What is qipao? What comes to mind when you think of the qipao, also known as the cheongsam

Most Chinese literature from the period refers to the dress as a qipao, the English term cheongsam actually comes 
from the Cantonese word for long robes.

Which refer to both male and female dress.

There’s a whole academic debate around the origins of that term.

Qipao Tips

So, your impressions of the qipao.

Do you think Chinese?

Do you think a sexy short tight dress?

Do you think a slit all the way up to the thigh?

Or do you think of waiters at Chinese restaurants, or perhaps airplane hostesses? 

Or do you think of Hong Kong film noir such as In the mood for love? 

Or do you think of a silent film actress such as Anna May Wong? 

Few items of clothing are now as closely associated with the Chinese image as the traditional qipao
However, you may be surprised to know, that actually has a pretty short history.

The qipao as we know it only surged in popularity in the 1920s.

That’s only 100 years ago now? 

For much of Chinese history, Han Chinese women wore a combination of a top and a skirt, or a top and trousers.

When the Manchu established the Qing dynasty.

Modes of dress started to shift, as Manchu, women wore long robes just like the men did.

Those robes are seen by some as the precursor to the qipao as they had the iconic slanted, front that fastened with frog buttons.

But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the modern qipao appeared.

Now before we get to the fun stuff, we need some context.

In that time, World War 1 had just ended.

In the west, the impact of the war meant that women’s roles in society has started a gradual but irreversible shift.

During the war as men fought on the front lines back home, women took over all the jobs they left behind.

In order to accommodate a greater range of movement, women started wearing shorter, lighter skirts that dared to show off their ankles.


They also started cutting their hair short, which was shocking at the time.

As for hundreds of years before that women basically didn’t cut their hair.

The prevalent silhouette then was loose and boxy, it was boyish.

But you know all this, what about the east? 

In the 1910s, China was in an uproar.

The KMT (Republic of China) had just overthrown the Qing dynasty.

And along with it more than 2000 years of monarchy .

And later in China, there was another revolution. in 1915, headed by students and intellectuals.

The new cultural revolution sprang up with a rallying cry of democracy and science.

Rallying around Mr democracy and Mr science, young men and women decried the old ways.

Especially the oppression of women.

The oppression of women, you say Let’s just rewind and say that the turn of the 20th century  was a terrible time to be a woman in China Maybe not as terrible as they were some hundreds  of years ago, but pretty terrible nonetheless.

If you were a woman of good standing, you had to have bound feet, or else no one would marry you.

But if you weren’t, if you weren’t rich, female infants were routinely drowned after birth because families viewed them as a burden. 

Those that weren’t were routinely sewed up to be child brides known as tongyangxi.

Note: I don’t know if this makes things better, but usually that betrothed our children too.

And they only get married after they reach puberty.

It’s more like being betrothedin the cradle, I guess the even less lucky girls were sold off to, well the oldest profession.

So all in all, just not a great time.


But since the 19th century, China had been steadily opening up.

If not by choice then at least by gunpowder.

An end to the isolationist’s policies of the Qing dynasty in 1842.

Led to an influx of new and diverse philosophical and political ideals.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

Intellectuals, especially young ones such as university students, started to realize that.

The old ways may be one of the reasons for China’s repeated humiliation by western forces.

They decried the old traditions of Confucianism

From gems such as, and I quote: 女子無才便是德 ,男主外,女主內

To snappy four word idioms such as 男尊女卑

And like suffragettes in the west, the women started to raise the cry of dress reform.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

The first to go were the long hair and foot binding.

Next were the layers of loose billowing robes, which were criticized as “Too loose in parts to keep one warm, but too tight in parts to restrict blood flow.”

The old style of dress was replaced by the qipao, which was shorter and tighter than its predecessors.

Yet not as tight as it would get in its later years.

The new dress combined traditional Manchu clothing elements with the 1920s western short dress.

So, the 1920s qipao.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

This is what i’m wearing today

It is similar to Manchu robes in that they both have a slit from the neck down to the right side seam. 

And the entire dress is fastened and held in place by frog closures.

The frog closures may be elaborate or just a simple knot and loop.

They also have a mandarin collar, something that Han Chinese clothing has had for centuries,to protect the neck.

They are both robe-like in that they reach past the knees.

However they are also different in that the qipao is much plainer.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

Late teen dynasty robes are characterized by their opulent brocades and embroidery.

And use of trim on all the edging.

But after the Xinhai Revolution, the new generation wanted to differentiate themselves from the hedonistic corruption of the empire that they so hated.

Much like the regency period of classicism after the French revolution,the new 1910s qipao was plain often in an understated solid color.

At most with a woven pattern in the fabric.

Influenced by the west sleeves also began to creep up higher on the arm.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

And for a period in the middle of the 1920s  .

Bell sleeves that barely covered the elbows were all the rage.

The most fashion-forward women also cut their hair short such as the 1920s western bobcut and set them in pincurl waves.

But not everyone was that brave. Many teenage girls such as students wore the hair in long braids.

Other women still clung to the old ways of the traditional bun at the nape of the neck.

The new qipao was similarly influenced by Western clothing.

They were both short at the hem and at the sleeves.

It was loose fitting but not billowing.

Chinese women started to forgo trousers under their robes like the Manchu used to do,and instead just wore stockings underneath

This simplified the layers of their clothes and helped the new revolutionaries do whatever they needed to do.

Be it riding cars riding bikes or going out to work.

What is qipao?
What is qipao?

Their new dress was stylish and modern, but parts of it were also undeniably eastern all the parts of the eastern women’s body that
absolutely had to be covered, such as the neck, the decolletage, and the back was safely covered.

The fashion of wearing the qipao spread from China’s fashion epicenter, Shanghai.

To all over the country via media like the pictorial news, and magazines and film.

Finally, in 1929, the KMT named the qipao as the official dress of the nation, acknowledging its undeniable popularity and influence.

While the 1920’s qipao is not as well known as its, well, sexier descendants.

We think this iconic garment still has room to shine today.

Here we have put together a few modern-ish looks to jazz up the bell-sleeved qipao.

Have a little hashtag history bounding inspiration.

Look one is a more retro look, we’ve paired the qipao with a long trench coat, a cashmere scarf, and a beret while lace-up leather books complete the look Look 2 is more of a streetwear look, we’ve  paired it with a denim jacket, white sneakers, and a statement little purse Look 3 is more of a mix and match look, with a checked belt, pastel loafers and some shiny accessories.

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