The name “cheongsam,” meaning simply “long dress,” entered the English vocabulary from the dialect of China’s Guangdong Province (Cantonese). In other parts of the country including Beijing, however, it is known as “qipao”, which has a history behind it.
When the early Manchu rulers came to China proper, they organized certain people, mainly Manchus, into “banners” (qi) and called them “banner people” (qiren), which then became loosely the name of all Manchus. The Manchu women wore normally a one-piece dress, which, likewise, came to be called “qipao” or “banner dress.” Although the 1911 Revolution toppled the rule of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, the female dress survived the political change and, with later improvements, has become the traditional dress for Chinese women.
Easy to slip on and comfortable to wear, the cheongsam fits well the female Chinese figure. Its neck is high, collar closed, and its sleeves may be either short, medium or full length, depending on season and taste. The dress is buttoned on the right side, with a loose chest, a fitting waist, and slits up from the sides, all of which combine to set off the beauty of the female shape. This fitted dress is often made up in shimmering silk, embroidered satin or other sensual fabrics. Best on athletic or slim figures, the cheongsam is an acceptable alternative to the little black dress for special occasions.