An evolution of the qipao: rising from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution and onto the catwalk
Today, the qipao (also known as the cheongsam) is rarely worn on a daily basis, instead it has become an element of nostalgia, worn during formal events and traditional Chinese weddings. The modern qipao is a short, one-piece dress opposed to the original qipao, which takes after the changshan (long shirt) – a wide and loose Manchu attire imposed upon the Han Chinese and its officials during the Qing dynasty. The original qipao covered the entire body except for the head, hands and toes.
The qipao, as we know it, is a fusion between the East and West but its most defining features remain: the iconic Mandarin collar finished with Chinese button knots and thigh-slits. Developed in Shanghai and under the influence of Beijing styles, the qipao became fashionable for Han Chinese women, namely celebrities, high-class courtesans and high-society, around the 1920s. With the growing influence from the West and a changing perception of modernity, the qipaos became shorter and tighter at the waistline to accentuate the slender figure, femininity and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Originally customised and made-to-fit, Chinese women adopted Western features onto their qipaos such as incorporating bell-like sleeves, or having no sleeves, using black lace trimmings and more.
There is no doubt this traditional attire is the core of Chinese identity that one could hardly go without the other. It is hard to believe that the qipao was curtailed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution around 1949 where it faced anti-traditionalists sentiments. Fortunately, the qipao remained popular and survived through its overseas Chinese population who emigrated to Hong Kong and South-east Asia during this period.
Celebrated for its classical elegance, the qipao is also popular for its flexibility in design as it uses a variety of prints, colours, and materials. The qipao has even inspired many Western designers like Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Giorgio Armani, and Marc Jacobs, to reinterpret and reinvent the allure of the Far East.
Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall couture collection in 1977 brought about this dream and fascination of China through his Chinese imperial-styled wardrobe consisting of brocade coats, mandarin collars, Chinese robes and qipaos. His couture designs exuded “the China of his Dreams” (Morris, 1994) and coincided with the launch of his perfume, Opium. Tom Ford, the man responsible for the Yves Saint Laurent Fall ready-to-wear collection in 2004, relaunched the founder’s fascination of China. The standout dress of that night was certainly the body-hugging, bright yellow qipao with regal dragon prints, which is currently featured in the latest exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Other recent designers like Marc Jacobs, paid homage to the Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 collection through his alluring, eclectic, 70s style with brilliant satins, gold, hot pants, red lacquer lips and of course, more qipaos.
Whether the qipao is a couture evening gown or a stylish party dress, it remains a classic and timeless piece that gives much room for interpretation but its aim to accentuate the soft curves of the female body remains. Exotic, erotic or simply eclectic, the qipao is the ultimate symbol of Eastern beauty. It also leaves a rich narrative in China’s history where it continues to evolve and adapt over time.
A Werewolf – Artist Agency production for Nee Hao
Photographed/Edited: FYi Photography
MUA/Hair: Mi_in Makeup Artist (Minaz)
Clothing: Rina Arber
Model: Angela Xie