The qipao, usually made of silk and other fabrics, is a classic traditional dress and an icon of Chinese culture. Beyond its popularity, it is also a symbol of freedom and sexuality.
More than a dress
The Story Behind the Qipao
After spending a few days in Beijing, it is easy to identify the emblematic and beautiful qipao. It’s a classic traditional dress and an icon of Chinese culture. This garment, also called cheongsam, has evolved through the decades. It has become a bold statement in the 20th-century fashion industry due to its appealing style and relevance.
This classic garment didn’t always look the same. It emerged from the male version, the changpao. This is an oversized robe or jacket worn by the Manchu and popular during the Qing Dynasty. It was only to be worn by men. But, by the 1920s, when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, Chinese women began to protest against gender inequality. As they became familiar with Western cultures and concepts, women began to wear this type of attire as a political statement. In particular, they protested against the traditional customs of imposing limitations on the body. As well as against the inability to dress in ways that showed off their figures. The feminist ‘natural curves’ movement demanded a change through the stylish and more fitted qipao. Eventually, their protests paid off. The qipao was declared a national dress for Chinese women, symbolizing freedom and sexuality.
The qipao’s meaning changed throughout the following decades, from symbolizing the feminist movement to becoming a cultural symbol of modern Chinese women both within the country and abroad.
What makes a qipao a qipao
The qipao is usually embroidered and can be made with silk, brocade, lace, cotton, and velvet fabrics. Any fabric that’s not too stretchy and is easily manipulated to give its shape works well. As for the fabric’s design, there are many styles and patterns. There are flowered, traditional and modern, with dragons or phoenixes and even with abstract and minimalist prints. The colors can be diverse, and there are for all tastes. Particularly for weddings, the bride’s qipao is traditionally red because it symbolizes good luck, happiness, and joy.
The dress’s collar, often referred to as ‘mandarin collar,’ is probably its most distinctive characteristic. It is usually 1.5-2 inches high and made in a single piece. Another specific element is the buttons, called pankou knots. These delicate cloth buttons extend from the mandarin collar, down the front of the qipao, and through the body’s right section. They can be either simple straight or made with sophisticated floral designs.
The sleeves can have various shapes and sizes; sleeveless or fitted cap sleeves are common. Regarding the dress’s body, there are two kinds of fitting. The Shanghai-style, a figure-hugging pencil dress, and the Beijing-style, which has an A-line structure. Lastly, the qipao has long slits on both sides. These can be above or below the knee, or mid-calf for a more elegant look.
The qipao’s style is recently back in vogue. Appreciated by the younger generation seeking some distinction from popular Western concepts and forms. It’s also the inspiration for local and international fashion designers who take some elements and shapes to inspire their collections.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 0 of Álula Magazine with the headline: “More than a dress: the Story Behind the Qipao.”