Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a CNN Style series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.
Director Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 movie “In the Mood for Love” is a slow-burning, claustrophobic and visually stunning tale of illicit romance. The film, which premiered at Cannes 20 years ago today, is lauded for its tight plot, pitch-perfect score, lush cinematography and award-winning performances.
But for many, its real stars are the gorgeous cheongsams worn by lead actress Maggie Cheung.
Set in Hong Kong in 1962, “In the Mood for Love” stars Cheung as Su Li-zhen, or Mrs. Chan, a secretary who suspects her husband of cheating. Her neighbor, journalist Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung), has similar doubts about his wife. The pair initially come together to confirm their spouses’ adulterous relationship, but Chow and Chan develop feelings for one another, their relationship blooming under the weight of social mores and their own tarnished marriages.
The cheongsams dazzle as costumes, but they’re also integral to the film’s visual storytelling. Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle use closeups liberally, frequently centering their shots on the cheongsams hugging Cheung’s figure. As the camera’s languid but purposeful gaze follows characters up and down tight stairwells and through dimly-lit corridors or shadowy alleyways, it’s the colors and patterns of Chan’s outfits that pop.
Just as the movie’s central relationship is conducted silently through gestures and expressions, the cheongsams convey shifting moods and themes. Red and green symbolize love and jealousy respectively.
Warm and cold colors alternately suggest rising and cooling emotions, while floral patterns and fabrics like chiffon, lace and silk taffeta allude to Chan’s femininity and softness.
Together with art director and costume designer William Chang, Wong created almost 50 cheongsams for the movie, though fewer than 30 appear in the final cut. The pair looked to designs from the 1960s — when the garment was an everyday item among Hong Kong’s women — for inspiration.
The modern cheongsam, or qipao, is a descendant of the robes worn by women of the Manchu nobility that ruled China during the Qing dynasty (from 1644 to 1912). But it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that the garment evolved into the form most recognized today, with lower hemlines and cuts accentuating the female figure. It is perhaps most commonly associated with 1930s Shanghai, with its celebrated tailors and hedonistic nightlife, where cheongsams were common both in glamorous dance clubs and — in more muted styles and colors — as daily wear.
The Chinese Communist Party’s seizure of power in 1949 marked a downturn in the garment’s fortunes, in mainland China at least. Glamour was replaced with conformity, often in the unflattering form of Mao-style jacket-and-pants for both men and women. Those members of the wealthy classes who were able to leave later resettled in Hong Kong, and many of Shanghai’s top tailors followed suit, allowing the dress to flourish through the 1950s and 1960s in the then-British colony. Just like Mrs. Chan in “In the Mood for Love,” many Hong Kong women of the era wore cheongsams to the office, at home and socially.
The cheongsam fell out of fashion in the early 1970s, replaced by more casual Western-style clothing.
Yet, the romantic, form-fitting garment would continue to serve as inspiration for European luxury brands from Yves Saint Laurent (which in 1977 launched its “Les Chinoises” collection to coincide with its controversial new fragrance, Opium), to Dior (whose designer John Galliano created cheongsam-inspired pieces for his collections in 1993 and again in 1997).
The West’s fascination with the cheongsam — and Chinese clothing more broadly — has a long and somewhat controversial history.
Luxury labels and fast-fashion brands alike have been accused of appropriating and fetishizing Asian culture. The Met Gala’s 2015 “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition, which boasted record audience figures, was criticized by some visitors for failing to address European brands’ appropriation of Chinese garments. Three years later, the cheongsam was at the center of another cultural appropriation debate when an American high-schooler tweeted pictures of herself wearing a red and gold version of the traditional dress to her prom.
But the cheongsam has also enjoyed a renaissance among Chinese communities in recent decades.
In 1997, China’s “Queen of Couture” Guo Pei (who’s perhaps best-known for outfitting Rihanna in a gold gown and trailing cape for the 2015 Met Gala) launched her namesake brand in Beijing. Guo’s appreciation for Chinese craftsmanship and heritage have often seen her pay homage to the cheongsam in stunning ways over the years.
Related video: Inside Chinese master couturier Guo Pei’s studio
A new generation of progressive young Chinese designers is also reclaiming, resurrecting and reworking the garment. Millennial duo Yuner Shao and “Stef” Puzhen Zhou of Refuse Club, for instance, have used the high-necked dress as a template for a houndstooth-print reinterpretation with a drop shoulder, as well as reimagined it with contemporary puffy sleeves.
Whatever the cheongsam’s future holds in fashion, “In the Mood for Love” firmly cemented its place in cinematic history. And the item couldn’t have had a better ambassador than Cheung, the local beauty queen who came to establish herself as one of the outstanding actors of her generation.