How to wear a Cheongsam [Extract from Chapter One: Stilettos – Bound Feet Blues, The Book]

As you may know, I’ve been working on Bound Feet Blues – The Book which brings together the stories behind the story of the show. I have just finished Chapter One: Stilettos, bringing it home at 17,000+ words. The chapter goes behind the scenes of the opening sequence of the theatre performance, which depicts me walking to a ball in stilettos and a red cheongsam, aged 20.

I share stories of my coming of age as a young woman at Oxford, falling in love and discovering the power of my femininity – and how I transformed from a shy, awkward fresher into a woman who can sashay along confidently in a slinky evening gown.

” You must be sleek and slim – and curvaceous, but only in the right places”

Here is an extract, describing what it takes to wear the tight fitting, figure hugging, seductive Chinese traditional dress, while walking in heels…

I like this shade of red. The grey backdrop has given me an idea, what about light grey cheongsams for the bridesmaids? That could look really nice and help the bride stand out more.


“There is something about the severity of the high collar and the unforgiving close fit of the cheongsam  that requires a sternness in your upper body as you wear it. You cannot slack if you are to keep the cloth from creasing over your belly or pulling up over any untoward bumps and crevices. You must be sleek and slim – and curvaceous, but only in the right places, which is why the dress has to be tailor made for exactly your shape and cannot be bought off the peg. When you sit, you must do so elegantly or the harsh Manchu collar will throttle you as the back of the dress pulls downwards. You cannot bend from the waist to pick something up because there is no give in the cloth so you must bend from your knees, legs demurely together, keeping your body straight and proud. You cannot take a wide stance because of the tight fit at your hips and so you remain always a long, flowing, feminine silhouette.

“The aim is to reveal as little as possible despite the openness of the slits – so that in the moment that something is revealed, it is heart-stopping.”

” Then there’s the wantonness of the long evening dress, with its alluring double slits from the floor up to just below the hips, that promises so much more in counterpoint to the strict coldness of the upper half. The slits mean that the dress has two long flaps, front and back, and if you’re not careful in the way you walk, you will look as if you are a warrior in an extended loin cloth, your legs marching either side of those flickering tongues of cloth. You have to walk along an invisible line right in the middle of the dress, planting each foot carefully one in front of the other and in that motion, your hips sway and your bum flexes and the dress hardly seems to move. The aim is to reveal as little as possible despite the openness of the slits – so that in the moment that something is revealed, it is heart-stopping.

 “It took a lot of effort to walk in that dress. And in the stilettos that went with it. Placing each foot where it should go, letting my hips and bum twist with the motion. Trying to float effortlessly through the evening instead of galumphing awkwardly onward. I could feel the uneven pavement threatening every step, the thin soles like cardboard against the hard cement. I clung on to Josh’s arm to steady myself. I felt helpless, like an old woman, or an invalid. I was terrified of misplacing a step, twisting my ankle and sprawling face first onto the ground, my immaculate shape crumpling into flailing humiliation. My back was already beginning to ache with the effort of holding my torso so elegantly and with the strain on my legs from the steep angle of the shoes. Beneath my smiles and laughter and flirtatious manner, I felt tense and anxious and in pain.”


Photo: from Pinterest at The cheongsam depicted in the photo above is unsually three-quarter length and so shorter than the one I wore the night of the ball. But I chose it to illustrate the moment of movement when your legs are revealed and the contrast of that with the demure look of upper body.


About Yang-May Ooi, Writer & Performer – Bound Feet Blues

Yang-May Ooi is an award-winning TEDx speaker, bestselling author and story performer. Her work supports creatives and others to shine, inspire and lead through the power of personal narrative. Bound Feet Blues is her first full length solo story performance.

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