The Evolution of Qipao (evolution qipao cheongsam dress)

Over the years, qipao has evolved to be a wonderful masterpiece for both fashionistas and conservative women. The Chinese dress (alias cheongsam) plays a very important role in the Chinese New Year. Almost all women love to dress up this striking outfit during the special time of the year. The love for qipao is eternal and timeless. As you go through the 15 days of Chinese New Year celebration, you will see the charisma and panache qipao dresses have. There is something new and intuitive about this outfit. Many women consider this as one of the best dresses for the special occasions. Personally, I have adorned the outfit at all times. I should admit that this Chinese traditional dress is much more than an outfit.

What is a qipao?

Qipao is a women’s dress with a slit skirt and a very high neck. The Chinese dress has a close fitting design that suits women of all age groups, sizes and cultures. The dress was worn by the very old Manchu’s. During the 16th century, Manchus were known for their loose and straight dresses. These outfits represented their semi nomadic lifestyle. The Han tribes considered the Manchus as “Banner People”. This is why the dress received its name – “Qipao”. By definition, qipao means gowns worn by the old banner people. The original dress was made of pure silk. It was trimmed with thin lace and decorated with flower patterns. The Manchu women wore qipaos that were cut to their ankle length. At that time, the qipaos were worn with high heels during special occasions like weddings.

In the 16th Century

The Manchu community united with the Chinese in 1644. This was when the Qing Dynasty got established. The qipao became extremely famous in China with this union. The qipao dress was considered as a prestigious outfit in the Qing Dynasty. It was worn by the noble clans and powerful people. The outfit symbolized wealth and literacy. In the Qing Dynasty, the qipao was a long A-shaped, square cut outfit. It was designed with embellishments that reflected the wearer’s role and status symbol. Women from wealthy Qing families embroidered their qipaos with beads, gemstones and pearls. The dress was designed with several layers of royal silk. The type of materials used in the dress differed from one region to another. Royal families in the Qing Dynasty brought fabric weavers from different parts of the world to style their qipaos. The fabric weavers were responsible for the silk brocades. The entire outfit was carefully custom made to reflect its authentic and unique nature.

The Years between 16th Century and the 19th Century

It is quite interesting to note that qipao was considered as a traditional costume for men during the Han and Qing Dynasty. At this time, women in China were not allowed to wear long, single robes. They were expected to wear two pieces – a top and a bottom. The outfit for women was known as “Liang Jie Yi”.

The 19th Century

The Qing Dynasty toppled in 1911. This was the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution. By this time, the qipao was adopted as China’s traditional clothing. It was neatly tailored to suit different preferences and styles. The modern version of qipao was designed in 1900. The modernized qipao give the old-dress a new twist. It was slender and perfectly-fitting. The newer version of the outfit was tight fitting and designed to suit the wearer’s frame. In the 19th century, people of Shanghai called the qipao – “zansae”. This can be attributed to the dress’s new English name – cheongsam. The westernized version of the outfit has bell-like sleeves, high-necked sleeveless cuts and thick laces in the hem.

In the 1930s

By the start of 1930, qipao alias Cheongsam became the one of the prime, national dresses of China. It became extremely famous amongst young women in country. Regardless of their social status or their age, the outfit was worn by many young girls. A lot of celebrities and female workers in the country started to wear the striking piece of clothing too. Meanwhile, western attributes influenced the dress. It changed from closed to revealing and loose to tight fitting. The westernized qipao emphasized more on the wearer’s sleek body line. Designers reduced the outfit’s overall length too. Some dresses were reduced to knee level and below.

In the 1940s

By the start of 1940, qipao alias cheongsam was designed in many fabrics and designs. The outfit was worn with many interesting accessories too. However, the communist revolution in 1949 brought an end to the traditional cheongsam. It was completely abandoned from daily clothing. In fact, it destroyed many other fashionable items in Shanghai too. Nevertheless, Shanghainese refugees and emigrants carried the dress to Hong Kong. Even today, the qipao is famous in Hong Kong. People in Hong Kong considered this outfit as the most stylish party outfit ever. Women considered it as a practical garment that can be designed with vibrant patterns, plain styles and easy-to-care materials.

In the bright side, western styles like shoulder pads, zips and full laces were introduce in 1940. Sooner, women wearing beautiful qipao dresses were painted on advertising products, calendars and homes. The most stylish qipaos were seen in Vogue. Things changed completely by the end of 1940. This can be attributed to serious war affairs. The overall economy of Shanghai crashed and there were serious issues like high inflation and shortage of necessary goods. Newspapers quoted that the prices of clothing in Shanghai increased by 100%. Locals started to use & reuse old clothes. This was when qipaos had tight sleeves in autumn & spring and were sleeveless during summer. By the mid of 1940, very few commoners wore beautiful qipaos. Women wore jackets to work; only celebrities and public figures opted to wear the qipao occasionally.

