The Qipao: A Timeless Dress

Shanghai Fashion week is upon us this month, from 12 October to 19 October, and the city's catwalks will be graced by a host of outfits from China's modern fashion scene. However, whilst many trends will come and go, one outfit that has never fallen out of style in China is the qipao. From its obscure beginnings as the costume of nomadic tribes on the northern steppes, to the dress of choice for Shanghainese fashionistas, how has this outfit survived throughout the centuries?
The dress that most consider the progenitor to the modern qipao originated in what is now Heilongjiang province in the North- East of what is now China. That area, also known as Manchuria, was long considered a barbaric territory swarming with uncultured nomadic tribes. One such tribe was the Manchus, whose women wore dresses with slits to make riding around on horses possible. They also wore tall, upright collars to keep their necks from freezing in the bitter cold. These defining features can still be seen on modern day qipaos.
In 1644, the Manchurians finally succeeded in conquering China. One of the policies they implemented, after having established their Qing Dynasty, was to enforce a national style of dress on the Chinese population. For men, this involved shaving the front half of their head and growing a long queue (the penalty if you were seen wearing any other hairstyle would be to lose your head). As for Chinese women, they had to wear a long-sleeved, A-frame version of the qipao. The design was, of course, much more suited to disguising the female form than the modern qipao. However, the high collar and horse riding slits were already there.
The latter half of the Qing dynasty marked the arrival of the Westerners in China and with them came a host of new ideas and styles. One popular hobby amongst women at the time, particularly if they had just returned from being educated in the West, was to progressively experiment with the length of their qipaos. Some of these experiments ended up above the knee even before the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912. Once the revolution arrived, Western influence and experimental fervour created the perfect conditions for the qipao to develop into something that truly exhibited the personality of the Western world, whilst retaining its Chinese essence.
Chinese women, emboldened by this fresh start, seized the opportunity to hike hemlines high, hug the body with form-fitting shapes and take advantage of the side slits to reveal more leg than had previously been acceptable. However, this form of qipao quickly gained an association with Shanghai's prostitutes, who used the dress to flaunt their wares. Thus, the same outfit that had clothed nomadic tribes and the Qing Dynasty imperial court had become the uniform of Shanghai's kerbcrawlers.
Being associated with prostitution might not sound like a promising development for the fate of the qipao, but because Hollywood was making lots of movies that explored the carnal reputation that China’s coastal cities had developed, the dress was shown on the silver screen throughout the world. Movies like Shanghai Express (1932) and The World Of Suzie Wong (1960) showcased this exotic and sensual dress to such an extent that by the 1960s women all over the world wanted one.
Another important proponent of the qipao was President Chiang Kaishek’s wife, Song Meiling, who was a terrific public speaker in both Chinese and English. Having developed immense popularity at home and abroad alike, she appropriated the qipao and brought it even further into the mainstream. For her, it was a perfect choice because it was both old and new, Chinese and modern.
Today, the qipao is still hugely popular, and has become the de facto national dress for Chinese women. This is, of course, ironic given the nomadic roots of the costume and the way in which it was once used to subjugate the Chinese, but none of that has managed to get in the way of a costume of such svelte beauty.
By Luke Flatley, Tour Guide @ Newman Tours. To learn more about the history of the qipao, and find the best places in Shanghai to tailor one, sign up for Newman Tours’ Public Qipao Tour from 10am to 1pm on 16 October. RMB 390 (adults); RMB 290 (kids under 14); includes threehour tour with a native English speaking guide, private vehicle and all site entry. See website for starting point and private tour pricing; tours must be booked in advance. Tel: 138 1777 0229. Web: Email: [email protected].