My little ― and, oh, so tight ― cheongsam

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My little ― and, oh, so tight ― cheongsam

The first time I ever wore a cheongsam, the long Chinese dress that flourished in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, my mother looked startled. “No one told you to wear that,” she said. “It must be in your blood.”
She said she used to wear custom-made cheongsams when she was younger. Then I recalled, when she was in her late 30s, she owned a fabulous cheongsam that fit like a smooth silk jersey. It was a long dress with a mandarin collar and a Pucci-esque white chain pattern against a black background. The slit on the side was high enough to reveal her long shapely legs when she walked.
My mom said that only the most daring, stylish women wore cheongsams because the dresses were cut so close to the body. Many Korean women simply didn’t have the figure for it. To look beautiful in a cheongsam, a woman has to have a small head, a long thin neck, a trim but curvaceous body and nice long legs. In short, only a beauty can wear a cheongsam.
And with that, my secret quest to become a true beauty had begun.
I wore my first cheongsam in 1996. It was an antique beaded dress that I stumbled upon at a second-hand store in Tokyo. Some of the beaded flowers were falling apart because the cotton thread was disintegrating with time. I bought matching beads, fixed the tattered petals and wore the dress to fashion parties in Korea. Friends said my dress was “interesting.”
This was the year when Prada launched a cheongsam series with bamboo patterns on a blue/black or brown/gold silk brocade. The overall impression, at least in my Asian eyes, was that Prada had made a simple, artistic fusion of Chinese and Japanese fashion. No one really wore cheongsams in Korea, but everyone noticed my Prada bamboo dress. People asked, “Where do you get the money to buy that?”
I next bought a Made-in-Hong Kong cheongsam in silver satin. When I tried it on in a Seoul department store, the salesperson commented, “Funny, you don’t look so strange in Chinese clothes.”
I knew exactly what she meant: I didn’t look like I had stepped from a pre-revolution film or was a waitress in fancy Chinese restaurant.
In fact, the dress projected the image of Maggie Cheung in “In the Mood for Love.”
I wore the silver floor-length number to Vogue Korea’s launch party. Perhaps it was the Chinese dress and the hairstyle that I had copied from the Wong Kar Wai movie “Fallen Angel,” but curious Korean reporters kept accosting me in English: “So, are you from Hong Kong Vogue?”
My first personal wave of Orientalism soon died down. I didn’t have reasons to wear a cheongsam, so ― on a lark ― I decided to make my own version, free of trends or national ties.
My creation had all the cheongsam prerequisites ― a mandarin collar, a form-fitting cut and a side slit ― but it was made of buttery soft black lambskin and every closure and slit was detailed with metal zippers. My side slit didn’t stop at the knee or lower thigh; it opened all the way to the waist, if I dared. My Chinese-style super-sex-goddess-loves-bondage creation got a lot of stares from men who couldn’t help smiling ―no questions asked.
A few months ago, when I saw that chinoiserie would soon be returning to the runways, I snatched up a 1950s cheongsam at an auction in Paris. It was one of the most beautiful cheongsams I had ever seen. It has delicate Japanese plum blossoms embroidered against midnight black satin.
Just as Tom Ford, Roberto Cavalli, Ana Molinari and John Galliano were reviving an exhilarating and inspired Asian mode, I was able to slip on my most prized acquisition.
Recently, at the Hongdae salsa club, an inebriated Korean man found my dress equally exciting: “Wow, a Chinese woman! Don’t be shy, let me show you how to dance,” he blurted.
I knew exactly how to turn him off. I said I was American and, sorry, wore the dress for fashion.


by Ines Cho

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