In the 1950s

Qipao started to fade with the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Many designers fled the country. However, Chinese ladies in countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong continued to wear the outfit. Urban women in these countries wore the qipao to work and home in nations like Hong Kong. The popularity of qipao in Hong Kong in 1950 was truly prominent. This is when the business of qipao flourished. Meanwhile, the functional and loosely designed qipao became more westernized and fashionable. Many designers altered the dress with pencil cuts and deep necks. The side slit became extremely deep and stitched with zippers. These features made the dress easy to wear. In 1956, designers included front & back darts to the qipao pattern. This gave silhouettes a Dior’s Y-Line silhouette or hourglass shape (in the 1950s, these styles were becoming increasingly popular in Euro-American Fashion).

In the 1960s

Mini-skirts were the trend in 1960. As a result, mini-qipaos were released in countries like Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the mini-qipaos stirred serious public condemnations. That is because many people considered the mini-qipao as a revealing and an unacceptable form of the traditional Chinese outfit. The new dress angered many commoners in Hong Kong. This can be attributed to the following reasons:

  • The thick loose-fitting dress was replaced with thin fabrics. Moreover, the dress was designed with tight fitting fabrics. In fact, many women showed their sexuality and highlighted their bodies. This disobeyed all the rules of Chinese ideology.
  • Qipaos that were over calf-length were replaced by shorter ones. This exposed too much skin.

In the 1970s

The image of qipao was reinforced in 1973. In this year, the Chinese traditional dress became a formal outfit. The outfit was used as a formal outfit in the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant. In fact, a film was captured to promote qipao as a wonderful, traditional dress. Almost all the scenes in “The World of Suzie Wong” had ladies in beautiful, tight fitting qipaos. In the 1970s, qipao became a daily wear in Taiwan. The outfit replicated the original style. It was figure showing but loosely fitted. Also, it was above-calf length. By the end of 1970s, there were six different types of qipaos in Taiwan.

  • Tch is a solid colored qipao. The outfit is plain but elegant.
  • Tlin is Taiwan’s traditional qipao.
  • Twu is a short dress that is just above knee length. It doesn’t flaunt the wearer’s waistline or curves. This is a dress that abridges the gap between the past and present.
  • Than is a very loose dress but not cultural or traditional.
  • Tlo is a stylish qipao that looks traditional and westernized.
  • Tpo is a qipao for older women.

On the other hand, there were three different types of qipaos in China. This includes Clu, Cgao and Cwu. Clu is a traditional dress with elbow length sleeves and a small side opening. Cgao is a casual outfit that is very comfortable and ideal for private gatherings. Cwu is a conservative and a traditional outfit. It is long and neatly designed with cultural attributes in mind.

In the 1980s

It is quite interesting to note that the need for functional and correct fit qipaos increased in 1980. Designers and wearers wanted the dress to be very mobile and easy to wear. To ensure easy movement, the outfit was adjusted to suit the wearer’s figure and age. However, the dress lost its popularity in Taiwan during the 1980s. Since then, the outfit never re-gained popularity in the region for daily wear. In fact, it was difficult to find details of qipao in Taiwanese literature by the end of 1980s. In less than a decade, Taiwan women forgot the dress completely.

Meanwhile, Chinese re-invented their classic dress. They diversified the qipao by the end of 1980s and the beginning of 1990s. For instance, the Chinese government handpicked a team to represent their cultures and traditions in the pret-a-porter fashion show in Paris. Chinese designers came up with many runway qipaos. A series of designs were made to bring out the fineness and elegant nature of the traditional Chinese outfit – qipao. The designers used qipao with stunning embroidery works and binding methods.  The binding methods were taken from ethnic groups like Sa Ni, Miao, Tai and many more communities. With this fashion show, qipao gained more fame in China. Many western designers adopted the outfit and its style. They gained inspiration from Chinese dress elements. This proved the influence eastern styles had on western fashion. Likewise, the way western trends gave more meaning and value to Eastern traditions. Meanwhile, the dress re-gained its fame as an ethnic and national outfit in different parts of Mainland China too. However, it didn’t become a daily wear. The dress was treated as an outfit for brides or as a waitress uniform (there were marked differences between these two outfits).

The 20th Century

Today, qipao is an occasional dress. It is meant for special occasions like Chinese New Year Festivals, weddings, parties and beauty pageants. It is a uniform in restaurants and some schools. The outfit represents the wearer’s preferences and personal style. It is a symbol of timeless beauty. There are so many reasons why the outfit has to be preserved. Unlike many other traditional costumes, the qipao has seen many ups and downs. It has survived wars and evolved incredibly in China. The beautiful dress is wrapped neatly with lots of richness, history and elegance. After all, it has endured many incredible changes over the years.

The Verdict

On the whole, qipao is a dress from China. It moved elegantly towards modernization and has re-constructed the image of China significantly. The outfit is strongly linked with Han culture. It replicates the long pao of the Han community. However, the new qipao is different from the traditional pao. It has evolved to be a modern fitting dress that blends Chinese culture with many westernized elements. The history of qipao clearly proves that cultural elements can stay intact and be inherited across generations. The outfit is here to stay and has a sturdy future ahead.