Everything You Need To Know About The Qipao Chinese Dress

Everything You Need To Know About The Qipao Chinese Dress

The Chinese Qipao dress is a staple of modern Chinese fashion (aka Modern Qipao). However, the origin and history of the Qipao are shrouded in mystery and many myths.

Qipao or Cheongsam?

The Chinese Qipao is sometimes called Cheongsam, but the former is often used in English. Cheongsam is an English word: a romanization of the Cantonese word 衫, Chèuhngsam. This word is commonly used to describe this fitted Chinese dress, particularly popular in Shanghai.

Qípáo, on the other hand, is a Mandarin word. The use of these two terms may therefore vary depending on the location. In Hong Kong, for example, the term Cheongsam or Chèuhngsam is now used as a mixed term referring to both genders and can therefore refer to both men’s and women’s traditional clothing! In China, the Chinese Qipao refers exclusively to the female version of the garment. In Western countries, Cheongsam and Qipao refer only to women’s clothing.

The History of the Chinese Dress Qipao

Historical Context

The history of Qipao began in the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China, which ruled between 1636 and 1911. It was during this time that the Manchu people ruled China. The Manchus used an administrative system called the Eight Banners, established by Chief Nurhachi, who ruled between 1559 and 1626. Under this system, the Manchu people wore different clothing from other peoples, including the Han and Mongols oppressed.

The Manchu people wore long dresses called changpao (袍) for both men and women, although the term qipao was also commonly used to describe the dress worn by Manchu women. In 1936, a dynastic law forced all Han Chinese to adopt the changpao and the Manchu hairstyle in place of Han Chinese traditions. Later, the law was lifted, and only Han Chinese who were scholars or officials were required to use changpao. Over time, Han civilian men voluntarily adopted the changpao.

The Modern Qipao

It should be noted that the original Chinese Qipao worn by women during the Qing dynasty did not look like the one we know today as Modern Qipao or Luxury Qipao. This Chinese Qipao fitted quite loosely, with lots of draping, and this very loose robe covered most of the body except for the toes, hands, and head.

If the Qipao has existed for a long time, the aspect that we know today was introduced and popularized between 1920 to 1940 in Shanghai. The Cheongsam was later modernized and worn by celebrities and upper-class women in Shanghai as Modern Cheongsam or Modern Qipao.

Among the reasons for the meteoric success of this dress in China as well as in the West, it should be noted that we cannot separate the history of the modern Qipao from that of Madame Wellington Koo, the former first lady of China, who was also elected repeatedly by Vogue as one of the best-dressed women in 1942. Madame Wellington Koo was famous for her modernized adaptation of the Cheongsam. At the time, Cheongsam dresses came to the ankle, and Madame Wellington Koo cut hers to the knee. She also insisted on using only fine Chinese silk for silk qipao.

When the communist government ruled China in 1949, the Qipao became less popular in China as the communists tried to push for modernization and erase traditional Chinese values, including fashion. Many fled to Hong Kong, where the Qipao remained popular until the 1950s.

Transformation of the Qipao

As mentioned above, the original Qing Dynasty (Manchu Ruler) era “Qipao” was loose, with a straight skirt pattern compared to what we have today and a higher neckline. At the time, it covered almost the entire female body except for a small part of the toes, hands, and head. Intricate embroidery was also a very important feature of the Cheongsam pattern (it still is today but to a lesser extent).

In the 1920s, the Cheongsam was worn with trousers for both men and women. However, with Western fashion during the 1930s in Hong Kong, stockings slowly but surely replaced trousers, and side slits became higher and reached above the knees or sometimes even the top of the thighs.

In the 1940s, high-heeled shoes were also introduced in Shanghai and quickly became a new fashion trend, and since then, they have often been associated with the Qipao. Chinese fashion was modernizing at high speed; women quickly had to abandon their stockings and wear the Cheongsam with bare legs.

Western fashions have evolved over all these years and influenced the transformation of Qipao design to include more accentuation, high neck sleeveless designs, and bell sleeves. In the 1940s, the modern design of the Qipao mostly “matured” into the shape we know today and featured a wide variety of fabrics and patterns, as well as various accessories. Nowadays, the Qipao can be a short dress, like a mid-length dress, with lace embroidered. There is something for everyone.

When Should You Wear a Cheongsam?

During the Qing dynasty era of the 17th century, Chinese women wore a qipao almost every day for all occasions, and the Qipao was also worn quite often as casual wear in 1920s Shanghai and 1950s -1960 in Hong Kong.

In China and other countries with a Chinese tradition, the Chinese Qipao is not generally worn as an everyday dress. Still, it remains a common item of clothing for formal occasions, celebrations, or the following events:

  • Weddings: The Qipao is a common choice for Chinese wedding dresses or even Western weddings when a bride is of Chinese descent or marries a Chinese family. Wearing a Qipao to attend a wedding is also considered appropriate as a guest.
  • School uniform: The Qipao is the official school uniform in some primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong, mainly in older Christian and Catholic schools.
  • Work dress: The Chinese Cheongsam or modern qipao is used as a uniform in many restaurants and hotels and is also a common choice for flight attendants and ground staff for airlines in mainland China, Taiwan, and countries with Chinese influence, such as Singapore.
  • Chinese New Year: The Qipao is a common item of clothing to wear during Chinese New Year or other traditional Chinese festivals.
  • International fashion: many fashion designers, including Western ones, have adopted the Qipao and its elements in their collections. Many Hollywood movies have featured it, including by non-Chinese actors like Anne Hathaway, Elizabeth Taylor, and Nicole Kidman.
  • As Chinese National Clothing: The Qipao is often used to represent China in official settings such as politics, sports (e.g. 2008 Summer Olympics medalists), and other diplomatic occasions.

How to Wear a Modern Qipao?

Here are some useful tips before investing in a beautiful Modern Cheongsam:

  • Thinner collars can help lengthen your neck, while taller collars can make it shorter. The collar is usually 6 cm high, but there are shorter collars of 3 cm or less.
  • You can also accessorize your outfit with a feminist bag for your girl-power look!
  • You can always opt for a sleeveless version if you want your arms to look longer and leaner.
  • There are many possibilities for choosing fabrics. Generally, you should choose a fabric that conforms well to your body without forming wrinkles, such as silk, artificial silk, cotton, or polyester.
  • If you have wide hips and are uncomfortable with tight skirts, you can always opt for qipaos in a skater dress version, whose skirt will be more flared.