Qipao, also known as cheongsam in Cantonese, (旗袍) are one-piece Chinese dresses that have its origins in Manchu ruled China back in the 17th century. The style of the qipao has evolved over the decades and is still worn today. If you’re interested in Chinese fashion, read on to learn more about the history, design, and modern styles of qipaos.
During Manchu rule, Nurhachi (努爾哈赤, Nǔ’ěrhāchì), a chieftain, established the Banner System, which was a structure for organizing all Manchu families into administrative divisions.
The traditional dress that Manchu women wore became known as the qipao (旗袍, meaning banner gown). After 1636, all Han Chinese men in the banner system had to wear the male version of the qipao, called the chángpáo (長袍).
In the 1920s in Shanghai, the cheongsam was modernized and became popular among celebrities and the upper class. The dress became less popular when Communist rule began in 1949 due to Communist ideals of erasing tradition to make way to modernism.
The Shanghainese then took the dress to Hong Kong where it remained popular in the 1950s. At that time, working women often paired the cheongsam with a jacket. To get an idea, Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, features Maggie Cheung wearing a different cheongsam in almost every scene.
WHAT DOES A QIPAO LOOK LIKE?
The original qipao worn during the Manchu rule was wide and baggy. The Chinese dress featured a high neck and straight skirt.
It covered all of a woman’s body except for her head, hands, and toes. The cheongsam was traditionally made of silk and featured intricate embroidery.
The qipao worn today are modeled after ones made in Shanghai in the 1920s. The modern qipao is a one-piece, form-fitting dress that has a high slit on one or both sides.
Modern variations may have bell sleeves or be sleeveless and are made out of a variety of fabrics.
WHEN IS A CHEONGSAM WORN?
In the 17th-century, the qipao was worn nearly every day. During the 1920s in Shanghai and 1950s in Hong Kong, the qipao was also casually worn quite often.
Nowadays, the qipao is not worn in an everyday manner. Cheongsams are now worn only during formal occasions like weddings, parties, and beauty pageants. The qipao is also used as a uniform at restaurants, hotels, and on airplanes in Asia. But, elements of traditional qipaos, like intense colors and embroidery, are now incorporated into everyday wear by design houses like Shanghai Tang.
WHERE CAN I BUY A QIPAO?
Qipaos can be bought at high-end boutique stores, personally tailored at clothing markets, or a cheap version can be found at streetside stalls. An off-the-rack qipao at a clothing store can cost about $100 while tailor made ones can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Simpler, inexpensive designs can be bought online.