Reading the Qipao: The Story Behind the Most Iconic Chinese Dress

The lady in the black and white photo wearing a qipao always caught Helius Yuen’ eye as a child. Only years later did he discover that the lady in the photo was his grandmother. It was a total shock. He knew that she had worked as a domestic helper, and the image he had of her in his head had nothing to do with the dignified beauty of the woman in the photo. Yuen was amazed by how the qipao could so transform a person. Yuen began to collect the dresses, eventually building a collection of over a thousand pieces.

For Jody Kan, the owner of workshop Qipao Tang, it was the beauty of the silk handmade flower buttons adorning the right breast of qipaos that drew her to the craft. She was first drawn to qipaos when she visited China in the 1980s and witnessed a  grandmother tirelessly embroidering one for a granddaughter who would soon be returning from the city to get married. Since learning from her master teacher two decades ago, Kan has begun to uncover the links between Chinese tailoring and traditional Chinese philosophy, which she shares with her students.


Tailor Kan Hon-wing at work – Photo by Nicolas Petit for Zolima CityMag

Kan Hon-wing, the third generation owner of qipao workshop Mei Wah (no relation to Jody Kan), the qipao is attractive because it’s an example of homegrown fashion. “The qipao makes a Chinese woman look good!” he says says with a laugh. “People have worn too much western style attire – they’re looking for something Chinese.” He says he has noticed more and more young customers in recent years.The Chinese-style dress certainly interests young people – and not just in Hong Kong and China. An American teen recently chose to wear a Chinese-style qipao to her graduation ball and caused internet mayhem when her photos were published online. A group of mostly Chinese-Americans accused her of cultural appropriation, but on the other side of the Pacific, many of those living in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan welcomed her interest and appreciation for the traditional Chinese dress. Though it may no longer be an everyday garment the way it was for several decades in the early 20th century, the qipao is still relevant – and it’s finding new life.

But first, a question of vocabulary. Both the Mandarin word qipao and the Cantonese word cheongsam are used to refer to similar (or even the same) garments. Long robes — paozi in Mandarin — are where the qipao gets the latter half of its name. Whereas qipao is rooted in the Mandarin-speaking north, cheongsam (coeng4 saam1 長衫) is from the south, with saam1 being a distinctly Cantonese word that means “dress,” and coeng4 meaning “long.”

Qipao (or its Cantonese equivalent, kei4 pou4 旗袍) and cheongsam have been used almost interchangeably in Hong Kong. Jody Kan recalls that as a child, her mother would say, “I am going to the cheongsam tailor’s!” and come home bearing a qipao. The “qipao segments” of beauty pageants, in which contestants flaunt their Chinese sartorial sensibilities, further helped popularise the term qipao in Hong Kong.

The key difference is that cheongsam refers to long dresses for both men and women, while qipao refers exclusively to those worn by the latter – and particularly the slender, form-fitting version of popular imagination. Today, cheongsam brings to mind a silk or cotton dress with a mandarin collar and a slit on the side, like the kind worn by the late Sir David Tang, looking ever sophisticated with a cigar in his hand. He was not wearing a qipao.

Simple yet elegant. The cheongsam still in 2D, circa 1940s Hong Kong. At Haw Par Mansion (left), Diamond Hill (right) – Photo courtesy Melanie Ko

The modern qipao traces its roots to Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, but it was in Hong Kong that it made important history. China’s civil war, which led to a Communist victory in 1949, pushed the centre of qipao fashion from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Faced with an environment hostile to private business and glamorous fashion, many Shanghainese tailors fled south, bringing with them their craft and technical knowledge. They became the torch bearers of the qipao craft.

These tailors’ wealthy clientele set a trend that drew local Hongkongers to love the qipao. But the custom-made dress, not unlike couture in the West, requires fittings and expensive fabrics. Only the moneyed and the professionals such as teachers, nurses or civil servants could afford such a luxury. But they made an effort nonetheless. The colonial climate in British Hong Kong further accentuated Chinese women’s desire to assert their identity. The dress, as modelled by members of the educated upper class such as the Song sisters and writer Eileen Chang, conveyed an air of sophistication and Chinese propriety.

But it was not a purely Chinese style of dress. Even before the migration of the qipao industry from north to south, the qipao in Shanghai was already worn with Western fashion accessories including a short cardigan, a leather purse and sheer stockings. It was a symbol of cosmopolitan bourgeois aspiration – which is exactly why it disappeared for nearly four decades under the regime of Mao Zedong, which enforced a dress code of gender-neutral suits with double-breasted Lenin coats.

Free from the restrictions of the mainland, Hong Kong’s qipao tailors adopted Western techniques of using darts and shoulder constructions, and the qipao went from a two-dimensional kind of front and back panel tailoring to a the more three-dimensional form that has become iconic today. Long, loose dresses became daringly form-fitting, marking an ambitious new era of social and economic change.


