an accurate reflection of the popular styles of the era, showcased Chinese models sporting cheongsams with these modernizations. For example, calendars often featured Chinese girls wearing elegant cheongsams while smoking cigarettes or holding bottles of Coca-Cola.
Black and white photo of 11 showgirls on stage
Two women wear Shanghai-styled qipaos while playing golf, 1930s, Wikimedia Commons.
The sexualization of the cheongsam in the West started in the movie industry when actresses such as Anna May Wong and Nancy Kwan starred in movies that catered to American audiences. For example, after starring in the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, Kwan graced the October cover of Life Magazine.[4] In a 1962 interview with Pete Martin from The Saturday Evening Post, Kwan called the cheongsam “a national costume” and said that it “has slits because Chinese girls have pretty legs.”[5] As one of the few Asian women popular in Hollywood at the time, Kwan’s statements cemented its new sexualized identity in Western media and laid the foundation for the “Chinese Bombshell” stereotype. Popular movies of this era that represent the West’s view of Chinese culture include Limehouse Blues (1934) and Shanghai Express (1932).
Black and white photo of 11 showgirls on stage
A temporary exhibition of female performers’ dresses in Suzhou Pingtan Museum, 2017, Wikimedia Commons
In popular culture, the video game Street Fighter features a character named Chun-Li, who wears a hyper-sexualized version of the cheongsam.[6] Instead of the cut being a high slit, the outfit is bastardized into two loosely connected pieces of cloth that expose both of her legs up to the hip. As the first playable female character in the fighting game, Chun-Li’s debut was complicated. Her sexualization begs the question of whether Chun-Li is similar to early Chinese feminists who donned the cheongsam as a way to own their femininity while simultaneously claiming power. Chun-Li, who debuted in 1999 and was referenced by Complex magazine as “arguably the most popular female video character ever created,”[7] has seen multiple renditions in present-day media.

In 2018, the rapper Nicki Minaj released a song called “Chun-Li,” which she performed on Saturday Night Live while wearing a cheongsam-inspired outfit and chopsticks in her hair.[8] Her cheongsam, which was black and gold and featured a dragon snaking down her crotch, followed the modern form-fitting design. Like Minaj’s song’s namesake, instead of her cheongsam being one piece of cloth, it was short with a rectangular covering that was further sexualized through the use of latex rather than traditional silk.

In 2019, the British girl group Little Mix modeled a collection for PrettyLittleThing that was marketed as “oriental,” and included revealing tops, skirts, and dresses that resembled the cheongsam. None of the models were of Asian descent, yet the association of Asia with  appropriations of the cheongsam forwarded the stereotype of sexualized Asian women. Further, fast fashion companies such as SHEIN and Fashion Nova have modified the cheongsam into items such as the “Mandarin Collar Crop Top” and the “Midnight Chinatown Satin Skirt,” reverting to simplifying an entire culture into a stereotype. Therefore, the problematic aspects of the West’s appropriation of the cheongsam include the hyper-sexualization of the cheongsam, the insufficient acknowledgment of its historical significance, and the lack of models of Asian descent. 

In 2015, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibited, China: Through the Looking Glass, which displayed fashion pieces from several Chinese dynasties on the same level as outfits produced by Western designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, both who had previously produced collections with Asian inspirations. Even though the exhibit was curated for a Western audience, the mystification of China through a Western lens fails to recognize that Chinese culture exists outside of a eurocentric perspective.

Further back in history, in a 1978 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Yves Saint-Laurent, who admittedly visited China after designing a collection that was inspired by it, said that keeping a distance from China allowed him to roam free in his imagination and recreate the image of the country through his fashion.[9] YSL’s Fall 1977 collection, Les Chinoises, includes several pieces that were featured in the 2017 Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient exhibit at Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris and contains robes similar to the cheongsam. This YSL collection represents an exotic understanding of Chinese culture that pulls from its most distilled parts such as auspicious colors, icons, and fabrics and reimagines them for a Western audience. Additionally, in Tom Ford’s final collection for Yves Saint Laurent in Fall 2004, he presented ornate versions of the cheongsam—using silks that had high slits and vibrant colors—that were modeled by all white models. 

Although the cheongsam has been embraced by iconic women such as Grace Kelly and Kate Moss, the lack of Asian models profiting from Asian-inspired outfits contributes to America’s history of exploiting minority cultures. Concern over this appropriation is expressed in Jenny Zhang’s 2016 article for Racked, entitled “Blonde Girls in Cheongsams.” In this article, Zhang details the fascination she had growing up in America and watching white models wear her culture’s clothing.[10]

Currently, the cheongsam is being reclaimed by TikTok creators participating in a trend called “What Asian Are You?”[11] Using an audio loop created by “Yoleendadong,” users with Chinese heritage have started to reeducate others by dressing in cheongsams and filming videos where they explain its cultural significance. Although this doesn’t erase its distortion through westernization, it is a step against the sexualization of the cheongsam.

References
[1] Louise Moon, “Chinese Dress at US Prom Wins Support in China after Backlash,” South China Morning Post, May 1, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2144207/qipao-us-prom-wins-support-china-after-internet-backlash.

[2] Samantha Schmidt, “’It’s Just a Dress’: Teen’s Chinese Prom Attire Stirs Cultural Appropriation Debate,” The Washington Post (WP Company), April 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/05/01/its-just-a-dress-teens-chinese-prom-attire-stirs-cultural-appropriation-debate/.

[3] Adrienne Cox, “The QiPao: Defining Modern Women in the first Half of the 20th Century,” (Undergraduate honors thesis, Kansas University, 2019).

[4] “Chinese American Heroine: Nancy Kwan,” AsianWeek (San Francisco) May 4, 2009, archived from the original on June 29, 2011.

[5] Pete Martin, “Backstage with Nancy Kwan,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 10, 1962.

[6] Christobel Hastings, “The Kickass Legacy of Chun-Li, the First Playable Woman in ‘Street Fighter,” Vice Media, May 29, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/435aew/chun-li-street-fighter-history-video-games.

[7] Obi Anyanwu, “25 Video Game Characters That Deserve a Spinoff,” Complex, January 02, 2013, https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/01/25-video-game-characters-that-deserve-a-spinoff/chun-li.

[8] Nicki Minaj, “Nicki Minaj – Chun-Li (Live on SNL / 2018),” Youtube, May 20, 2018,video, 3:28, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2in8XqiElwc.

[9] Vivienne Chow, “Yves Saint Laurent’s China Fantasies Gave the Fashion World Its Most Daring Designs,” Quartz, December 12, 2018, https://qz.com/quartzy/1403323/yves-saint-laurents-china-fantasies-gave-the-fashion-world-its-most-daring-designs/

[10] Jenny Zhang, “Blonde Girls in Cheongsams,” Racked, March 17, 2016, https://www.racked.com/2016/3/17/11246698/shoplifting-malls-nineties-cultural-appropriation.

[11] Nanababbbyyy, “Untitled,” TikTok, 0:20. April 19, 2020. https://www.tiktok.com/@nanababbbyyy/video/6817555814669110533?lang=en