By James Jeffrey
With the proliferation of Western fashion brands and shops in China, there are plenty of choices for eye-catching clothing. But there’s one Chinese dress in particular that succeeds in standing out from the crowd.
When a woman wears a Chinese qipao—pronounced “tee-pow”—people notice its distinctive design. A tight-fitting dress that usually falls above the knees or ankles, the close fitted neck and buttons for doing it up along one side of the body make the qipao unique. Although a dress with traditional roots, Chinese women haven’t always been permitted to wear it.
“It’s flattering to the figure, that’s why women like the qipao,” said Xiao Xing, a tailor in Beijing’s Ya Show Clothing Market. Xiao has worked at Sally Tailor making qipaos for seven years. He said the best made sell for 4,000-5,000 RMB ($615-769) and can take a month to make because of the detailed embroidery in patterns that range from flowers or dragons to fish. Other flourishes include backless qipaos and higher slits along the leg side.
More affordable qipaos are available at small clothing stores like the one run by Wang Liying in Beijing’s Haidan district, where they sell for between 100-260 RMB ($15-$40). Wang said women like that qipaos are normally made of cotton and are comfortable, light and cool. Echoing Xiao, she said there’s another crucial factor.
“Women find themselves looking sexy in a qipao.”
This hasn’t always been the case. The qipao originated in the 17th century during the Qing Dynasty. Back then it was baggy and extended to the ankles and wrists to conceal a woman’s figure and conform to feudal society’s conservative principles.
In the 1920s, especially in Shanghai, designers looked to Western styling for the qipao in order to accentuate the female figure, unlike before. After the communist revolution in China, the qipao was banned because of its Shanghai connection and by association, the capitalist West.
Outside Ya Show Clothing Market, 84-year-old Li Jinchun said she remembered women having to stop wearing the qipao and make-up after 1949 when the Communists took power.
Following the communist restrictions, the relaxation of dress regulations beginning in the 1980s led to Western styled dress in China. The qipao came back into fashion.
“Society developed and styles gradually changed,” Li said. “The Western style, the qipao—they both look good.” She added she’s not worried about Chinese fashion being replaced by Western styles—people should be able to wear what they choose and the most important thing is it looks good on them, she said.
But today the qipao’s traditional status can deter some.
“I don’t like it,” said Xiu Xiu, 20, a worker at Ya Show Clothing Market. “I think it’s for people over 30—I would feel old wearing it.”
Others say another problem can be the dress generates too much attention.
“When you wear the qipao, people look at you,” said 21-year-old student Gong Yu, visiting the trendy Sanlitun Village shopping mall in Beijing. “I don’t want people looking at me—but I think it’s beautiful.”
Yu and her friend Wang Xuehui agreed they want to dress comfortably and casually, leaving the qipao to be worn by others on special occasions.
“I like it,” said 18-year-old student Sun Xiaoke. “It’s part of our culture and should be accepted.” He added China provides a huge market for Western fashion chains looking to win over its eager youth. “The world has connected,” he said, “so maybe clothes and culture can mix together and make the world more beautiful and better.”
It’s not just Western influences visible in Chinese fashion. Styles from Japan and South Korea are much in vogue, according to Wang Liying in her small shop. She added though the qipao is the least worn style, sales have remained steady the last five years and she plans to keep selling them.
“Girls today look really good in a qipao,” said Li Jinchun. “Though the qipao is different now, as the style has changed, it still looks beautiful.”