Qipao Love: Part 1~ From Qi Pao to Cheongsam.....an evolution of a dress about women!

Welcome my lovely darlings to the new address www.WalkingInMay.com as the blogspot to custom domain transition is now officially completed! Worry not, if you are still using the walkinginmay.blogspot.co.uk address it should automatically divert to the blog and there is also a new e-mail address if you should like to drop me a line to say hello or ask any questions; may@walkinginmay.com! What better way to celebrate this transition than to start on one of my favourite topics.....with Part One of my "Qipao Love (All about Qipao)" series of posts!

Throughout my blog over the two years, I have mentioned the Chinese Qipao dress (also known as Cheongsam in Cantonese) quite a few times, especially during the run-up to Chinese New Year. Having a self confessed love of the Qipao, as some of you darlings who have been following may know, I can usually be spotted wearing the Qipao throughout the 15 days of Chinese New Year festivities and have been adding one or two new Qipao dresses to my collection every year in following with the Chinese 'something new to wear for the new year' tradition. I know you must be thinking it is probably the best excuse to buy a new dress...yes I must admit to that, but the truth of the matter is that the Qipao really is more than a dress or costume to me. The Qipao can be an exquisite work of art that embodies a great deal of beauty, passion, resilience and love, but it is also an old art that is at risk of disappearing one day. Why do I say so when the Qipao has been reappearing on runways from time to time and is now mass produced to be imported around the world? Well...if you know the history, why it has evolved through time and how much skill is required to make such a dress, then you will understand why. Please allow me to begin with an introdution of how the Qipao evolved... so let's begin with a brief overview from an illustration of the Qipao dress' transformation at a Hong Kong exhibition: [Watch the video about the exhibition here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOo3xR-yOMU]
Following the dress from the 1920s through changing times...from the 'Transformation of the Qipao' exhibition, Hong Kong (2012).
Source: http://www.fashionally.com/flash.php?id=48 

Dressing in a Qipao through changing times
The Qipao (in Mandarin and literally means 'banner robe')  is indeed a resilient dress that has endured more than 300 years of life, but most interesting is the fact that it has been a very adaptable dress, capable of living up to modernity and yet not appearing to be easily dated in specific eras. Whether you are wearing a vintage Qipao or a newly custom made Qipao, it is difficult to tell what period of time it was made unless you happen to be a tailor and an expert at fabric as well as textiles history. Since covering a whole 300 years may be too tricky and risk boring everyone to slumber, I have decided to use photos of the Qipao from different periods of time to briefly capture the evolution of this beautiful dress...and to demonstrate how an old vintage Qipao can just as well be worn today! Because it really is a dress about women, but most of all it is a dress that celebrates and enshrines the simple beauty of the female form. Let us begin from:

~The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)...
The roots of the Qipao can be traced to the identity of different noble clans who held power as well as wealth during the Qing dynasty, because the Mandarin term "Qi Pao" (Banner Robe) was used to describe the long dress worn by women belonging to the Eight Banners (clans) of Manchu. It was a long A-shaped, loosely fitted and squarely cut silk brocade robe adorned with different embroidered motifs that reflected the status, position or title of nobility the wearer held, and was usually worn over several layers of silk under-dress (as you can probably tell from the layered sleeves in the photo). The slight variation in styles in different regions, the choice of silk brocades from different fabric weavers and being entirely custom made, has propelled the Qipao to an early notion of fashion in China. 
Qing Dynasty...Manchu noblewoman Lady Heseri during the Guangxu period (1875-1908)
Source: Wikipedia

Qing Dynasty...Manchu noblewoman Lady Aixingioro Hengxiang during the Guangxu period (1875-1908)
Source: Wikipedia

~The 1912 onwards...
As the Qing dynasty fell and the world began to flap to the roaring twenties, the Chinese Qipao began changing to keep up with the fashion of the time. With a period of uncertainty, some women even feared wearing the Qipao in case they were linked with the Qing dynasty, and hid the Qipao opting for simple two piece garments. But as schools and universities started opening up for women to join into an intellectually modern time influenced by political change and ideals from the West...young ladies daringly looked for a new way to express themselves. The answer became the Cheongsam (Changshan/Changpao/Changfu - Mandarin); which literally means long robe or clothing in Cantonese, that was a commonly worn simple long shirt or robe (often without embroidery but sharing a mandarin collar and loose shape of the ancient banner robe) by men. In a significant move to represent the new intellectual movement and equality in education for women, the Qipao became a symbol for the new intellectual woman in China.
Traditional Qing garments worn by a government official and his family
Source: angelasancartier.net/china-history-of-dress

Changshan for men can be a two piece with long shirt....

