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Chinese Dress: Qipao

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Qipao or cheongsam (旗袍) are one-piece Chinese dresses that have been worn since the Manchu ruled China in the 17th century.

What Does a Qipao Look Like?

The original qipao was wide and baggy. The one-piece dress featured a high neck and straight skirt. It covered all of a woman’s body except for her head, hands, and toes. The qipao was traditionally made of silk and featured intricate embroidery.

The qipao worn today are modeled after ones made in Shanghai in the 1920s. The modern qipao is a one-piece, formfitting, floor length dress that has a high slit on one or both sides. Modern variations may have bell sleeves or be sleeveless and are made out of a variety of fabrics.

When Is a Qipao Worn?

In the 17th century, the qipao was worn nearly every day. Nowadays, the qipao is worn during formal occasions like weddings, parties, and beauty pageants. The qipao is also used as a uniform at restaurants, hotels, and on airplanes in Asia.

Who Came Up with the Design of the Qipao?

During Manchu rule, Nurhachi (努爾哈赤, Nǔ'ěrhāchì), a chieftan, established the Banner System, a structure for organizing all Manchu families into administrative divisions. The traditional dress that Manchu women wore became known as the qipao (旗袍, banner gown).

After 1636, all Han Chinese men in the banner system had to wear the male version of the qipao, chángpáo (長袍). In the 1920s in Shanghai, the dress was modernized and became popular among celebrities and the upper class. The dress became less popular when Communist rule began in 1949. The Shanghainese took the dress to Hong Kong where it remained popular in the 1950s with working women who often paired it with a jacket. An off-the-rack qipao can cost about $100 while tailor made ones can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Where Can I Buy a Qipao?

Elements of traditional Chinese dress often seen in the qipao, like high colors and embroidery, are now incorporated into everyday wear by design houses like Shanghai Tang. Simpler, inexpensive designs can also be bought online.
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