By Catherine Zauhar | May 20, 2020
Illustration by Derek Zheng
the qpo, sometimes calledcheongsam(chngshn),is a traditional garment that has recently, for better or worse, experienced a renaissance. Fashionable vintage stores now sell the same dresses once worn by grandmothers at weddings, and the sparkling variations are sported by teens on TikTok participate in the challenge of sharing your culture, while fast fashion brands, capitalizing on resurgence, make uninformed scams much to the dismay of Chinese Americans. And of course, you can still find waitresses in traditional Chinese restaurants wearing the dresses.
But to understand the importance of qipao in our modern era, we need to know its history.
Guangxu period (18751908) Lady Aixin Gioro (ixn Julu) Hngxing
A Qipao, sometimes called cheongsam or tangerine dress, is a classic garment traditionally made from embroidered silk, with a high collar and delicate fabric buttons on the front. The qipaos that you may know are well adjusted and associated with the Shanghainese worlds of the 60s. However, the qipao has known many iterations through a long and complex history.
No one really knows where qipao comes from. There are currently three dominant theories:
- It is from the Qing dynasty, when the Manchu ruled China. Manchurians wore long, loose robes called chngpo , which had slits on the sides, convenient for horse riding and archery. Although worn by both sexes, Han Chinese men of a certain class, like scholars and officials, were ordered to wear changpao or suffer serious consequences. As a result, Chinese clothing was quickly adopted for Manchu aesthetics and its heritage is visible in modern clothing such as qipao.
- Historian Yun Jiyng, author of China Qipao, a complete history of the origins, symbolism and cultural development of clothing, maintains that the contemporary qipaos framework was established during the Western Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 771 BC), as it resembles the straight skirt created at that time.
- Qipao is actually a very modern idea, created only after Western concepts and trade infiltrated the Republic of China, mixing the two cultures into one single dress.
Liberation of women + westernization
After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1919, women were prohibited from wearing qipaos and were forced into more traditional gender roles, while men became accustomed to pants.
But gradually, during the ensuing Republic of China period, the Chinese began to learn Western cultures and concepts, and some took a boisterous and proud approach to striving for gender equality. Young intellectual women fought against traditional values and customs, such as fixing the feet, by flaunting their bodies (to the extent that they could at least show their figures). In the 1910s, traditional gender roles were challenged and women wanted to go to school, pursue careers and make their voices heard outside the home.
From 1920 to 49, urban women began to wear qipaos as a form of protest. From then on, the dress slowly began to integrate into daily life, and the movement gained momentum when political figures like Soong Ching-Ling (Sng Qnglng), one of the leaders of the revolution from the Republic of China, began to wear qipaos. In 1927, the nationalist government declared qipao to be the national costume of Chinese women. The dress was designed to emphasize and flatter a woman’s body. He became more adjusted; a high slit has been introduced for some of the more daring models. From there, qipao became as much a symbol of sexuality as of tradition.
The new life movement spread across China in the 1930s, during which neoliberalism and neo-Confucian values were integrated into civic life. Women became more independent and had role models, like Mrs. Wellington Koo.
If there is a woman, we can credit the popularization of modern qipao, her Mrs. Wellington Koo (Oei Hui-Lan, or Hung Huln), a Sino-Indonesian socialite and First Lady of the Republic of China. In the early 1920s, she adapted qipao and integrated it into her modern, luxurious lifestyle.
In many of his most iconic photos, Koo is depicted wearing qipaos in the modern style, with his side slit or shorter leg, presenting these garments to an international audience. She also insisted on using local materials to make her beautiful dresses, citing that Chinese silk was superior. Koo has been photographed for world fashion magazines and has had his portrait painted by world renowned photographers and painters. Between the 1920s and the 40s, she was regularly named the best woman dressed by Vogue.
In the 1960s, the Chinese bombshell became a staple of Chinese cinema, as theaters began to present warmer Western-inspired romances. Actresses such as Nancy Kwan, who was known as the Chinese Bardot, have often been filmed in modern qipaos, inspiring western stars such as Grace Kelly to swing their own qipaos, thereby expanding the scope of clothing.
Qipao started to become an even more global trend (literally) when it became a uniform for Chinese and Taiwanese flight attendants, elevating the garment as a luxurious, professional and high-end uniform.
