Qipao: A close-fitting Mandarin Chinese woman's dress

Cao Juren, a noted scholar, once gave the long and short of the history of the qipao: Long one moment, short the next, then long again. But long or short, why is the Qipao so enduringly fashionable?

Old Styles and Old Customs

"Beside my grandfather, was my grandmother wearing a sleeveless qipao of white satin, with a fine flower pattern. It was the 1930s and my grandmother was the daughter of a moderately well-off family in the countryside." 

Manzu Women's Clothing

Qipao, a close-fitting woman's dress with high neck and slit skirt, was originally the costume worn by the Manchu's. Living a semi farming/semi nomadic life in the cold north before the 17th century, Manchus wore clothes which were straight and loose at waist. Men wore long gowns, while women's were shorter. The Han people referred to the Manchus as qiren (banner people) in the past; hence the garment Manchu women wore was called qipao (gowns worn by banner people). 

Manchu women usually chose silk as the basic material for qipao, embroidered with flower patterns, trimmed with lace. The gowns were generally ankle-length, except for the time when young women were about to get married and excepting noble women in royal palaces, who wore heels as high as three inches, requiring longer gowns. 

In 1644 when the Manchus united China, established the Qing Dyansty and moved its capital to Beijing, the qipao began to spread throughout Central China. About 100 years later, it replaced the long skirts the Han women had worn since the Ming Dynasty and became the everyday dress for most women. With the introduction of Western ideas and culture into China, qipao also became influenced by Western fashion. Hence the waist became thinner and the sleeves narrower. It evolved to compliment women's figure more. 

The Revolution of 1911 toppled the rule of the Qing Dynasty and founded the Republic of China Qipao during Republic of China(ROC). Most Manchus gave up wearing qipao and began to wear Han style clothes instead. So during the first 10 years of the 20th century, few people wore qipao. It was slowly coming into fashion again by the 1920s. But by that time the qipao was already somewhat different from what Manchu women wore in the late Qing Dynasty. The Manchu qipao was worn with trousers inside; the embroidered edges of trousers could be seen through the slits in the skirt, while the qipao of the ROC was worn with silk stockings. The material of the Manchu qipao was heavy satin, silk or jacquard fabric with complicated decorations. The ROC qipao was light and thin with printed patterns and simple designs. 
It was these fundamental changes that transformed the qipao from a modest to a sexy outfit. 

New Style Qipao and New Fashion

After entering the ROC, restrictions on what women could and could not wear, by the Manchu rulers were abolished amid the atmosphere of democracy and freedom. Intellectual women carried out a bold reform of the old style costumes, so the style of qipao changed frequently; its most eye-catching change was taking the split higher up the thigh. 

Manzu Women's ClothingFrom the end of 1920s to the beginning of 1930s, when short skirts were in vogue among women in the West, the qipao also became shorter. After 1926, it became shorter and shorter, so that by 1929, it was knee-length, with a split exposing the upper thigh. Legs were in! Modern women abandoned trousers and wore silk stockings. Whether you were showing off your legs or not was the key factor in deciding if you were "with it," or not. Qipao not only liberated women's legs but also their arms. Enlightened by the vest or waistcoat, qipao gave up its sleeves completely. For a period of time, it was fashionable to edge and lace the qipao or add flower embroidery to the front. The short style qipao became the dress for new women in new times. 

The 1930s to 40s was a golden time for the qipao. The importing of materials from foreign countries, fashion magazines and calendar girls, which were all the rage, helped to


Ups and Downs of Qipao in the New Society 

promote new innovations. The fitted qipao was highly esteemed in Shanghai, where upper class women lived a luxurious life, followed fashion and aspired to a western lifestyle. The Qipao then became even more figure hugging, blending western and Chinese fashion, while at the same time being a symbol of stylish, Chinese glamour. 

In the 1940s, due to war, Shanghai's economy crashed and there was a shortage of goods and high inflation. According to the newspapers of the time, the price of cloth went up by 100 percent. People had to become more frugal, use and adapt old clothes. The qipao at that time had no sleeves in summer and tight sleeves in spring and autumn. 

"The splendidly glamorous, patterned qipao, and its wonderfully romantic look on the screen make numerous women envy Zhang Manyu, who is able to really enjoy the pleasure of wearing a qipao before she is old." 

Around 1949, there were few people still wearing qipao. Women who had jobs all wore jackets; only some stage announcers and actresses in theater troupes wore qipaos occasionally. In the 1950s, dressing up had been replaced by the fanaticism of revolutionary work. The lazy, luxurious glamour of the qipao faded out of existence. But when a leader of the former Soviet Union visited China in 1956, he suggested that Chinese people's clothes should reflect the new prosperous look of socialism. The Chinese government then called on people to wear colorful dresses, and the qipao reappeared-albeit with a more casual look, mainly made of cotton cloth. 

The death of the qipao occurred during the "Cultural Revolution." The Red Guards said that the qipao represented feudalism and capitalism and they not only burned the qipao but also punished its owners. Some bold women hurriedly hid their qipao, while the cowardly tore it up or cut it into strips to make mops. 

But to everybody's surprise, the qipao reappeared in the 1980s, when the policy of reform and opening up to the outside world was implemented. At this time, the qipao was used as a uniform worn by female attendants and waitresses in hotels or restaurants or young ladies at ceremonies. This kind of qipao was mostly made of synthetic fibers or imitation silk. 

The qipao became the perfect evening dress for social functions. Brides also chose it for their wedding dresses. The Langfeng Clothing Shop in Shanghai renewed its business of making qipao to order in the 1980s. Their qipaos are stitched by hand and it usually takes one to two months to make just one. Two years' training are required for a tailor to master this workmanship. According to a designer at the store, not many people have a qipao made to order, because of the inconvenience and the few occasions they have to wear it. The clothing store now makes 100 qipaos every month, half of which are made for Japanese customers and the other half for overseas Chinese.

Everyone predicts that the qipao's day will come again, but that day has not come yet. Despite the qipao being perfectly suited for the 1990s ideal of a tall and slender figure, the qipao still remains marginalized. Despite its undisputed elegance, the qipao is just not practical for today's career women, who have to ride a bike or take the bus to work. 

In the last year of the 20th century, Hong Kong director Wang Jiawei's film, In the Mood for Love was released. Set in 1960s Shanghai, it provided a perfect stage for the charm of the qipao. Zhang Shuping, the art director of the film, said, "One dress in In the Mood for Love began from a piece of white cloth with a pattern of black roses. It reminded me of the mood and atmosphere in my mother's day." This mood was communicated beautifully after the release of the film. The publicity for the film in Beijing and Guangzhou was accompanied by a qipao fashion show. Now lots of women envy Zhang Manyu because she has had the chance to enjoy wearing the qipao before she is old.

(Women of China 2001,4)