The Qipao

A stylish embodiment of Chinese tradition and grace
May 17, 2019 Updated: May 17, 2019

The qipao’s sleek and elegant form is an image widely associated with Chinese style and aesthetic. And beyond that, this traditional dress serves as a physical record of the historic and cultural changes during China’s 20th century. The qipao represents a rich cultural heritage and a sophisticated, intricate artistic custom.

The Birth of an Iconic Garment

The origins of the qipao lie in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), when China was under the rule of the Manchus, an ethnic group that brought their own distinctive customs and clothing to the imperial court. For women, this was a long dress with a straight, relaxed fit that flared slightly at the hem. This dress was the first ancestor of the qipao.

ancient qipao
Two Manchurian women sport the long, loose-fitting dresses that were in style during the Qing Dynasty. (Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Over time, these Manchu-style dresses were influenced by elements of Han fashion. And in the 20th century, as Western learning grew in popularity in post-imperial China, the qipao began to move away from its long and relaxed fit. At the request of wealthy, educated, and fashion-forward young women, private Chinese tailors began to apply Western tailoring techniques, such as chest and waist darts and shoulder seams, to the loose-fitting qipao, giving it a flattering fitted silhouette.

emperor and wife
The last imperial couple of China, the emperor Puyi with the empress Wan Rong. Wan Rong, who received a Western education prior to becoming empress, is wearing a short-sleeve embroidered qipao. Rumor says she asked her personal tailor to redesign the traditional Qing Dynasty qipao using Western techniques. (Public Domain)

As tailors continued to incorporate more elements of Western fashion into the qipao throughout the 1930s, the dress began to settle into the style we are familiar with today.

A Fashion Phenomenon

The Young Companion_cover
The cover of the February 1935 issue of The Young Companion. (Public Domain)
The Young Companion_cover_Ruan_Lingyu
The cover of the December 1934 issue of The Young Companion featuring actress Ruan Lingyu, in an ankle-length, green-and-yellow checkered qipao with a high collar, short sleeves, and a rolled border. The border, a feature unique to the qipao, followed the dress along its collar, sleeves, slit, and hem, and, as it was difficult to make, it marked a qipao’s quality. (Public Domain)

In the 30-some years of the Republic of China (1912–1949), ideas were freely exchanged between East and West. This led to a blending of tradition and modernity and the emergence of many talented scholars and great artists.

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American Hollywood actress. Anna May Wong’s qipao features a contrasting border that adorns the lapel, collar, sleeves, slit, and hem. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This dynamic period was documented in The Young Companion, one of the most widely distributed and most influential Chinese magazines at the time. In the spring of 1926, The Young Companion was first published in the international and fashion-forward city of Shanghai. The covers of The Young Companion, which often featured female actresses and celebrities wearing various styles of qipao, witnessed the ebb and flow of changing Chinese tastes and fashion ideals.

Six of China’s seven most renowned female singers of the 1940s. At this point, the qipao featured a wide range of different styles and patterns. (Public Domain)
Indonesian actress Aminah Cendrakasih in 1959. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the qipao was popularized by celebrities all around the world. Tati Photo Studios, Jakarta. (Public Domain)

Meticulous Detail

From measuring and sewing to decoration and embellishment, hand-making a qipao takes care and attention to detail. In particular, the qipao’s adornments, which consist of traditional Chinese elements, are especially exquisite and visually stunning, giving the dress a unique grace and charm.

The fasteners that adorn qipao are unique to Chinese apparel and are known for their complex construction, elegant design, and ease of use. Handmade fasteners add refinement and grace to a qipao.

Another unique feature of the qipao is its various styles of borders, which follow the qipao around its collar, sleeves, slit, and hem. Some of the most popular styles are the contrasting border and rolled border, which is shaped like a thin round cord.

The surface of the qipao is embellished with exquisite, hand-sewn embroidery of different natural images. They can be displayed all along the dress, as a small detail, or even within a contrasting border.

Heaven Gaia : Runway - Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2017

Modern versions of the qipao grace the runway during the Heaven Gaia show of Paris Fashion Week in October 2016. Designer Ying Xiong’s elaborate designs spotlighted traditional Chinese culture. (François Durand/Getty Images)

Adorned with such intricate details, the qipao is a beautiful and enduring classic, uniting Western fashion techniques with a traditional Chinese aesthetic.

Written by Fenzhi Zhang and translated into English by Jenny Zhi, this article is republished with permission from Elite Lifestyle Magazine.