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Chinese Dresses Qipao(Cheongsam)

By Otto Freese

1. Introduction

Qipao, the classic dress for Chinese women, combines the elaborate elegance of Chinese tradition with unique elements of style. The high-necked, closed-collar Qipao / Cheongsam, with a loose chest, fitting waist, and the attractive slits, is one of the most versatile costumes in the world. It can be long or short, some with full, medium, short or even no sleeves at all - to suit different occasions, weather and individual tastes.

The Qipao / Cheongsam can display all women's modesty, softness and beauty. Like Chinese women's temperament, the Qipao / Cheongsam is elegant and gentle, its long-standing elegance and serenity makes wearers fascinating. Mature women in Qipao / Cheongsam can display their graceful refined manner. A Qipao / Cheongsam almost varies with a woman's figure.

What serves as a worthy testament to the beauty of the Qipao / Cheongsam is, however, it does not require the wearer to pep up the look with accessories like scarves and belts. Designed to show off the natural softness of the female form, it also creates the illusion of slender legs. The overall picture: practical, yet sexy.

Because of its particular charm Qipao / Cheongsam is like a wonderful flower in the Chinese colorful fashion scene. Another beauty of the Qipao / Cheongsam is that it is made of different materials and can be worn either on casual or formal occasions.

In either case, Qipao / Cheongsam creates an impression of simple and quiet charm, elegance and attraction. With distinctive Chinese features Qipao / Cheongsam enjoys a growing popularity in the international world of high fashion.

The Name:
In Northern China, e.g. Beijing, the term "Qipao" is popular - for the term's origin please have a look at the history of Qipao. In Southern China the Qipao is also known as "Cheongsam". Cheongsam means "long dress", entered the English vocabulary from the dialect of China's Guangdong Province (Cantonese).

2. The history of Qipao

Qipao / Cheongsam is an elegant type of Chinese dress. This close-fitting dress with a high neck and the slits on the sides, comes from China's Manchu Nationality.


There is a legend that a young fisherwoman lived by the Jingbo Lake. She was not only beautiful, but also clever and skillful. But when fishing, she often felt hindered by her long and loose fitting dress. Then an idea struck her: why not make a more practical dress for work? She got down to sewing and produced a long multi-looped-button gown with slits, which enabled her to tuck in the front piece of her dress, thus making her job much easier. As a fisherwoman, she never dreamed that a fortune would befall on her.

The young emperor who ruled China at that time had a dream one night. In the dream, his dead father told him that a lovely fisherwoman in Qipao by the Jingbo Lake would become his queen. After awakening from his deep sleep, the emperor sent his men to look for her. Sure enough, there she was! So she became the queen, bringing her Cheongsam with her. Manchu women all followed suit and soon the Qipao became popular.

We do not know whether the story is true or not. But one thing is certain. The Cheongsam came from the Manchus who grew out of ancient Nuzhen tribes. In the early 17th century, Nurhachi, a great political and military strategist, unified the various Nuzhen tribes and set up the Eight Banners System. Over the years, a collarless, tube-shaped gown was developed, which was worn by both men and women. That is the embryo of the Qipao. The dress is called Qipao in Chinese or translated as "banner gown", for it came from the people who lived under the Banner System.

The Qipao became popular among ladies of the royal family in the Qing Dynasty. At that time, Qipaos were fitted loosely and were so long that they would reach the insteps. Usually, they were made of silk and the whole dress was embroidered, with broad lace trimmed at the collar, sleeves and edges.

In the 1920s, Qipao / Cheongsam became popular throughout China. With the influence of Western dress styles, the Cheongsam underwent a change. The cuffs grew narrower and were usually trimmed with thin lace. The length of the dress was shortened as well. This new adaptation allowed the beauty of female body to be fully displayed.

In the 1930s, wearing a Qipao / Cheongsam became a fashion among women in the whole of China. Various styles existed during this period. Some were short, some were long, with low, high or even no collars at all.

Starting from the 1940s, Cheongsams became closer-fitting and more practical. In summer, women wore sleeveless dresses. Qipaos of this period were seldom adorned with patterns.

