Today is the Chinese New Year. And I thought it was a good time to show off my cheongsam/qipao and to tell you about this beautiful Chinese dress. Like Kungfu, Beijing opera, and acupuncture, the qipao is an instantly recognizable symbol of Chinese culture.
The Mandarin word "qipao" means "banner robe" and it was used to describe the long dress worn by women belonging to the Eight Banners (clans) of Manchu. It was a long A-shaped, loosely fitted and squarely cut silk brocade robe adorned with different embroidered motifs that reflected the status, position or title of the wearer.
Singers in qipao with trousers underneath, 1901 source
Qipao, ca. 1875-1908. It is loose and straight, embroidered with peonies and butterflies and adorned with elaborate and delicate trimmings. Hong Kong Museum of History
Because the robe had slits at the sides, trousers were always worn underneath to cover the legs. With the fall of the Quing dynasty in 1912 many believed that Manchu clothes should be discarded too. And though not completely abandoned, qipao underwent some changes. It was designed to be worn on its own, without trousers. The 1920s version of qipao had an upright collar, wide elbow-length sleeves, a fairly loose-fitting cut and no slits.
Hatamen Cigarettes advertising poster, 1920s source
1930s advertising poster source
In 1930s the slits came back however. They were long side slits but no trousers were worn underneath this time. The qipao's cut became literally figure-hugging emphasizing the curves and contours of a woman’s neck, chest, waist and hips. In the Cantonese-speaking British colony of Hong Kong this tight-fitting version of a qipao got the name "cheongsam" meaning simply "long dress". Women of all ages and from all walks of life wore it on a daily basis. The calendar posters that were hugely popular in this period often featured attractive women wearing qipao, while the most celebrated film stars loved the dress. These models and celebrities set the fashion trends that other women of the time were quick to follow. In the West the qipao/cheongsam came to represent "oriental decadence" after the release of Hollywood film Shanghai Express (1932).
Advertising posters of 1930s
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, very few women wore the qipao. This was especially true from the 1960s, when manufactured garments in a wide array of styles became easily available at much cheaper prices than the tailor-made qipao. However, public figures or the wives of leaders wore it as ceremonial attire on diplomatic occasions. These women of high status in socialist China confirmed the qipao's role as ceremonial dress.
Chinese actress Helen Li Mei in New York wearing cheongsam, 1958
Clark Gable and Li Li-hwa, top glamour girl of the Chinese movie world. The stars took a cruise together around Hong Kong island, where Gable was starring in "Soldier of Fortune", 1954 source
Traditionally, the most important and attractive part of a cheongsam is the hand-crafted embroidery on the material, in the form of colorful flowers, beautiful butterflies, imposing dragons, elegant phoenixes, and the many artistic and intricate Chinese geometric motifs.
Qipao of Madame Wellington Koo, the wife of China's ambassador to France. Silk, metallic thread, 1932. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Modern qipao by designer Wing Choi source
The cheongsam has survived almost unchanged until present days with slight variations during the years in fabric, length, collar design and sleeves length.
I'm in love with this "tropical Santa" cheongsam source
My cheongsam is simple. I bought it ready-made a couple of years ago during my stay in Shanghai. The fan is also from there. You can see that my look today was inspired by all those poster girls. As my dress is not custom made the fit is not 100% perfect, it is a little bit loose in waist. Anyway I love my qipao, it creates an impression of simple and quiet charm, elegance and neatness. There are only two things that annoy me: 1) the fabric is very wrinkles-prone and 2) when it is windy outside the dress reveals too much of my legs.
The qipao is, no doubt, a classic. It has been a very adaptable dress, capable of living up to modernity and yet not appearing to be outdated.