Changshan or Changfu as a long one piece robe for men
was the equivalent of the Cheongsam for women: Source

~The 1920s 
By the early 1920s, the length of the hem was shorten up to the ankle and the sleeves stopped a little below the elbow as it became more acceptable to reveal the feet and lower arm. Western influences appeared in the form of imported fabric, but details such as material type, embroidery and clasps still could reflect the wearer's social status or background. As the 1920s progressed, the Qipao became more fitted at the waist to better encapsulate the female form, the number of silk under-dresses fell and varieties were made for different occasions from parties to daily wear. The more glamorous ladies took to wearing Western Marcel Waves (finger waves), Art Deco styled jewellery, pearls, cardigans, capes or shrugs with the Qipao...as you can probably see from the photo (below) of Imperial Concubine Xiang (1913-1949).
Republican period...Imperial Concubine Xiang (1913-1949)
Source: Wikipedia 

Last monarch of the Qing Dynasty....Empress Wanrong and Emperor Puyi

Famous silent film actress Hu Die (Source)

~The Golden Age of 1930s...
The well fitted and glamorously modernised Qipao was firmly established by the 1930s, with girls following trends and establishing personal styles through the influence of famous singers, actresses or beautiful calendar girls who were the models of the time. There are two main styles of Qipao tailoring, namely the conservatively more angular Beijing style and the progressively romantic Shanghai style. This is claimed to be the time when the Shanghai tailoring style became creatively free in combining or adapting to current popular trends and new fabrics as well as western tailoring and materials such as lace. Features such as the high side slits and shorter sleeves became more pronounced like a statement of the dress, but the length became floor draping and long enough to cover the feet again. The Qipao quickly became the most popular and fashionable choice of clothing for Chinese women who opted to combine it with Western high heeled shoes and natural coloured tights or stockings. Famous trend leading stars of the time included actresses Ruan Lingyu, Hu Die, Lily Lee, Yuan Meiyun, Zhou Xuan and more....

Famous silent film actress Hu Die (Source)

~The 1940s...
The golden age of the Qipao continued as it remained highly popular and at the height of fashion throughout the 1940s, especially in glamorous cities such as Shanghai which was known as the pearl of the East and labelled the Paris of Asia. The Qipao became more about chic sillhoutte as embroidery and hard to care for silk fabrics became pieces for specil occasions. As women started ventuting out of homes to work, the Qipao became an even more practical daily garment with focus on easy to care fabrics, plainer styles and vibrant patterns. Practical western styles or imports such as zips, shoulder pads, buttons or full lace were also inventively used by some tailors. Calendars with beautifully painted female models in Qipao dresses graced the walls of most homes, advertising products, depicting the most fashionable styles in Vogue and continued to fuel the Qipao's popularity. But when the war hit, fashion came to a halt with the Qipao being hidden in the bottom of suitcases and people fled for their lives.

Vintage Qipao dresses dated  1946-1956. (Source)

Painted calendar girl in Qipao advertising products...

~The 1950s...
After the war the People's Republic of China was formed, the Qipao was gradually phased out in the mainland for its ideological links and many Qipao tailors fled the country. But the Qipao was still worn by Chinese ladies overseas in places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and especially Hong Kong; where many Shanghai Qipao tailors had fled to. Hong Kong prospered in the 1950s and Qipao was the chosen daily wear of most women, so the custom made Qipao became a booming trade! The well skilled tailors in Hong Kong led the Qipao fashion by incorporating more Western styles into the Qipao, such as the shorter tapered hem to echo the fashionable pencil skirts of the time, front as well as back waist darts (seams) to create a tighter hour glass silhouette, higher side slits to ease movement and a functional zip to make the Qipao easier to wear.
Video: 'Transformation of the Qipao' exhibition in Hong Kong (above).

Early 1950s outside the Capitol Record building in Los Angeles......

~The 1960s...
The emergence of the 60s mini skirt led tailors to create a mini short length Qipao which created public outrage in Hong Kong and a proper dress movement was formed in protest, so many girls opted for the midi Qipao which ended just below the knee. Geographical differences also led to the Cantonese name of Cheongsam being used more often, and cultural fusions enabled the Qipao to be tailor made with local wax painted or dyed Batik fabric in places like Singapore and Malaysia. [To find out more about Batik fabric and prints, please click here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batik] The Qipao gradually became occasional wear, rather than daily wear, as more Western forms of clothing were adopted in different places.