KHOON HOOI Qipao 2018 collection – Courtesy of Khoon Hooi showroom Kuala Lumpur

As Hong Kong’s industrial economy boomed in the 1950s, small workshops for sewing, wig-weaving and plastic flower-making began to crop up across the city. Working class women who previously could only dream of owning a qipao had now the skills to sew and make their own. Armed with patterns published in women’s magazines that gave step-by-step tailoring instructions, women made their own qipaos with cheaper fabrics, sometimes even with hemp or curtain fabric, instead of expensive silk or lace. The vogueish dress so beloved by society’s elite was no longer off-limits, and by the end of hte 1950s, qipao had become de rigueur.

Women sporting trendy geometric patterns and even prints of oil paintings on qipao were go-go dancing to Western music in the 1960s. Hong Kong’s economic boom continued up till 1967 when the riots brought the city to a standstill. Galvanised by Cultural Revolution fervour sweeping across Communist China, leftist groups in Hong Kong attempted to push for an early return of Hong Kong to its “motherland.” The political uncertainty set off a wave of departures. Tailors recount needing to fill large orders for their well-heeled clients before they left in droves to America, Europe and other countries in the West.

By then, Hong Kong’s fashion landscape was already on the verge of a total reformation with the arrival of Japanese department stores in Causeway Bay. And children of the 1950s that had grown up in the British colonial education system fancied international fashion, music, and tastes when they joined the workforce. The qipao fell out of favour, becoming relegated to special occasions, the qipao segments in beauty pageants and as a uniform for the female ushers at Chinese restaurants.


Wearing a qipao today – Photo courtesy Sunny Liu for Yan Shan Kee Hong Kong

With the sudden drop in business and change of fashion preferences, a number of qipao tailors left the trade and found work at factories or began making Western-style clothing instead. The days where the qipao was worn as everyday wear was over by the time the 1967 riots ended.Today, a new generation is rekindling interest in the qipao. About 20 years ago, after finding the photo of his grandmother looking so elegant in a qipao, Helius Yuen asked his teachers where he could find out more about the dress. They told him to speak to the qipao-clad hostesses at banquet restaurants. That eventually led him to the few remaining Shanghainese qipao still working in Hong Kong. Today, Yuen has introduced a qipao curriculum at local girl schools, and he runs an initiative that introduces young children to Hong Kong and China’s qipao heritage.


Women in qipao in Taihoku Prefecture (modern day Keelung, New Taipei)  circa 1938-42

Likewise, Jody Kan has found meaning in reconnecting the younger generation to their roots through Chinese tailoring and the philosophies around it. She appreciates the way the fabric is manipulated with a hot iron so the cloth is moulded to fit the curves of the body, and the stitching techniques that best hold up the interconnected pieces, not to mention the handmade dancing buttons that animate the dress at the right collar. To those who comprehend the essence and spirit of the qipao craft, a Western dress with a mandarin collar and side slit may look Chinese, but is just a style absent of the wisdom and knowledge that goes hand in hand with the craft.

That wisdom goes beyond the dress itself. Kan pulls out a standard Chinese ruler. “This ruler is always included as part of the Chinese wedding bundle gifted from the bride’s family. Do you know why?” she asks. On the ruler, four Chinese characters read, “A hundred sons and a thousand grandchildren.” Kan explains its meaning. “The wish is that the bride will bring to her new household not just plenty of offspring, but a level-headedness — as exemplified by the ruler — in handling matters, in turn garnering prosperity and growth to her husband’s family.”

Even with this resurgent interest in the quintessentially Chinese dress, some women worry that they might not be tall, thin, short, fat or well-endowed enough to wear it. However, as Yuen points out, even the late Lydia Shum — a beloved comedian and actor known as Fei4 Fei4 (肥肥, “Fat Fat”), wore the qipao. “And no one would say she looked bad it in,” he says.


Contemporary qipao – Photo courtesy Yan Shan Kee

“The most invaluable gift of the cheongsam and qipao heritage lies in the ability of an experienced tailor to accentuate the best in the woman while downplaying the flaws, with their hand in manipulating the fabric with a hot iron and the cutting of fabric,” says Melanie Ko, who began learning how to make qipaos after her sister had one made for her wedding. “Making the qipao actually suits me well – it’s a great canvas for creativity within a set of boundaries,” she says. “The basic elements of the collar, the slit and the front flap is pretty consistent throughout, but I can still use my creativity through the choice of fabrics, hems, buttons and other details.”


Dresses waiting for their clients at Mei Wah – Photo by Nicolas Petit for Zolima CityMag

Jody Kan recalls witnessing the old generation of Shanghainese masters — or si1 fu6 (師父) — at work. Each had their own strength. “This one si fu was so good with fabric,” she says. “When maybe a less experienced tailor would worry that a pattern or colour might be unflattering on a person, he knew exactly how to best orient and cut the fabric so that on the body, the dress would simply turn heads.

Whereas the torch bearers of the qipao tradition were once the Shanghainese tailors who fled to Hong Kong, today, it is educators and aficionados like Kan, Yuen and Ko who are keeping the flame alive, sharing what they’ve learnt and uncovered in their fascination with qipaos. It’s a heritage that goes well beyond glamour.


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