The qipao is a Chinese dress for women. The style is also called cheongsam in Cantonese, and this term has come to be the more widely used one in English, though spelled in several different ways. The defining features of the dress are a fitted silhouette, a high collar, and side skirt slits. In its classic form, there is a front flap overlapping to the right, which fastens along the collarbone, under the arm, and down the right side. The details are subject to changing fashions within the limits of the basic form. It can be sleeveless, or have sleeves of any length. The hemline varies, but usually reaches somewhere between the knee and the ankle. The qipao can be made of almost any fabric, although it is mostly associated with silk. The dress material can have a printed or woven repeat pattern across its surface or, if the material is plain, a favorite way of tailoring the style is for the front panel of the dress to be pre-embroidered with a sweeping floral or dragon design, leaving the back of the garment unadorned. The entire dress is often edged in one or more strips of narrow binding, which is sometimes in plain-colored bias-cut satin, or else of lace or patterned ribbon. Although press-stud and zip fastenings are used, traditional knot buttons made from fabric are popular. These can be extravagantly shaped and are specially made to suit the pattern or color of the chosen dress material. To be a genuine qipao, the dress needs to be custom-made. Purchasing off the rack is not considered correct form.
Origins and development
The qipao can be elegant rather than flashy. Although one of its hallmarks is a good fit, it does not need to fit tightly. In the first half of the twentieth century, there is no doubt that the qipao provided a cross-section of Chinese women with a style of dress, and consequently a mode of deportment and way of moving, that suited their increasingly public lives. But, bound up with the charges of decadence leveled at the dress, it became enmeshed in questions concerning nationalism. At the height of the style’s popularity, China, having overthrown imperial rule in 1911, was trying to forge itself into a modern nation-state. For some, certain traits of the qipao were perceived as western and therefore tainted, especially when worn with high-heeled shoes and bobbed hair. For many others, however, the qipao seemed both modern and Chinese, and Song Meiling (1897-2003), the wife of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (1888-1975), was rarely seen in any other style and used it to good effect to rally supporters to her husband’s cause.
After 1949, the qipao survived outside China among overseas Chinese, in Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, and also in Taiwan, where Chiang Kaishek set up an opposing government after being defeated by Mao. However, in these places too, by the 1960s, a younger generation of women came to view the qipao as old-fashioned and adopted a more international style of dressing. Older women still favored it as formal wear and in Hong Kong, a big tourist destination, it became associated with the service industries as a type of uniform. With the loosening up of the strictures after the death of Mao, all kinds of dress regimes became possible in greater China and the qipao was just one of several styles that was revived and also re-worked by Chinese fashion designers. Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China heightened the profile of the dress and some saw it as a patriotic garment. Qipao are increasingly worn by students of Chinese origin at graduation ceremonies both in East Asia and in the United States. Weddings in Chinese communities across the globe provide arenas for lavish spending and the qipao has become an accepted part of the marriage ritual. Western women, too, have eagerly taken up the dress and it continues to provide inspiration for Euro-American couture designers.