Yu Ming and Lin Dai from 1950s to 1964

Famous singer Zhang Xue Fang (Record cover in 1962)

~The 1970s onwards...
From the 1970s the Qipao firmly became an occasional dress used for special events such as weddings, beauty pageants, parties and Chinese New Year festivities, but it was also adopted as uniform in some schools and restaurants.

Reaching Modernity: Silk and fur Qipao designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior Fall 1997.
(Book: In the mood for Cheongsam; Modernity and Singapore Women, 2012)

The evolution of fashion in 1930s Shanghai.....consisted of a mix in Eastern and Western clothing, but the Qipao became the iconic leading trend and evidence of high fashion at the time.
Source: http://thefashionhandsthecity.blogspot.co.uk/# 

Famous silent film actress Anna May Wong (1920s) to writer Eileen Chang (1940s)

The Qipao today
With recent increased appearance of the Qipao in movies such as 'In the Mood for Love', the Qipao has reappeared under the spotlight once again. Though how the Qipao is worn depends highly on personal style and preferences, it still remains a beautifully timeless dress...which I often find a pity to reserve solely for special occasions and festivities. To demonstrate a little glimpse of what I mean, here is Part ONE of the documentary following the evolution of the Chinese Qipao to modern times by China's international television chanel CCTV:

Part TWO of the Chinese Qipao documentary:

Part THREE of the Chinese Qipao documentary:

The stark contrast between the loose school uniform Qipao and the glamorously fitted sing-song girls' Qipao dresses of war-torn Nanjing 1937...in the film 'Flowers of War' (2011).
Source: http://reviewspp.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-flowers-of-war.html

Personally, I have always preferred the Mandarin name Qipao, as I find it a more fitting name to describe a beautiful dress that has been draped with such richness in history and endured such heavy changes through time. Call her by her different names if you wish.....Qipao, Cheongsam, Chinese dress or dress of cultural identity.....she is simply a dress that is about the woman inside and a frame of her true beauty. I hope Part One of the Qipao Love (All about Qipao) series has helped you lovely darlings discover a little bit more about this unique dress, and perhaps intrigue you enough to try it one day! Here's wishing all you lovely darlings a fabulously merry weekend!

Until the next time,
May xx

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  • Hong Kong Museum of History:  www.lcsd.gov.hk/ce/Museum/History/en/ex_special_qp_mar10.php 
  • 'Changing clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation' by Antonia Finnane
  • 'The meaning of Qipao as traditional dress' by Chui Chu Yang
  • 'In the Mood for Cheongsam: A social history, 1920s-Present' by Lee Chor Lin and Chung May Khuen


  1. Hi May! Nice overview of the qipao and its evolution. I was excited to see Wilson Shieh's ad for the "Transformation of the Qipao" exhibit. I'm a big fan of his artwork. Happy holidays and best wishes for 2013!

    1. Thank you Dave! Glad that you liked the post and I liked the illustration on the transformation of the Qipao too but didn't realise who the artist was! Hope you had a lovely Christmas and will have a brilliant New Year...Happy 2013!

  2. Nice work! I love the Qipao now! : ) You have a wonderful blog, Thanks

    1. Thank you Rob! Glad you enjoyed the post and like my blog! There shall be more posts to come on the Qipao. Have a Happy New Year!

  3. Great post thanks for sharing you shared such a beautiful pictures and video.

    Chinese Clothes

  4. My mother had several custom-made cheong sam (qipao) made for her in 1967 before she emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada. She passed away a few years ago but we still have these exquisite dresses carefully packed away. Too precious to give away, they are a time capsule from the height of Hong Kong custom tailoring, created by master craftsmen many of whom were Shanghai refugees.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! It is indeed an amazing collection to keep as the tailoring must be exquisite....it will be rare to such gems today with the mass-sold market of factory made Qipao. Shanhai taloring masters were known as one of the best in the world. Perhaps it can be passed down to your next generation as a family heirloom....it will be a beautiful gift for the future generations to come.

  5. Thank you for the great post! This really helped me with my project on the qipao. Keep up the great work!


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~Thank you. I love hearing from you and appreciate every beautiful comment. Thank you for walking with me friend.....may your path always be auspicious!

With Loving Kindness,
♥ May xx

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