1962 flight attendants British Overseas Airways Corporation
From 1949 to the 1970s, qipao experienced a decline in popularity, as it was considered outdated and indicative of bygone Chinese traditions that interrupted progress and modernization. People preferred more practical and westernized work clothes like jackets and pants. During the Cultural Revolution, many tailors fled to Hong Kong, where their traditional Chinese silhouettes merged with westernized trends and styles.
It was not until the 1980s that qipao regained its popularity. The Chinese began to return to their traditions and cultural roots and discovered a new inspiration in qipao for competition wear, wedding dresses and film costumes.
The end of the 90s was a crazy cultural melting pot, and a period of intense experimentation (and appropriation). At that time, qipao became a staple of the modern young woman’s wardrobe, with everywhere in the mall’s stores like Delias on haute couture runways selling the emblematic mandarin necklaces. Stars like Kate Moss and Claire Danes wore them on the red carpet.
The Chinese-American writer and poet Jenny Zhang will later reflect on this time in his play, Blond girls at Cheongsams.
Much of the Qipao heritage can also be attributed to critically acclaimed and incredibly influential Wong Kar-Wais Love mood (2001), a Hong Kong romance between lovers played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The very elegant film inspired the aesthetics of modern film and costume design, as well as the younger generations of American filmmakers of Asian origin.
Modern styles + appropriation
The early 2000s marked another era of radical experimentation and cross-pollination of genres in Western fashion, with designers inspired by prints and oriental silhouettes.
Influential designers like Anna Sui and Louis Vuitton have brought modern interpretations of qipao on the runway.
Vivienne Tam, who was once a designer for Jean Paul Gaultier at his peak of knit shirts of oriental inspiration, continues to create playful interpretations of qipao.
From the Vivienne Tams fall 2007 collection
Until a few years ago, qipao in its purest form remained at the periphery of haute couture and Western trends. Then a teenager in Utah wore a qipao at his ball, arousing indignation and the debate which led to the slogan which was partly war cry, partly exhausted-decree My culture is not your ball gown.
This incident sparked a nuanced debate over who has the right to wear specific cultural clothing and the message it sends to the general public and to the community of specific cultures. Is it appropriation if it is first and foremost appreciation? Isn’t fashion for everyone? Some activists claimed hypersensitivity, while other Chinese Americans were upset by the perceived appropriation.
Around the same time, brands like Zara, Topshop, Reformation and H&M were accused of appropriating the qipao style after using words like mandarin collar and oriental print to describe the clothes. Chinese Americans have been frustrated not only by blatant appropriation, but also by hypersexual riffs, which feature extremely tight and short versions of the dress, perpetuating the myths of exotic oriental stereotypes or geisha.
The durable women’s clothing brand Reformation came under fire after selling sexualized versions of qipao, presented in white models.
Sable Yong, a contributor to Allure, wrote an article titled, Are we really doing this fashion trend of Asian cultural appropriation again? which now looks like a follow-up to Zhang’s 90s experience.
However, there are many Chinese designers who want to recover the qipao as it was supposed to be: a modern garment for the modern Chinese woman.
Alexa Chung, fashion designer and TV host, wears one of her creations
YanYan Knits, an emerging brand from Hong Kong
YanYan knitwear, a Hong Kong-based clothing line created by Phyllis Chan and Suzzie Chung, embraces nostalgia for Hong Kong’s past while creating interpretations in playful colors and sleek shapes. In one Interview with Vogue, Chan noted, Theres has been an upward trend in the iconic Chinese waitress dress in the West … but Chinese clothing isn’t just that one thing.
Jingwen Daisy Wang is the New York designer of DAWANG, a modern Chinese brand exploring what it means to be Chinese-American, honoring the past while embracing the present through sexy streetwear.
And Melbourne-based designer Betty Liu elevates qipao to a level of surrealist haute couture, creating extravagant dresses that reverse the hypersexualization now associated with clothing. Liu collaborated with photographer Jess Brohier to create the photo series Eat each other, which aims to challenge cultural appropriation and to complicate Western notions of Chinese clothing without sacrificing beauty or elegance.
To eat each other. Clothes by Betty Liu. Photograph of Jess Brohier.
Qipao has proven to be an evolutionary and adaptive garment that has persevered despite history, controversy and appropriation. From feminist icons to bombs on the screen, qipao has shown decade after decade that it is more than a dress; it is a symbol of freedom, independence and power, and it has an exciting and, I dare say, sexy future.