The Qipao became standard female attire until the 1960s. Following Western fashion, the tailors raised the hem, even to above the knee, so that the "long" was long no longer. In the West, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s the style was deemed something oppressive, like the Victorian bodice.

In Western popular culture, the qipao became synonymous with the 1960 movie character Suzie Wong and the sexual objectification of women.

Today, with its variety of styles, the Qipao / Cheongsam shows its charm at many markets. More and more women in China appreciate its beauty. For instance, when wives of China's diplomats attend important social gatherings, the Qipao is their first choice among dresses. In fact, quite a number of influential people have suggested that Qipao / Cheongsam should become the national dress for women in China. This shows that the Cheongsam remains a vibrant part of Chinese culture.

Wearing a Qipao nowadays has turned into something of a vogue, both at home and abroad. Due to its elegance and classical looks the Qipao becomes a source of inspiration for fashion designers. World-renowned brands like CD, Versace, and Ralph Lauren have all cited some Qipao elements in their designs. Many foreign women are eager to get themselves a Qipao should they visit China. Qipao is no longer a garment particular to Chinese women, but is adding to the vocabulary of beauty for women the world over.

3. Getting the best fit and how to wear

Getting the best fit

The Qipao / Cheongsam is normally designed to flatter the feminine body. But not everyone has the figure of a model. How then should you choose a Qipao / Cheongsam that would accentuate your assets and hide your fatal flaws? The following guidelines may help you make the right choice.

For short women, avoid boxy cuts with shoulder pads as they weigh you down. Too long a dress will also have the reverse effect and make you look shorter.

Women with broad shoulders should avoid shoulder pads as they will make them look top-heavy. Instead, opt for softer fabrics like silk to soften the silhouette.

Skinny women can go for brocade which can give more form and curves to their body structure. A brocade is a heavy silk fabric with a raised design on it, often sewn on with gold or silver threads.

For those with flabby arms, choose a Qipao / Cheongsam with three-quarter sleeves to hide the excess flesh.

Women with short necks should pick a Qipao / Cheongsam with a lower collar so that it helps make the neck look longer. On the other hand, women with longer necks can look stunning in a Qipao cut with a high collar.

For those who are disproportionate in shape, with either a heavy top or a heavy bottom, wear Cheongsam separates.

Top-heavy women should avoid big, contrasting prints on the Qipao top. Choose a simple one-colour top.

A straight-cut skirt with a side slit is ideal for women who have large bottoms.

How to wear

As for daily casual wear, in summer, you can choose some thin fabrics such as pure cotton delaine printed with little flowers, sack and yarn cloth, silk, and poplin.

In spring and winter, there is chemical fiber or blended cloth like gleaming silk and thinner woolen cloth.

If for formal affairs like ceremonies or performances, in summer, you should select pure silk crape de Chine, thin silk, which are soft, light and cool since it won't stick to your body.

For spring and winter, satin and velour are the best: tapis, treasures, crape and spun gold damask.

For wearing a Qipao / Cheongsam pay attention to the whole appearance: Hairstyle, jewelry, stockings, and shoes should match to the design and colour of the Qipao / Cheongsam and should be presented as an unit.

4. Style elements and material

The collar

The collar of Qipao / Cheongsam is high and tight fitting, not just for preventing coldness but also for beauty. The collar of Qipao / Cheongsam generally takes the shape of a semicircle, its right and left sides being symmetrical, flattering the soft and slender neck of a woman. The collar of Qipao / Cheongsam is meticulously made, especially the buttonhole loop on the collar, which serves as the finishing touch.

The slits

For convenient movement and display of the slender legs of women Qipao / Cheongsam generally has two big slits at either side of the hem. The slits of Qipao / Cheongsam expose a woman's legs indistinctly when she walks, as if there was a blurred emotional appeal of "enjoying flowers in mist". Today you can get Qipao / Cheongsam with different lengths and kinds of slits (one slit on the side or front as well as two slits).

The material

The Qipao / Cheongsam usually is made of excellent materials like silk, silk brocade, satin, satin brocade or velour's. Nearly all colors can be used. Often the Qipao / Cheongsam gets a certain pattern, such as Chinese Dragons, different kinds of flowers, butterflies or other typical Chinese icons (e.g. prosperity, wealth).

