The Rise and Evolution of the Qipao

The Qipao (旗袍), also known as Cheongsam (長衫), has long captured the fancy and imagination of people across the world.

With roots in seventeenth-century Manchu dress, the Qipao has become so much more than a colonial dress, embodying the style, culture, identity and heritage of the Chinese woman in one sleek, form-fitting outfit. How did the Qipao as we know it today come to be? In tracing the rise and evolution of the Qipao across the Greater China and on the world’s stage, we can better understand its significance to the identities of Chinese women throughout the ages and get a glimpse of the identity of the modern Chinese woman.

The Qipao has its origins in the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth-century, during which the Manchu people ruled China. The Manchus introduced an administrative system called the Eight Banner System (八旗), and the traditional dress that Manchu women wore became known as the qipao (meaning banner gown). This Qipao was wide and loose in an A-shape square cut, with the hem hitting at the ankle. It consisted of a high neck and straight skirt covering all the woman’s body, except for her head, hands, and toes. Qipaos of this era were usually made of silk, with intricate embroidery.

Manchu ladies c1910-25   Image Credit

Manchu ladies c1910-25

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However, the Qipao that we are familiar with today originated from 1920s Shanghai. The Manchu Qipao underwent modernisation during this period owing to Western influence and became popular in Shanghai among celebrities and the upper class. On becoming one of the official national dresses of the Republic of China in 1929, the Qipao became fashionable for women of all walks of life. The modernised Qipao was form-fitting and featured a more revealing cut, with an emphasis on women’s body line. The length was shortened, reaching to above the knee; and the form was body-hugging, with side slits that reached up to the thigh. Western influences also inspired the addition of bell sleeves and even sleeveless qipaos. Following the popularisation of the Qipao, new materials such as lace were introduced, as well as more affordable and practical materials such as cotton, wool, twill and linen in addition to the traditional silks.

A 1930s advertisement featuring two women wearing a Qipao.   Image Credit

A 1930s advertisement featuring two women wearing a Qipao.

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The popularity of the Qipao during the Republican period was hugely tied to the liberation of women, as well as political expression. Throughout the feudal dynasties of ancient China, Han Chinese women were forbidden to wear the robes traditionally worn by men and had to wear an outfit of top and bottom known as “liang jie yi” (two-piece clothing). After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 overturned the Qing dynasty, ideas such as gender equality gained momentum in mainland China. Young Chinese female students called for the emancipation of women from traditionally subservient roles, the end of foot-binding for women, and encouraged women to wear one-piece clothing usually worn by men, which found its equivalent in the Qipao. Therefore, the Qipao became popularised in the 1930s across a variety of ages and social backgrounds.

As the design of the Qipao evolved further- with additions such as a ruffled collar, bell-like sleeves and black lace frothing- the priority of Cheongsam moved from a political expression to aesthetic and ornamental emphasis, particularly that which embodied feminine beauty. However, when Communists came to power in 1949, the Qipao saw a decline in popularity in mainland China as the Communist government tried to erase the vestiges of tradition to make way for modernism. Nevertheless, the Republicans bought the Qipao with them as they fled to Taiwan, and Shanghai emigrants brought the Qipao to British-controlled Hong Kong, where it flourished in the 50s and 60s.

“The popularity of the Qipao during the Republican period was hugely tied to the liberation of women, as well as political expression.”

Hong Kong in the 1960s was a Golden Age for the Qipao. The prominence of the Qipao in popular culture can be traced back to the 1960s film “The World of Suzie Wong”, set in Hong Kong, in which Nancy Kwan made the cheongsam fashionable in western culture. Another landmark film for the Qipao was Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s acclaimed 2000s work “In The Mood For Love”, set in 1960s Hong Kong, which features actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk in more than 20 different qipaos.

Nancy Kwan in ‘The World Of Suzie Wong’   Image Credit

Nancy Kwan in ‘The World Of Suzie Wong’

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With the implementation of reform and the Open Door Policy in China during the 1980s, the Qipao has seen a considerable revival and the meaning of the Qipao has been revised once more. In contemporary China, the Qipao now embodies Chinese ethnic identity and used for important diplomatic occasions. Recently, it was worn by the First Lady of China on foreign visits, as well as being the official attire for the political leaders' wives in the 22nd APEC meeting.

With the growth of the Chinese economy, the Qipao has experienced a renewed popularity on the international stage, as many Western designers have integrated elements of the Qipao into their fashion collections. Recently, Pierre Cardin incorporated the Qipao in his evening dress designs, while Dior, Versace and Ralph Lauren have adopted elements of the style into their collections. Dolce & Gabanna’s 2016 Fall collection and Gucci’s 2017 Fall collection also included the Qipao. Today, the Qipao retains its significance as a symbol of timeless Chinese beauty, elegance, history and culture. The Qipao has survived wars and evolved through political changes to become so much more than an outfit, embodying the essence of Chinese femininity in spirit, history and culture, and more than ever, identity.

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