Qipao, also known as cheongsam (旗袍) in Cantonese, is a one-piece Chinese dress that has its origins in Manchu-ruled China back in the 17th century. The style of the qipao has evolved over the decades and is still worn today.
During Manchu rule, the chieftain Nurhachi (努爾哈赤, Nǔ'ěrhāchì) established the banner system, which was a structure for organizing all Manchu families into administrative divisions. The traditional dress that Manchu women wore became known as the qipao (旗袍, meaning banner gown). After 1636, all Han Chinese men in the banner system had to wear the male version of the qipao, called the chángpáo (長袍).
In the 1920s in Shanghai, the cheongsam was modernized and became popular among celebrities and the upper class. It became one of the official national dresses of the Republic of China in 1929. The dress became less popular when Communist rule began in 1949 because the Communist government tried to erase many traditional ideas, including fashion, to make way for modernism.
The Shanghainese then took the dress to British-controlled Hong Kong, where it remained popular in the 1950s. At that time, working women often paired the cheongsam with a jacket. For example, Wong Kar-Wai's film "In the Mood for Love," set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, features Maggie Cheung wearing a different cheongsam in almost every scene.
What a Qipao Looks Like
The original qipao worn during the Manchu rule was wide and baggy. The Chinese dress featured a high neck and straight skirt. It covered all of a woman’s body except for her head, hands, and toes. The cheongsam was traditionally made of silk and featured intricate embroidery.
The qipaos worn today are modeled after ones made in Shanghai in the 1920s. The modern qipao is a one-piece, form-fitting dress that has a high slit on one or both sides. Modern variations may have bell sleeves or are sleeveless and made out of a variety of different fabrics.
When a Cheongsam Is Worn
In the 17th century, women wore a qipao nearly every day. During the 1920s in Shanghai and 1950s in Hong Kong, the qipao was also worn casually quite often.
Nowadays, women do not wear a qipao as everyday attire. Cheongsams are now worn only during formal occasions like weddings, parties, and beauty pageants. The qipao is also used as a uniform at restaurants and hotels and on airplanes in Asia. But, elements of traditional qipaos, like intense colors and embroidery, are now incorporated into everyday wear by design houses like Shanghai Tang.
Where You Can Buy a Qipao
Qipaos are available for purchase at high-end boutique stores and are personally tailored at clothing markets. You can also find a cheap version at streetside stalls. An off-the-rack qipao at a clothing store can cost about $100, while tailor-made ones can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Simpler, inexpensive designs may be purchased online from Cntraditionalchineseclothing.com.