On this wet Sunday afternoon, I am feeling very sorry for myself – laid up with a cold – but I am distracting myself by researching the history of the the cheongsam for Bound Feet Blues, The Book.
What I am learning is that clothing has national and political significance. The cheongsam originated with Manchu rule in China when the Manchurians from the North East overthrew the Ming Dynasty in 1644. They required all men to wear their hair in a plait – known as a queue – and everyone had to wear clothing in the Manchu style: with the high collar and side buttons. Those who defied this requirement could be punished by death. It was a way of dominating the
native Han Chinese people into subservience and imposing the minority Manchu way of life as the dominant culture.
The styling for the Manchurain top was loose and formless originally and it was in the 1920s that the close fitting version that we know today came into being. That sexy, slinky version that we now associate with the cheongsam evolved through popularisation by the lounge diva singers of Shanghai in the 1930s-40s, influenced by the figure hugging, structured fashions from the West – think Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall at their sleekest.
Bound Feet Blues, The Book explores more deeply the themes in the theatre piece. In the first chapter, I look at the significance of clothing for what it means to be a woman. Can wearing different clothes make you a different kind of woman? What did wearing a cheongsam mean to me? How did I come to be the kind of slinky young woman that could carry off such a dress?
So this research will, I hope, give context and texture to these questions.
If you want to find out more about the history of the cheongsam, there is quite a lot of information online, notably: