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A wardrobe retro item: Qipao

A look into Chinese fashion for women

· Chinese Elegance

A piece of tunic, flanked by breeze, can speak of unparalleled elegance. This is one of the legendary clothing item in China——the qipao.

With its standing collar, pankou and side slits, the qipao has become a powerful tool to showcase oriental feminity. Many people still remember Tang Wei, a Chineses actress, walking around in a green qipao, her elegance speaks for itself.

Tang Wei wearing the qipao in Lust, Caution(2007)

The delicate qipao has a long history with more than 100 years, drawing a painting of women's quest for beauty and liberation along the way. This week, let's dive into the colorful world of qipao!

Qipao vs Cheongsam

The qipao was born and became popular in modern Shanghai in the 1920s. Simple to wear, easy to move around and bold enough to show off a woman's curves, the qipao was not only a social dress for socialites and upper class women, but also a liberating war gown for female intellectuals.

The robes during the Qing Dynasty are considered to be the prototype of the qipao

As we know, the qipao is more commonly familiar in the West with the term "cheongsam". Cheongsam is a romanization of Cantonese word for "long-shirt", which is derived from the Shanghainese word "zansae".

In Mandarin, however, the word cheongsam is more likely to refer to a male garment. As the centre of popularity of the qipao shifted from Shanghai to Hong Kong, qipao became a more formal term for this type of women's clothing, with the Western countries following the original Cantonese meaning and still using 'cheongsam' for it.

Development in turbulent times

A tobacco poster from the 19th century Shanghai

Initially, the qipao was a loose fit and rigid in colour, in a way that suggested a shift towards the male robes of the time. In essence, however, it was still part of the traditional garment, with trousers or a long skirt underneath. The qipao was certainly a silent protest and a symbol of liber ation for women who still had to bound their feet and bind their breasts.

As time went on and society became more enlightened, women in the upper classes became more fervent in their pursuit for more modern styles. Slender tight-fitting with high side slits became increasingly prevalent. It was not until the influx of western fashion trends such as stockings and high heels that the qipao as we know it took shape.

Shanghai - A prosperous city that never sleep Yuan Xiutang c.1930s 

Since the 1930s, the qipao has evolved further in a turbulent society. From the choice of fabric, to the techniques of edging, to the variation of sleeves, women's design for the qipao was extraodinary, and the wearing of qipao moved from a metaphorical political expression to an open aesthetic attitude.

The trend leader

In fact, the first trend setters of the qipao were not celebrities, but students at girl's schools. A wide gown, a pair of trousers or a long skirt and flat leather shoes were the silhouette of the female intellectuals of that era who were brave enough to express themseleves.

Zhou Xuan in a floral qipao

Of course, it was the movie stars and socialites of Shanghai, and even politicians, who made qipao the centre of attention in social circles. There was Zhou Xuan, a famous singer at Shanghai Tan, sang a classic Ye Shanghai in a floral qipao, and then there was Soong Mei-ling stood in the US Congress in a black double-sleeved qipao.

Anna May Wong in a qipao

More interestingly, the 1st Chinese American Hollywood actress Anna May Wong captured the attention of the Western media in the early 20th century with her gorgeous qipao, which led to a wave of Chinese fever in Hollywood.

Maggie Cheing in the Mood for Love(2000)

Although the qipao experienced a decades-long hiatus in China, this did not stop the legendary consume from gracing the cinema screen. Whether it was Tang Wei and Vivian Wu under Ang Lee's lens or Maggie Cheung presented by Wong Kar-wai, those women in qipao were always a beautiful sight to behold in their time on camera.

The modern day of qipao

Nowadays, with the popularity of vintage fashion, more and more women are wearing qipao at parties, wedding and stage performances. The new style of qipao is also comparable to western dresses, showing off the elegance of women.

Meanwhile, it is important to choose the right qipao for occasions. For example, when attending a grand dinner party, the texture of the qipao fabric needs to be of high quality, the embroidered area of the bodice should be cross-referenced with the cut-out design, and the colour can be a demure black, white or grey.

Gucci's Autumn/Winter 2017 collection

In the development of qipao, there is no shortage of Western interpretations. A number of fashion designers have transformed the qipao into a multi-element fusion, giving it a new lease of life.

As Eileen Chang, a Chinese writer said: "clothes are a language." The qipao represents a personality as well as an idea. The beauty of a qipao speaks volumes. Are you ready to add the legendary piece - qipao to your wardrobe?

Founded in 2018 by Matthieu Ventelon, Hedonia is the first institution in China combining professional Wine and Etiquette expertise in the same training offer.

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