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  Chinese Way>DoYouKnow

Qipao comeback

2014-03-03 11:28:49

(China Today)


Maggie Cheung [Photo]

When I was about 13 years old, a shop called Shaolin opened up in my hometown in southeast England. At that time, I had no idea what or where the name Shaolin came from – my friends and I would pronounce it “shay-oh lin” – but after my first visit to the shop, I was certain it would become a firm favorite on our list of places-to-hang-out on a Saturday afternoon.

Shaolin was an Aladdin’s cave of Chinese goods. On entering, you were first struck by atmospheric, dim lighting and the heady smell of incense. Then, the sounds: A CD of bamboo flute music accompanied by sounds of nature, and the tinkle of wind chimes evoked a sense of calm that made you want to stop and browse. For me, these sensory experiences became synonymous with “the Orient,” and that was before I’d seen what the shop sold.

Silk bags and purses lined the walls; joss sticks of every fragrance imaginable took up a whole corner; Chinese meditation balls in their silk-lined boxes were displayed in the central aisle; and smaller pocket-money items like recycled paper notebooks with yin-yang symbols on the cover and “mood rings” that changed color and gave insights on your current frame of mind (and were, therefore, a big hit with teenage girls) were found by the counter. And on a rack by the window was an array of beautiful, silk qipao of varying lengths and colors.

Most weekends, I would go to Shaolin and eye these sleek dresses wondering whether they would look any good on me, but never daring to try one. The elegant qipao with its distinctive mandarin collar and slit skirt became something of a fixation that contributed to the picture of China in my mind. Little did I know that 17 years later I would be living in China and have the opportunity to explore Chinese fashions of the past and present up close.

When I first arrived in Beijing at the height of summer, the fashions sported by young men and women caught my eye. The men wore T-shirts in bold colors and designs and were not afraid to express their individuality through wild hairstyles, while the women embodied femininity with floaty dresses and chic heels; but to my disappointment there was not a qipao in sight. In fact, the history of the dress tells us that it did not start out with the 1920s Shanghai style and grace one thinks of today, and current opinions on an apparent revival of the qipao as everyday wear are divided.

The qipao, also known as the cheongsam, originated in Manchurian China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when certain social strata emerged, among them the Banner People. Qipao translates as “banner gown” and was originally a long, wide, loose-fitting garment. Legend has it that a fisherwoman, feeling hindered by the expanse of material in her dress, set to work to make it more practical and tailored a long gown with slits up each side that would enable her to tuck her dress in at the front. At the same time, the young emperor had a dream that foretold that a fisherwoman wearing a qipao would one day become his consort. On waking, the emperor sent his men out to look for the woman and sure enough, they came across the fisherwoman. She became the emperor’s wife and soon, Manchu women began to copy her new style of qipao.

Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, amid a period of great social change, women sought different clothing styles to reflect their increasing emancipation. In the 1920s, influenced by Western fashions and thoughts infiltrating Shanghai and trends evolving in Beijing, as well as endorsement by celebrities and the influential Soong Ching-ling, the qipao became narrower and shorter, more revealing of the feminine form. By the 1930s, women all over China could be found wearing figure-hugging qipao; it had not only become China’s national dress, but also a symbol of modernity.

In the 40s and 50s, women adapted their qipao using more practical fabrics such as wool to make them functional in the workplace. During the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), the adoption of the unisex Mao suit that emulated the style of clothing worn by Mao Zedong meant the qipao was gradually phased out in China’s mainland but in other communities, such as Hong Kong, it remained popular. Mirroring the Western trend of the miniskirt, in the 60s, the qipao’s hemlines were raised further in defiance of sexual oppression. Over time, more comfortable clothes and Western styles such as jeans, T-shirts and business suits replaced the qipao as everyday wear and by the 80s, the qipao was only worn at formal events or as uniforms in some sectors of the leisure and service industries.

In recent years, the qipao has reappeared as a mainstream fashion item in China. In 2007, the Shanghai Cheongsam Salon was established to promote the qipao and celebrate its elegance. Initially, its membership was largely made up of retirees, but lately, the salon has been attracting younger members. Qipao festivals have also entered the summer events listings in cities across China.

Today the qipao is making something of a comeback as a source of inspiration for fashion designers. The 2013 Beijing Fashion Week held at the end of October saw a number of qipao-inspired looks from China-born stylists. The designs featured new interpretations of traditional Chinese design culture such as blue and white porcelain, Peking opera and tea culture. The cuts were up to date yet unmistakably Chinese.

For many years, Chinese designers have looked West. But today, more and more national fashion houses are reviving China’s own fashion heritage, making international designers sit up and look East. With the development of Chinese consumerism of luxury brands, as well as rejuvenation in national pride, one could say that since the qipao’s heyday in the early 20th century, there has never been a more fertile time for Western designers to capitalize on China’s fashion legacy.

Recently, world-renowned brands like Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Versace to name but a few have all cited some qipao elements in their designs. The trend has been helped along by celebrity support in both Eastern and Western cultures, too: Madonna, Nicole Kidman and Celine Dion have all been snapped in Chinese dress, and the Asian film industry has played a significant role in propelling the resurgence of the qipao as everyday wear, a sure sign that Chinese haute couture now occupies a prominent place in world fashion and that traditional Chinese style remains relevant to contemporary sentiments on a global scale.

Outside the realms of high-end fashion shows, qipao have also recently been spotted being worn more commonly in daily scenes.

Weiwei Ma and Sun Jian, both in their early 30s, are Chinese teachers at an international school in Beijing and have had different experiences with the qipao. Weiwei owns about five qipao, but she doesn’t wear them very often. “I had one tailor-made for my wedding, and the others were bought ready-made. I bought them to wear at big events, including work-related events such as International Day, when students and teachers wear national dress to showcase the diversity within the school and to celebrate their cultural heritage. In fact, the last time I wore a qipao was International Day, and it did make me feel proud to be Chinese,” Weiwei told me. When asked whether she would consider wearing a qipao every day to work, she said, “I prefer to keep my qipao for special occasions. Plus, I don’t think wearing a qipao is suitable for everyone, as it needs to suit your character. While I do think the qipao can look elegant, I, personally, feel a bit uncomfortable in mine. But I have had colleagues who would wear qipao every day. That was their style.”

Sun Jian has never bought a qipao; the last time she wore one was when she was at school herself. “I remember I wore a qipao to school in the summer. It was a kind of everyday item for little girls then.” These days, Sun doesn’t think qipao suit her body shape. “I think qipao are very pretty and can look gorgeous on some people, but they are very demanding on women’s figures. Models can get away with it.” Sun recounted a humorous experience with the qipao: “Nowadays, it seems qipao are worn by receptionists at fancy restaurants or hotels rather than regular people going about their daily business. I remember one year, one of my colleagues wore her new, tailor-made qipao to work, and everyone joked that she looked like a waitress from Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant!”

It seems qipao advocates at both ends of the fashion spectrum, from the national and international designers to the members of the Shanghai Cheongsam Salon, may still have some way to go before the dress makes its way from the back of the closets to the front. I, personally, hope to be proved wrong on this and that by spring when Beijing warms up, so too will women warm up to the idea of reinventing the qipao as a wardrobe staple. By then, perhaps I will also be ready to go ahead and try one on, myself.

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