All You Need To Know About the Chinese Qipao – The Most Essential Fashion Symbol

Barsbold Baatarsuren
Barsbold Baatarsuren Travel tips May 25 min read

The Chinese Qipao, often known as Cheongsam in the West, is one of modern China's most essential fashion accessories and icons. The origins and history of Qipao, on the other hand, are buried in obscurity, and there are numerous misconceptions and myths about the Cheongsam.

You may be familiar with qipaos, which are tight-fitting and associated with Shanghainese socialites in the 1960s. The qipao, on the other hand, has gone through countless variations throughout the course of its lengthy and complicated history.

Qipao Or Cheongsam – What is the difference?

The terms "Chinese Qipao" and "Chinese Cheongsam" are interchangeable.

The term cheongsam is an English loanword that is a Romanization of the Cantonese word Chèuhngsam and is often used to describe the form-fitting Chinese clothing popularised in Shanghai in the 1920s. The name zansae is used in Shanghainese dialect to describe the same outfit.

Qipáo, on the other hand, is a Chinese Mandarin term. Both phrases have different meanings depending on where they are used. In Hong Kong, for example, the term Cheongsam or Chèuhngsam has become a gender-neutral phrase that can apply to both male and female traditional clothes.

chinese Qipao

In China, however, Qipao is only used to refer to the female form of the garment, whereas Chángshn () is used to refer to the male version.

Cheongsam and Qipao are names used in Western countries to refer to a female clothing worn by women solely.

The History Related To Qipao or Cheongsam

The origins of Cheongsam—or Qipao—can be traced back to the Qing dynasty, China's final imperial dynasty that reigned from 1636 to 1911. This was the period when China was governed by the Manchus.

The Manchus had an administrative system known as the Eight Banners (jakn gsa in Manchu), which was formed by the ruler Nurhachi, who ruled from 1559 until 1626. The Manchu people wore distinct attire than ordinary civilians in this system (including the oppressed Han Chinese and Mongols).

Both men and women wore long robes called changpao, though the name qipao was also used to describe the clothing worn by Manchu women.

A dynasty rule was enacted in 1936, requiring all Han Chinese to wear changpao and Manchu hairstyles instead of Han Chinese traditions. Later, the prohibition was repealed, and only Han Chinese scholars and government officials were required to wear changpao. However, Han civilian men willingly adopt the changpao throughout time, while qipao and Han clothing systems have always coexisted for women throughout the Qing era.

Women’s Approach to Gender Equality and Liberation

Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1919, women were forbidden from wearing qipaos and were compelled to adopt more traditional gender roles, while men grew accustomed to wearing trousers.

During the Republic of China period that followed, however, Chinese people gradually began to absorb Western traditions and values, and some took a bold and proud approach to achieving gender equality. By exposing their bodies, young educated women rebelled against conventional ideals and rituals such as foot binding (to the extent that they could by at least showing off their figures). Traditional gender norms were being called into question by the 1910s, and women wanted to go to school, have careers, and have a stronger voice outside the domestic sphere.

Between 1920 and 1949, metropolitan women began to wear qipaos as a means of protest. Political personalities like Soong Ching-Ling (Sng Qnglng), one of the leaders during the Republic of China's revolution, began to wear qipaos, and the movement gained traction. The qipao was named the national attire of Chinese ladies by the Nationalist government in 1927. The garment was designed to highlight and complement a woman's figure. It became more form-fitting, with some of the more daring styles featuring a high slit. The qipao became a symbol of sexuality as well as tradition from that point on.

The Modern Qipao

It's worth noting that the original qipao or cheongsam for ladies during the Qing dynasty—discussed above—didn't look anything like the cheongsams we see today in China. The original' qipao was baggy and hung in an A-shaped line that covered the majority of the wearer's body except the toes, hands, and head.

In Shanghai, from the 1920s through the 1940s, the modern version of qipao was introduced and popularised. In Shanghai, the cheongsam was modified and worn by celebrities and upper-class women.

The late Madame Wellington Koo—maiden name Oei Hui Lan—, the former First Lady of China who was also voted one of the best-dressed women by Vogue multiple times in 1942, cannot be separated from the history of modern qipao.

Madame Wellington Koo was known for her updated Cheongsam adaptations. Cheongsam dresses were slashed just a few inches up the sides back then, and Madame Wellington Koo slit hers up to one knee, just like we do now. Madame Koo was very adamant about utilising exclusively Chinese silks.

Revolution of the Qipao

During the Qing era (Manchu reign), the original Qipao was loose and baggy, with a relatively straight skirt style (compared to what we have today) and a higher neckline. Except for a little portion of the toes, both hands, and the head, it encompassed practically the whole woman's body at the time. Cheongsam designs were also known for their intricate needlework (it still is today but to a lesser extent.)

The Cheongsam or Qipao was always worn with trousers in the 1920s, for both men and women. However, as Western design items were integrated into Hong Kong in the 1930s, stockings gradually replaced trousers, and side slits became higher, extending above the knees or even the tops of the thighs, reflecting the design trends of the time.

Trousers had fallen out of favour by the 1940s, and were mostly replaced with stockings and leggings. High-heeled shoes were also brought to Shanghai at this time as a new fashion trend, and they have remained an important feature of Cheongsam fashion to this day.

Women began to wear Cheongsam with bare legs, ignoring the use of hosiery (leggings, etc.) as fashion trends became more modern, and Cheongsam eventually evolved into the form we know today as a one-piece, tight-fitting dress.

Western trends have evolved over time, influencing the evolution of Qipao design to include greater accentuation, high-necked sleeveless designs, and bell-like sleeves. By the 1940s, the modern Qipao had mostly grown into the form we know today, with a wide range of fabric and motif options, as well as a number of accessories.

How to Wear a Modern Qipao Correctly

Before you go out and buy a lovely Cheongsam, here are some helpful tips:

  • Cap sleeves may or may not be present on the Qipao. Cap sleeves are more acceptable for persons with thinner arms in general.
  • Collars that are thinner can assist lengthen your neck, while collars that are deeper can shorten it. The collar is usually 6 cm high, though shorter collars of 3 cm or less are available.
  • If you want your arms to appear longer and thinner, go for a sleeveless version.
  • When deciding on the tightness of a qipao, make sure you can sit comfortably in it. Sit down and make sure it doesn't extend over your mid-thigh. You should also be able to cross your legs without difficulty.
  • There are numerous fabric selections to choose from. As a general rule, choose a fabric that can comfortably accommodate your body without producing wrinkles.
  • If you have a heavy bottom and find tight skirts uncomfortable, you can always go for A-line skirts with a modest flare. This can cause your attention to be drawn away from your lower body.

The Bottom Line

Contrary to popular belief, Qipao (or Cheongsam) is a very recent Chinese fashion, having been introduced only in the 17th century and gaining popularity in the early twentieth century, specifically in Shanghai during the 1920s.

Despite its brief history, the Qipao has become one of China's most iconic fashion emblems, firmly identified with Chinese ethnic identity. It is now popular not only in China and Asia, but even in the United States and Hollywood.

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