Explore the Magic of Cinematic Qipao

Amidst the chaotic bustle of Sai Wan Ho, glass doors part the humidity with a caress of air conditioning, revealing a glamour born of the silver screen. The room is crowded with figures swathed in auspicious clouds, gold, and sumptuous embroidery giving visitors a sense that they have made their entrance at a grand ball. This is the enchanting exhibition Cinderella and Her Qipao.

Charting the development of qipaos alongside Hong Kong’s cinematic history, the show was curated by the fairy godmothers at the Hong Kong Film Archive alongside exhibition consultant and costume designer, Edith Cheung. A respected authority on fashion and textiles, Cheung has been involved with costumes in over 250 films and was brought in to elaborate on the Film Archive’s 2017 exhibition, The Stars, the Silver Screen and the Qipao, which formed the basis of the collection currently on show. 

The exhibition takes its English name from Tang Huang’s Cinderella and her Little Angels (1959), and though this title evokes the magic of costumes as illusions for the camera, it is the Chinese name that carries greater meaning. It comes from a 1942 essay by the Shanghai-born novelist Eileen Chang, A Chronicle of Changing Clothes (更衣記). A keen observer of human nature, Chang was also a devotee of fashion and the qipao in particular. She clothed many of her characters in qipao and was often photographed herself wearing one. Her essay assiduously documents the development of women’s fashion following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, serving as a psychoanalysis of modern China.

The slender dress known in Mandarin as qipao (kei4 pou4 旗袍bannerman robe”), is commonly referred to in Cantonese as coeng4 saam1 (長衫long dress”). On the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China since 2021, the dress is as cosmopolitan as its adopted city of Hong Kong but has roots in 1920s Shanghai.

Chang explains that women first began to wear this kind of long gown in 1921, though it dates back much farther in Chinese history; its name refers to the eight military banners under which the Manchus had invaded China in the 17th century. Contrary to its modern connotations of hyper femininity, qipaos were originally adopted as an imitation of the one-piece robes that men wore at the time, reflecting Chinese women’s desire to liberate their bodies from the male gaze and to embrace the idea of equality between genders. 

Developing in an era of sweeping social and economic change, qipaos came into vogue among middle and upper class women whose tailors incorporated western shoulder construction and darts, even advising their clients on bras and corsets. This transformed the qipao from what Chang described as “angular and puritanical” garments into a slinky icon that “[set] off the curvilinear contours of the figure.” In 1949 the Communist Revolution would send the tailors of Shanghai to Hong Kong – just in time for the city’s cinematic boom of the 1950s.

“Films of the 1950s and 1960s are like moving-image versions of fashion magazines with actresses [displaying] qipaos in their many shades” writes the curatorial team behind Cinderella and Her Qipao. So eye-catching were these elegant dresses, that women of the elite would bring their tailors along to the theatres in order to copy the onscreen fashions. “The most ideal result [would] be the audience response: ‘It’s so pretty. I must have one made, too!”

The exhibition features 31 exquisite specimens drawn from a selection of over 100 qipaos from Shaw Movie City, Sil-Metropole Organisation and Costume Depot Rental & Production. The items on show come overwhelmingly from Mandarin language productions of the 1950s and 60s because “back then Cantonese language movies were mostly made by small independent film companies, often started just to shoot the movie,” Cheung explains. “The actresses often supplied their own costumes. Unless it was Shaw Brothers, things were not often kept to be reused in future productions.” Going through the collection, Cheung and the curatorial team selected only qipaos in the best condition, made with the most interesting fabrics. “We made sure to balance out representation across a range of different actresses, characters, and film companies. We wanted to give a fuller picture.”

Where records fell short, the team turned to old magazines. “The studios used to publish monthly or even bi-weekly magazines that promoted their movies,” Cheung tells us. “They discussed the costumes and from this, we could pinpoint which film each costume belonged to.” These magazines, available for reference at the Film Archive’s resource centre, have been reproduced in part for the exhibition. Cheung is quick to point out that “the researchers know these films by heart. Sometimes when they see a qipao, they already know which project it belongs to.” The exhibition is richly detailed and artfully presents fashions along design, narrative and historical themes. 

With the 1950s came modernist design sensibilities that found their way into the qipaos of prosperous Hong Kong. As with the swiftly developing city, “linear lines and geometric elements” were the order of the day, reflecting the “rhythm and vitality of our compact city.” Out went fusty embellishments like frog closures, and old fashioned silk, in came concealed snaps with a wide variety of imported fabrics and geometric prints.

Cheung examines one costume from Li Pingqian’s Tales of the City (1954), in which Hsia Moon plays “a materialistic courtesan.” Departing from her usual “good woman” roles, Hsia donned a qipao with a black lightning bolt pattern across the chest. “This qipao lacks all the elements we know to be qipao characteristics, becoming what I would describe as ‘modern,’” comments Cheung, who turns her attention to the body of the dress, gridded out like graph paper. “The geometric plaid on the main body fabric showed off the actress’ figure very well. The tailor cut the dress to completely show off the actress’ curves.”