5. Motives

Peony is a very common design for Chinese ladies' clothing. Chinese people love peony since more than 5000 years and it is the most favoured flower in China. So peony was choosed as Chinese National Flower. Peony symbolizes richness and prosperity.

Chinese people - and other people in the world too - love the Lotus flower. In Tibet even Lotus is a sacred flower. It is worshiped by the people of Tibet because it stands for purity and holiness. In China's culture there is a legend about a Lotus Fairy, an outstanding beautiful and charming lady who always gave a helping hand to people. Lotus symbolizes beauty and purity and so you can find the Lotus motive very often on Chinese clothes.

In Chinese culture Chrysanthemum symbolizes longevity. Therefore Chrysanthemum is another frequently used motive on Chinese clothes for ladies.

In ancient Chinese culture the fish is a symbol for prosperity: The pronunciation of the corresponding Chinese character sounds "Yu" and this means the same as prosperity. You often can find the fish motive on Chinese clothes to express someones wish for a future full of prosperity.

The (male) dragon is a frequently used motive on clothes of Chinese Mandarin people. Dragon symbolizes "Supreme Power". But not only the Chinese emperor wore dragon motives. There had been some rules about wearing this motive: A facing out head of the dragon marked the initiation of the tradition for the emperor, while the most favoured courtiers wore dragons that faced the onlooker. Other noblemen and officials wore profile dragons.

The (female) phoenix was a frequently used motive on Chinese ladies' clothing within the imperial family. Actually the Empress wore Dragon designs often and the Phoenix was worn by imperial concubines, wives of princes and princesses. Other important ladies like wives of dukes, marquises, earls, and first- and second-rank officials wore tartar pheasants motives. The peacock was the motive for wives of third- and fourth-rank officials. The mandarin duck design was for wives of fifth-rank officials. The paradise flycatcher was used as motive for the wives of sixth- and seventh- rank officials. All these are symbols of beauty and purity.

Other motives
There are other typical motives on Chinese dresses, e.g. the Happiness Motif, the Longevity Motif, the Five Blessing Motif, Cherry Blossom, and more.

6. Care of Qipao

General care:
High Quality Qipao / Cheongsam are made of good, but sensitive fabrics. Therefore you generally should be careful when you wear a Qipao / Cheongsam. Stains can be difficult to remove and thats why you should try to avoid them. You also should avoid fabric coming in contact with rough or sharp objects, which can hook the fine weave and cause dulling or frayed threads. Rolling up sleaves can cause creasing / stretching.

Laundry / cleaning / iron:
Most Qipao / Cheongsam should be hand-washed or dry cleaned. In general dry cleaning is recommended, since laundering detergent and dyes in other clothes may affect fabric adversely. When washing a Chinese dress, always avoid strong detergents and gently wash by hand if possible. Chlorine bleach should never be used.

Ironing is fine regardless of fabric, but you should put a white damp cloth between the iron and the dress to avoid softening and color change. And if you dirty your Qipao / Cheongsam with incaution, you can cover the blot with a piece of moist cloth and then iron. The cloth can absorb some dust.

After washing and/or ironing, hang it (preferably in a well-ventilated area) to cool and dry fully before storing. Also fabric can be allowed to dry on a white towel.

Gently hand-wash with neutral detergent. Hang to dry where it is not too hot. Avoid to hang it under the sun. It is best to iron when almost dry, using a white cloth under the iron. You can use higher heat, but you should avoid squirting water on fabric (may leave water marks).

Brocade satin:
Should be dry cleaned - not washed in water or washing machine. If it is a bright-coloured fabric, the ironing temperature should be lowered moderately.

Qipao / Cheongsam should be hung on wide hanger and not folded while storing. So if you want to stow your Chinese dress for long, make sure that it is hung up by the clothes rack, especially, the shoulder is crutched properly.

Mothballs may be a good idea, but avoid the campher variety, which can cause yellowing of lighter fabrics.

This article is republished with author's permission from http://www.my-qipao.com. The site provide more Qipao facts with photos, interesting information, typical style elements and recommended shop.


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