Ageless beauty of Chinese attire

Peggy [Right] with sisters, Ruby [Left] and Pearly
[Centre] with brother Kenneth in between

MY first impression of the Chinese costume must have been from my mum and grandma who preferred to wear the sam foo and cheong sam and were wearing them well into the 1960s. 

While mum had a wardrobe of dresses, grandma would wear sam foo daily and the cheong sam for formal occasions. From the old photographs, I saw grandma also wore the comfortable sam foo to play badminton when she went on to become the champion.

My mah jie or amah from the sisterhood of Chinese domestic help, who wore a sam foo uniform of a loose white cotton blouse with a pair of black pantaloons, was another influence that started my fondness for Chinese inspired clothes.

So what's the difference between cheong sam and sam foo? These are Cantonese terms that literally describe the Chinese ladies' costumes. Cheong sam is a long dress while sam foo is a two-piece set of blouse (sam) and trousers (foo).

Peggy [Right] and cousin Shirley [Left]
wearing grandma's clothes!
In the late 1960s grandma started to tailor sam foo blouses that had shirt-style collars and front openings with buttons instead of side openings with "frog fastenings" and she also bought ready-made blouses and trousers. The basic features of the cheong sam and sam foo blouse evolved and were adapted into various ethnic and modern styles.

Local designers created the ultimate Malaysian costume when they incorporated the Mandarin collar and side slits in baju kurung designs, while beautiful blouses and cheong sam were made with printed and hand-painted batik. Today elegant and figure-flattering Chinese attire is available in a range of designs in brocade, silk or cotton, and are often embroidered.

Chinese clothing plays an important role in the community's identity, and every Chinese New Year, I'm impressed to see the beauty of these costumes re-created in ingenious designs and fabrics. While the original way of wearing sam foo is in a matching set of blouse and trousers, ladies today choose to wear the sam or blouse with a pair of jeans or trousers. 

That's why the sight of ladies and children dressed in the sam foo set, with wooden clogs, for the official opening of the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum in October 2009 was such a treat!

Ladies and children wearing traditional sam foo
I think Chinese costumes, especially the cheong sam, is the most gorgeous garment for ladies. The modern cheong sam was developed in Shanghai in the 1920s as a loose-fitting calf-length gown, worn by high-class courtesans and celebrities.

Over time, the cheong sam evolved to be form-fitting, with shorter sleeves or no sleeves and more revealing with side slits.

The cheong sam gained worldwide approval when Hollywood put a novel set in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong, on the silver screen.  The classic costume worn by Nancy Kwan in the role of Suzie Wong, "the hooker with a heart of gold," became an instant hit. 

Clothes for women accentuate the body's natural curves and this version of cheong sam certainly did. The popularity of this movie had an impact on tailors in Hong Kong, who experienced a boom in business when women wanted to look like Suzie Wong in a body-hugging cheong sam!

Grandma [Seated], mum [Standing Centre]
and Aunty Lily [2nd from Left] wearing
cheong sam
The basic cheong sam suddenly became fashionable among socialites and women in the upper-class. The key to the cheong sam's appeal is in its cut, so every cheong sam should be tailored to an individual's figure.

Those days, the prestigious Hong Kong cut was only available from a Hong Kong tailor in Singapore's Serangoon Road and ladies in Johor Baru wasted no effort in visiting his shop. This graceful gown, usually worn modestly at ankle or calf-length, was often modified with a knee-length hem-line and high side slits.

My favourite feature of the costume is its elegant Mandarin collar which is considered the most attractive part of the costume. It was intriguing and interesting to learn that traditionally, proper young men were taught to not look the lady in the eyes but discreetly at her neck. The beauty of a lady is best revealed in her swan-like neck, and so this collar became the most alluring part of her outfit!

Cheong sam and sam foo are part of Chinese culture and as long as this heritage is passed down through generations, these costumes will be cherished in the future.  In the 2008 Summer Olympics, the world was re-introduced to cheong sam as the medal-bearers modeled designs in this traditional attire.

Now many brides still choose to wear the embroidered traditional grand wedding gown, and you cannot go wrong if you wore a smart Chinese blouse or cheong sam to any formal event.

I feel happy when I discover creative designs of these costumes, and this Chinese New Year I had my fair share of appreciating the ageless elegance of such Chinese inspired attire.
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 14 February 2011


Peggy still wearing Chinese inspired attire in CNY 2011,
with Philip Skitch, Thistle Johor Baru General Manager

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