She appraises another qipao from 1952’s Song of Romance. “These bold floral patterns adorn the body so closely it is as though they were tattooed on, [it’s] like a pattern painted on a shapely vase.” Worn by Li Lihua playing “a sexy, decadent songstress,” the qipao is typical of the 1950s, revealing the figure and hugging curves.

While large flower patterns conveyed female empowerment, small ones appeared “sweet and cute,” exuding “the demureness and gentleness of a young elegant woman.” Costume designers often called upon such symbolism in communicating visually. “Costumes help make the characters real,” says Cheung. Far from just beautiful garments, these qipaos played important narrative functions “providing information on the time and space of the story, the identity and the personality of the characters, expressing their emotions and thoughts.”

For telling stories, not all the qipaos on show are necessarily “beautiful” either. This is the case with one bedraggled specimen worn by Maggie Cheung in Ho Yim’s Red Dust (1990). Designed by Edith Cheung herself, this costume features an outer robe of “masculine plaid” accessorised with canvas boots, a wool sweater and padded pants “to match the direct and resilient personality of the character,” says the designer. The pragmatism of this outfit reflected the character’s wandering lifestyle “casually [coordinating] with whatever garments [were] within reach, rather than [following] fashion conventions.” For her work on Red Dust, Cheung was awarded the 27th Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film Costume and Makeup Design and, along with Jessinta Liu, Best Feature Film Art Design. 

Going to great lengths to emphasise how the qipaos facilitated storytelling, the team behind Cinderella and Her Qipao styled and customised their mannequins. “I added the accessories, shoes and earrings so they would be like characters, not just blank mannequins as in a shop display,” says Cheung. To mimic the shapes of individuals, the exhibition team came up against a particularly great obstacle: vanity. “You give better than your real figures – your height, your body measurements and this is especially true for actresses,” Cheung says with a laugh. “We actually found a group photo from the 1950s of all these famous actresses and for one of them we know for sure how tall she was, so we worked out everyone else’s measurements using her height.”

One mannequin, clad in an ivory qipao from Yuen Yeung-On’s Actress Pearl (1956), has actually been posed running, shoes in hand. The qipao’s slit has been torn and it was left in that state to demonstrate narrative function – facilitating movement as a heroine runs from her assailant. These latex mannequins, which have wire skeletons, can be posed and are not museum standard. They wouldn’t be suitable for long term use as they would degrade and potentially damage the costumes. Nonetheless, Cheung insisted on these articulated displays. “I fought for this with the conservators. The beauty of the qipao is that it reveals a lot about identity. Which class you come from, whether you’re married or a young woman. As art directors our job is to catch the moment. This is perhaps the only chance that these qipaos will be displayed in 50 years. They should be shown it the best way – like an actress with one shot. If you don’t display it well it’s really not making any legacy.”

In appreciating this work it is necessary to understand that these costumes have been designed for the camera, and that they wouldn’t necessarily work as practical garments, even though audiences may have emulated their style off screen. From afar, a qipao featured in The Green Swan Nightclub (1958) appears to feature embroidered clouds. “The studio art department painted these auspicious clouds,” Cheung tells us before turning her attention to the neckline. “In a black and white production still, we saw that the yellow colour appeared like skin tone so onscreen this looked like a sexier low-cut dress.” 

Another qipao appears to be richly embroidered but these embellishments are just superimposed cut outs from elsewhere. “The embroidery on the patches is rough as though the art department took a curtain [and] very quickly cut out some of its embroidered motifs, hurriedly sewing them onto the dress,” says Cheung. She admires the resourcefulness of her costume designer forebears. “They seemed to do this on very short notice to create a garment that suited the film’s plot.”

The exhibition is a detailed meditation on how life imitates art and how art is in turn a reflection of life. Beauty is prized over verisimilitude and Cheung is mindful of how reality can be distorted through misunderstanding of artifice and symbolism. “Today, with social media, everybody is interested in nostalgia and there are two strong schools: The style of In the Mood for Love which is rigid and revealing of the body shape; and the style from Center Stage, which is more original, two dimensional and floor length.” (Interestingly, both of these archetypes are presented by the same actress – Maggie Cheung.) 

Movie costumes are still an influence on the public. “They want to dress like that but costumes were made for the camera,” says Cheung. “The costumes [for In the Mood for Love] were so tight, she can’t really move, sometimes can’t even sit. Symbolically she is trapped. Costumes can transform someone but it’s horrible for me to see a woman trying to squeeze into these dresses.” Movies only give a feel of any particular era while their true purpose is to hold a mirror up to the present. Characters may be able to transcend time with anachronistic costume, or pour themselves into impossibly tight garments but audiences, spellbound by beauty, shouldn’t forget that fashion is irrational. “That is the beauty of film,” says Cheung, “but it is an illusion.”

“Cinderella and Her Qipao” runs at the Hong Kong Film Archive until May 5, 2024. Click here for more information about the exhibition and accompanying screenings.

Photo credit: All photos were provided by the Hong Kong Film Archive

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