Chinese Arts & Crafts

Chinese Arts & Crafts

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Qipao: the history of a Chinese sartorial icon

If you watched Wong Kar-wai’s movie “In the Mood for Love”, Maggie Cheung`s exquisite wardrobe probably caught your eyes. Throughout the whole movie she wears an array of elegant qipaos, also called cheongsam, a one-piece garment consisting of a close-fitting dress with a high neck. Wong has said 20 to 25 qipao alone were made for her character alone.

This type of dress is usually referred to as qipao or cheongsam, the latter used more frequently in Western countries. The term cheongsam (長衫), meaning "long dress", entered the English vocabulary from Cantonese (the dialect of China's Guangdong Province), while in other parts of China it is known as qipao (旗袍).

The qipao as we know it today can be immediately recognized by anybody as a symbol representing Chinese culture and as an expression of Chinese identity, but what are its origins and how did it evolve to its current shape?

The qipao story is closely linked to the political background and cultural history of China, and its origin can be traced back to the Qinq Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty was founded by Manchu rulers, whose military and social structure was organized into "banners" (called “qi” in Mandarin). The Manchu people wore a one-piece dress which, likewise, came to be called qipao or "banner dress".
The early qipao looked very different, it didn't have the tight, figure-hugging shape the dress is known for today, but it came in the form of loose ankle length vest, worn on top of a long-sleeved blouse. It was later transformed into the gown with sleeves that became the prototype of the modern qipao.

Manchu gown, Hong Kong museum

Although the 1911 Revolution overturned the rule of the Qing Dynasty, the qipao survived the political change. In the 1920s and '30s the qipao became popular as a form of school uniform, and it also became a symbolic outfit for educated and emancipated women.

1930s advertising poster
In Shanghai, the traditional Manchu gown met Western tailoring and fashion, evolving into something completely different from its forebear. With the influence of Western dress styles, the qipao adopted a slimmer cutting, as well as new additions, such as the lotus collar, the Western flip collar, and the lotus sleeves. New fabrics and designs brought new life to traditional qipao, bringing  a new-found sense of freedom and modernity.  Between the 1930’s and early 1940’s the qipao became not only the quintessential fashion piece of Shanghainese women but also a symbol of the movement for women’s liberation

Author and critic Eileen Chang loved to wear qipao

Being one of the cultural symbols of the old China, during the communist uprising, and later during Cultural Revolution with the adoption of the unisex Maoist suit, the qipao almost totally disappeared on the Mainland. However, in other Chinese communities such as Hong Kong, the qipao survived and flourished, reaching the height of popularity during the 1950s and 1960s.
Later on as young people turned to more relaxed Western fashions, the qipao has been relegated to evening and formal wear for ceremonial occasions, until its recent comeback.

Qipao worn at the sun-ray ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
by the actress Zhang Ziyi, Nanjing Museum

In 2007 a salon dedicated to preserving the tradition of the qipao opened in Shanghai, where Shanghainese ladies gather together to learn how to dance sit, walk, behave and choose the right accessories to go with the dress. Initially, its members were mainly retirees, but lately, the salon has been attracting younger members. The picture below, from the salon`s website, shows its member during a gathering.

Today the qipao has become a source of inspiration for both Chinese and Western fashion designers, but it`s not common to spot it in everyday life, outside the high-end fashion shows.

I love the qipao`s image of elegance and refined femininity, but unfortunately I don`t own any. When I look at the beautiful women in qipao starring Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, or Ang Lee`s Lust, Caution, I can`t help feeling like I would be out of place wearing one. But maybe in a couple of years, when I`ll feel more “mature” I`ll be ready to go ahead and buy one on myself…

Tang Wei in Lust, Caution

Gong Li in 2046

Zhang Ziyi in 2046

Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love

The movies` photos are sourced from IMBD.

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