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The history and enduring style of China's qipao

During the 1950's and 60's,…

… the qipao was the preferred attire of many Hong Kong actresses. The city had become a stronghold for its preservation as social changes in Mainland China…
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 … led to fewer women wearing the qipao until it disappeared at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. But in Hong Kong, the outfit had evolved into a short skirt, form fitting around the waist,…
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… darts at the bust and waist, a slender cut and narrow hem. These features help accentuate the ideal feminine curvature.
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Most of these qipao did not carry any bindings, pipings or flower buttons, using press studs and zips instead. 
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Cinema also helped boast the cheongsam's popularity in the west, through Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), in which Jennifer Jones wore one in every scene,…
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…  and The World of Suzy Wong five years later, in which Nancy Kwan sported one to stylish effect.
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“I remember when I first noticed my mother in a Cheongsam. Suddenly she was so refined, her body seemed slimmer, straighter, and really noble,” wrote Chinese designer Vivienne Tam in her book China Chic in 2000. “When a woman puts on a cheongsam, a metamorphosis takes place – she’s taller, more elegant, in a state of grace.” 

The qipao, more commonly known in Hong Kong as the cheongsam [long shirt] is widely recognised as the most representative dress of Chinese clothing. In its honour, more than 50 qipao items from the Hong Kong Museum of History collection is currently on display at the Central Atrium of Olympian City 2 until June 10. Called Transformation of the Qipao, the exhibition ranges from the late Qing Dynasty to present day, showing the development of the classic Chinese dress in relation to socio-cultural changes over the century. It also illustrates how the timeless qipao has evolved into a garment with contemporary spin. 

The qipao originally descended from the Qing [1644-1911], China's last ruling dynasty, founded by the Manchu people, who followed the Ming [1368-1644] dynasty’s Han citizens. It’s name originally referred to the long gown worn as an everyday garment by women of the Eight Banners, a Manchu military organisation. The qipao drew distinctions between the Han and Manchu women and symbolised the segregation of different social groups. Han women’s outfits were so loosely cut they concealed a woman’s figure completely. During the mid-to-late Qing dynasty, noble Manchu women began to wear the gowns to their ankles. The gowns often featured complicated patterns with the body, collar, cuffs and front-flap adorned with extravagant embroidery. 

With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the revolution, the long gown became the look of civilian men for the next decade. Yet by the early 1920’s, young Chinese intellectuals insisted that if women were equal to men, they should dress like men too; so newly-educated Chinese girls began wearing the cheongsam. Ironic that unisex dress should so quickly have become the embodiment of Chinese femininity. 

The qipao’s heyday was the 1930’s and 40’s when it entered the fashion mainstream as a stylish dress for Chinese women and coincided with the rise of Shanghai. The city was becoming the Paris of the East following the Europeanoiserie of the Bund. Banks, hotels, nightclubs and department stores grew up along the Bund and the Nanjing Road shopping district, and along with it, the rise of the film and fashion industry saw the beginnings of the growth of Chinese pop culture. The qipao was everywhere, in all forms. Worn long and short, with low, high or no collars at all, the cuts got more slender and the dress was worn with heels. The slimmer qipao required higher slits to allow for more comfortable movement. The calendar posters that were so popular at the time featured stylish, modern women wearing qipao, like Shanghainese actresses Chen Yanyan, Hu Die and Ruan Lingyu, whose style was widely imitated. Women depicted on the decadent calendar posters even wore transparent qipao’s sometimes. With its multifaceted splendour and glamour, the qipao was the fashion sensation of its time. 

During the 1950's and 60's the cheongsam was the preferred attire of many Hong Kong actresses. The city had become a stronghold for its preservation as social changes in Mainland China led to fewer women wearing qipao until it disappeared at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. However, the practice of wearing it continued in Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. Nevertheless, the influx of Western-style manufactured garments in the late 60's made qipao tailoring expensive and time consuming, while the style of dress became associated with formality. The qipao began to appear obsolete.
Fortunately, it didn't entirely disappear in Hong Kong and continued to be worn as a school uniform, by waitresses, as a wedding dress and even the national costume by Hong Kong entrants in world beauty pageants, where its unique character was used as a symbol of Chinese culture and an essential representation of Chinese identity. 

Cinema has played its part in keeping the cheongsam in the spotlight too: Travis Benton, Paramount Studios costume designer, who dressed Carole Lombard, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, designed cheongsam's for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Most notably, one with a dragon motif emblazoned with gold and silver sequins onto luxurious satin for the role of Tu Tuan in 1934's Limehouse Blues. Twenty years later came Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing with Jennifer Jones, in which the actress wore a cheongsam in each scene. Nancy Kwan then helped popularise the garment in the West in 1960's The World of Suzy Wong. Anyone who ever saw Chinese film goddess Gong Li in Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and other Zhang Yimou films in 1990's China was treated to qipao which, much like the actress's sublime performances, caressed, concealed and then revealed to perfection. Fast forward to present day and the qipao's style is still ravishing cinema screens. Maggie Cheung cheongsamed her sinuous way through 23 different such outfits during Wong Kar-wai's opulent In the Mood For Love [2000] and Chinese actress Tang Wei in Ang Lee's racy Lust, Caution [2007] went through 27 increasingly provocative and restrictive cheongsams in her deadly pursuit of Tong Leung Chiu-wai.

Wearing a Qipao today is brave and stylish, be it in Hong Kong or abroad and designers continually revisit the costume for inspiration. Brands like Christian Dior, Versace, and Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Chanel have all cited Qipao elements in their designs in recent seasons, while brands like Shiatzy Chen and Blanc de Chine manufacture iterations of them on a more consistent basis. 

To illustrate how qipao still inspires contemporary designers today, alumni from the Institute of Textiles & Clothing of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have come up with brand new qipao designs for this exhibition. In addition, renowned local designers Barney Cheng, Ranee K and home-grown brands Chinese Arts & Crafts – Artistic Palace and G.O.D. have designed one-off qipao. 

Refined, elegant, Transformation is a state of grace indeed.
Credits: Waterfront, Hong Kong 1960, courtesy of Information Services Department, Hong Kong; Hsia Moon, Patsy Kar Ling, Lucilla You Min, Yu So Chow, Law Yim Hing, Ng Kwan Lai, Collection of the Hong Kong Film Archive; Suet Nei, 1964. Collection of the Hong Kong Museum of History.