Description

For the past one hundred years, the qipao has been one of the most recognized garments associated with Chinese culture. In Mandarin Chinese, “qipao” translates to the “gowns of the banner people.”[1] It is also referred to as a cheongsam, a Cantonese term for long robe.[2] While the origin of the qipao is debatable, many agree that it became popular during the 1920s.[3] It was originally worn as an ankle-length, loose-fitting dress, but the styles changed frequently.[4] Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the dress became more form-fitting, highlighting the curves of the female body, and the length of the hem, side slits, and sleeves varied.[5] Embroidered floral and leaf designs were among the most popular decorative motifs for qipaos.

Shanghainese modern women of the 1920s were the first to wear the qipao, which they considered a symbol of a new China and urban modernity.[6] In 1925 Madame Sun Yat-sen was the first prominent Chinese figure photographed wearing a qipao, illustrating a sartorial statement for her husband’s Nationalist party.[7] However, it was her sister Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who was the leading promoter of the dress, as she traveled abroad representing a modern China. When film stars and calendar poster models were prominently featured wearing the qipao, the dress spread to other Chinese urban cities.[8] 

The qipao reached its height in fashion in the 1930s and was worn as everyday wear throughout the 1940s. However, when Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the qipao was considered a symbol of the bourgeoisie and became strictly forbidden. During the 1950s and 1960s, it remained popular among the overseas Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.[9] Today, qipaos are mostly worn for special occasions or as a uniform.[10] It is also worn by the wives of Chinese politicians, as it is still a symbol of Chinese feminine identity.

Details

Appropriation and Influence

An Instagram story screenshot of Kacey Musgraves in a yellow Ao Dai without pants

Anna May Wong wearing a qipao-style dress designed by Travis Barton in the film Limehouse Blues, 1934.

Anna May Wong is considered to be Hollywood’s first established Chinese American actress. She was often dressed in qipaos to enhance stereotypical Chinese film roles, like a menacing dragon lady or demure lotus flower.[12] Costume designer Travis Banton created this dress for Wong’s role as Tu Tuan in the 1934 film Limehouse Blues. It features two prominent gold sequin dragons, which wrap around the dark colored dress.

Photo: Paramount Productions. View Larger.

An image of a seated model in front of a black backdrop dressed in an elaborate light blue Ao Dai. To the right is a vertical timeline of Thuy Nguyen's achievements

First Lady Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s president, arrive for a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017.

In November 2017, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump attended a state dinner hosted by China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in Beijing. In a possible attempt to connect with Chinese culture, America’s First Lady wore a Gucci qipao-inspired dress from the Italian label’s fall 2016 collection. 

Photo: Reuters. View Larger.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Dress, white organza, lace, embroidery, dragon, by Huishan Zhang, China, A/W 2011.

Chinese-born, London-based designer, Huishan Zhang created this contemporary qipao for his fall 2011 collection. He reconstructed the traditional silhouette of the qipao and added a dragon motif, which frequently appeared on imperial Chinese clothing. 

Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  View Larger.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Flowers Bloom, Sufferings Disappear by Minrisot Liu, 2019.

Designer Minrisot Liu designed this contemporary qipao while she looked after her mother in the hospital. She used red thread to represent the care and connection between families and used a traditional Chinese embroidery technique, Panjin stitch, around the pattern of the vessels. The dress was created as a form of gratitude to medical technology in China, to celebrate her mother’s recovery, and as a dedication to the bravery of those overcoming difficulties. This garment was featured in the China National Silk Museum’s 2019 Global Qipao Invitational Exhibition.

Collection of the China National Silk Museum.  View Larger.

Endnotes

[1] Kyunghee Pyun and Aida Wong, eds. Fashion, Identity, and Power in Modern Asia. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 357. 

[2] Pyun and Wong, 357.

[3] Antonia Finnane. Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, Modernity, Nation. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 141.

[4] Valerie Steele and John S. Major, eds. China Chic: East Meets West. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 48.

[5] Museum of Chinese in America. Fashion at MOCA: Shanghai to New York. (New York, NY: Museum of Chinese in America, 2013). 

[6] Finnane, 168.

[7] Finnane, 144.

[8] Steele and Major, 50.

[9] Juanjuan Wu. Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009.)

[10] Wu, 2009.

[11] Pyun and Wong, 357.

[12] Wu, 2009.

References

Finnane, Antonia. Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, Modernity, Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 

Museum of Chinese in America. Fashion at MOCA: Shanghai to New York. New York, NY: Museum of Chinese in America, 2013. 

Pyun, Kyunghee, and Aida Wong, eds. Fashion, Identity, and Power in Modern Asia. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major, eds. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 

Wu, Juanjuan. Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009.

Learn More

Exhibition: Celebration: Global Qipao Invitational Exhibition at the China National Silk Museum, 2019.

Non-profit organization: Cheongsam Connect aims to revive and foster the appreciation of the cheongsam.

Documentary: Cheongsam: Lost & Found, 2017. Directed by Adrian Lo. Produced by Hong Kong Arts Centre.