Great leap backwards: The look of pre-war China, conjured up by the skin-tight cheung sam, is finding favour now with young Westerners, as Tamsin Blanchard reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
With the recent spate of films inspired by the Far East, such as The Joy Luck Club, Farewell My Concubine, and The Scent of Green Papaya, it is not surprising that the 'cheung sam', the traditional Chinese dress, should become part of this summer's wardrobe. The dress is a perfect bridge between Bohemian elegance and glamour.

Most of the cheung sams made in China today are for export, to be sold in Chinatowns around the world, usually to non-Chinese. At Ying Hwa, a craft shop in London's Chinatown, 80 per cent of the dresses are sold to European women. Jeff Tang, the shop's manager, says: 'It has to be a pretty special occasion for a Chinese lady to wear a cheung sam - a birthday party or a wedding - whereas a European lady would wear it just to go to a discotheque.'

Usually Chinese women will have theirs tailor-made. It is important that the dress fits like a second skin. 'When slit to the thigh and worn by the right lady,' Mr Tang observes, a cheung sam 'can make men's eyes pop out.'

Jessica Stein, 24, bought her bright red cheung sam from Chinatown during Chinese New Year. The red is for good luck. 'I had always wanted one. Not many people have them but I like the way they look kind of tarty but understated at the same time,' she says.

The original cheung sam (the name means 'long dress') was worn by men. It was gradually adapted for women, and by 1920 had become a tight-fitting dress.

In the Thirties, thigh-high slits and high heels were added, but since then, the design has changed little. The cheung sam disappeared in mainland China after the 1949 revolution, but it continued to be worn in Hong Kong and the West.

Now, the cheung sam can be worn long or short: Ying Hwa stocks two lengths, priced from pounds 39.50, and a cheung sam top worn with black satin trousers. But the look still carries with it the nostalgic look of pre-war Shanghai.

Old Chinese dresses are easy to find in charity shops and second-hand clothing specialists. The Glorious Clothing Company in Islington, north London, usually has a cheung sam in stock - although it will often be in a tiny size. Prices range from pounds 28 for a second-hand modern dress to pounds 540 for an exquisite Twenties gold-beaded and sequinned jacket. 'The Chinese look is going to be very popular,' believes Jane Dodd, the shop's co-owner.

The dress in our picture, from the Glorious Clothing Company, is a Sixties version in a Chinese style, made out of Chinese brocade. Instead of the usual shoulder fastening, it has a zip down the back. The shop also has some older jackets and dresses from the Twenties and Thirties, the last time chinoiserie was all the rage.

Glorious Clothing Company, 60 Upper Street, London N1 (071-704 6312); Ying Hwa, 24 Rupert Street, London W1(071-434 2601).

(Photograph omitted)

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