Qipao: An eternal classic

Qipao is representative of Chinese dress culture, resulted from the integration of costumes from many ethnic groups. In the late 1990s, began to gain world-wide popularity in the fashion industry.

Qipao: An eternal classic

Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College,
Guo Jingping

As I was going to give a talk that day on qipao, better known as cheongsam in English, to my American students, I deliberately chose to put on my favourite qipao made of Xiangyun silk with four-layered piping. I hoped I could turn myself into a floating catwalk at the Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College, Florida, USA, and help the students appreciate the beauty of qipao more directly.

Representative of Chinese dress culture, qipao resulted from the integration of costumes from many ethnic groups. Once a practical garment of the nomads in the northern wilderness as well as an exquisite and luxurious dress of the nobility in the imperial capital; from its various gorgeous styles in the former foreign concessions in Shanghai, which was known as the “Paris of the East”, to the sexy mini qipao seen in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, qipao is both restrained and flamboyant, conservative and sexy. It is an eternal fashion classic.

Qipao
In recent years the design of Qipao has been diversified.

There are many variations of qipao that can be differentiated by its placket, collar, length of sleeves, frogs, slits, material, and patterns on the fabric, etc. With regard to the origin of qipao, although fashion experts have different views, it is generally accepted that qipao, literally ‘banner gown’, was derived directly from the garment of women of the eight Manchu administrative divisions called qí ‘banner’ in the Qing Dynasty, and this  gown of the Qing Dynasty can be traced to the one-piece garment called shēnyī ‘deep clothing’ of the pre-Qin period and the Han Dynasty (771 BC—AD 220) ––a long pedigree indeed. The word cheongsam is its Cantonese name, which means ‘long garment’. The kind of qipao known all over the world today as the “Chinese dress” refers in fact mainly to the style of qipao prevalent in the 1930s, when Shanghai, as the metropolis of the Far East, enjoyed the reputation of being the “Paris of the East”. It is said that female students in Shanghai were the first to wear qipao. As representatives of female intellectuals, they became symbols of society and leaders in fashion. As other women hastened to follow suit, qipao became the fashion of Shanghai.

It is said that female students in Shanghai were the first to wear qipao. As representatives of female intellectuals, they became symbols of society and leaders in fashion.

The qipao of that time adopted the use of Western tailoring techniques, making it more form-fitting. The importation of foreign fabrics, the appearance of fashion columns in newspapers and magazines together with the tremendously popular qipao dressed calendar girls helped it become more popular. In contrast to Peking-style qipao, which was stately, reserved and neat, the Shanghai style, which was more creative, outlandish and sexy, spread quickly from Shanghai to all over the country.

On 29th June 2012, a centenary exhibition of qipao was held at the Shanghai Mass Art Centre, where on display was a 36-piece collection of vintage qipao once worn by celebrities like Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong Mayling), famous physicist Wu Chien-Shiung, and Wu Yi-Fang, the first female college president in China. The exhibition caused quite a sensation and people rushed to see it, talking about the stories and legends behind those pieces. Legend has it that when Madame Chiang Kai-shek settled in the US in 1991, at least 50 of her 99 suitcases were filled with qipao dresses that she could not live without.

Qipao can be both a form of art and a part of ordinary life. Its look can change depending on the selection of fabric and its design.

Eileen Chang, a well-known modern Chinese female author, also had a special fondness for qipao. In her lifetime, she designed hundreds of pieces of highly fashionable qipao for herself. Wherever she went, she attracted the attention of envious onlookers. In her article entitled Chinese Life and Fashions, she narrated her deep philosophical reflections on the evolution of fashion, which enlightened her readers intellectually, a change from her famously emotive novels.

QipaoFor quite some time after 1949, people’s aesthetic views on fashion changed enormously with the times, with qipao fading out of sight. It wasn’t until the 1980s that China’s fashion industry started callowing international trends. Many domestic fashion designers began to employ classic elements of qipao in their designs, such as upright collars, slanted side openings and piping. Meanwhile, the media also showed great zest for qipao. However, women in daily life, though appreciative of its beauty, accepted qipao with some reserve.

In the late 1990s, qipao began to gain world-wide popularity in the fashion industry. Inspired by qipao, some overseas fashion designers redesigned the qipao and launched it for the international market. In some cases the new qipao was the result of combining Chinese qipao with the European evening dress. In 1997, the renowned French fashion house Dior launched a collection featuring elements of qipao designed by the promising young designer John Galliano, which triggered a world-wide craze for qipao. Since then, qipao has been seen time and again on the world fashion stage, enjoying greater popularity than ever before and it has even become a formal Chinese dress suitable for various international functions. Elaine Paige, often referred to as the First Lady of British Musical Theatre, said that she loved the elegance and character of Chinese qipao, and hoped one day to stand on the stage in a qipao. Gong Li, an international film star who is said to have the most distinctive Chinese features, usually wears a qipao at major international award ceremonies, helping set the trend for qipao in the international film industry.

Qipao
To make a qipao can involve many complex steps and technical skills, such as sewing, mounting, inlaying, piping, embroidering, etc. The Chinese frogs alone can be made in several hundred ways.

Speaking of the trend for qipao in China, credit should be given to Chinese artists and film makers for producing one film or TV drama after another featuring qipao-clad female characters. In the film In the Mood for Love directed by the Hong Kong director Karwai Wong, the grace and elegance of the qipao dresses worn by Maggie Cheung combine seamlessly with her sadness-tinged performance to leave an unforgettable impression on the audience. In another film Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee, when the character Wang Jiazhi played by Tang Wei makes her appearance in a qipao, her grace, elegance, refinement, sexuality and charm remind the audience of women of Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s. In the 47-episode TV spy drama Qipao, Ma Su, the lead actress, appears in over 100 different qipao dresses, illustrating the beauty of qipao to the full and, because of this, Ma Su has been known as “the most beautiful spy”. Zhang Ye, a famous soprano, is especially fond of qipao. All her qipao dresses have been re-designed for the stage and incorporate Western design concepts. They often have Chinese-style collars yet feature the designs of Western fishtail dresses, rendering them more solemn and formal, and therefore more suitable for her performances.

In the film In the Mood for Love directed by the Hong Kong director Karwai Wong, the grace and elegance of the qipao dresses worn by Maggie Cheung combine seamlessly with her sadness-tinged performance to leave an unforgettable impression on the audience.

At the talk in Miami, I showed to the students more than 50 pieces of qipao that I had designed. With their silk fabrics and brilliant colours, the beautifully handmade dresses elicited exclamations of praise and admiration from the audience in the lecture hall. At the same time, some people expressed their reservations. Suna Lee said to me: “I like the qipao dresses seen on TV or in films, but dare not wear them because people might associate them with concubines in the old days.” Such fears are quite unnecessary. In fact, qipao can be both a form of art and a part of ordinary life. Its look can change depending on the selection of fabric and its design. Different designs may impress people differently and even the same design may look different depending on the wearer. Furthermore, qipao designs continue to change with the times.

As the most splendid part of China’s long history of dress culture, qipao is a product of continuous exchange and integration between different ethnic groups and cultures in China. It is also a fusion of traditional Chinese and foreign cultures.

The beauty of qipao should not just remain in the writings of the literati, or in dressmakers’ windows, or appear only on beautiful actresses in films or on the TV screen. Its beauty has remained constant from the past to the present, from within China to the whole world and from a form of art to a part of life, serving to arouse people’s aspiration for beauty, bringing style and elegance to the world.

More about chinese clothing in Confucius Institute Magazine – ConfuciusMag 


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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 34. Volume V. September 2014.

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