Published on 2023.05.24

The Charm of Chinese Women - Qipao

In the 1920s, due to the influence of social, cultural, and political factors, Chinese women gradually fell in love with Qipao evolved from the Manchu. "Qi" refers to the "Eight Banners" of the Qing Dynasty, and the children of the Eight Banners were the soldiers and civilians of the ruling class. "Pao" refers to a long cutting gown, originally designed to facilitate riding on horses. The "Qípáo,” is a ladies' type of cheongsam. It was used in the courts and royal families of the Qing Dynasty for a long time, and it was not imitated by the noble ladies of the Han nationality until the late Qing Dynasty.

In the early Qing Dynasty, clothing reforms began advocated, requiring both men and women to wear Qing costumes. However, Han people strongly opposed it. Qing Dynasty had to accept their suggestion of "ten obedience and ten disobedience" eventually, that was, men needed to wear Manchu clothes, and women could wear Han tops and skirts to show their ethnic affiliation.

 At first, Qipao flowed from the palace to the folk. Wealthy women in Beijing and Tianjin were the first ones wearing it, and then gradually spread to the prosperous cities in the southeast China. The silk fabrics used were mostly damask, Luo, silk, and satin.

The sleeve width changed from narrow sleeves in the early Qing Dynasty to large flared sleeves in the middle Qing Dynasty. It resulted as life gradually stabilized in the middle of the Qing Dynasty. The function of it changed from being convenient for riding horses, to being a symbol of clothing for wealthy women. The styles of it ranged from simple and natural in the early Qing Dynasty to extremely luxurious in the late Qing Dynasty. They were colorful, exquisitely designed, brocade and embroidered, with high-quality materials and exquisite crafts. During the Xianfeng and Tongzhi eras, the complexity of Qípáo reached its peak. The collar, sleeves, front plackets, and other plackets, all were inlaid with lace and embroidery with large flower patterns. The original function as a trimming was only to increase the thickness of the edge of the clothes, making them more resistant and durable. After the middle of the Qing Dynasty, the decorative function of trimming replaced the practical function. Thus, edge binding, piping, and tape webbing by inlaying, pinching, and patching skills were very popular. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, its inlaid embroidery could even cover the entire garment. Anyhow, its silhouette was still loose and straight in fit.

After the Revolution of 1911, the old Qipao style gradually declined, and a new look of cheongsam was brewing. The intellectual circles advocated that clothing should return to the basic. Therefore, the top was a narrow cotton shirt with a little suppressed waist, which did not reach the hips, with flared three-quarter sleeves and curved hem with slightly decorated. The bottom was a flared skirt. This kind of attire was most advocated by female students studying aboard in Japan from Shanghai and Beijing area at first, and then spread to girls in intellectual circles, and soon became popular in high class society. Compared with the traditional Qipao, this “new clothing” had not changed much. It followed the traditional style, but the waist was slightly trimmed narrow and the sleeves were slightly wider and became shorter, and the fabric was relatively basic and plain.

In the 1920s, the cheongsam vest appeared in Shanghai. It was a short jacket with a long vest to replace the long dress. This was the prototype of the Shanghai-style Qipao. In 1926, women in Shanghai took the lead in wearing the new vest cheongsam, which was a combination of a long vest and a short shirt. This eliminated the weight of the double fabric. However, the long silhouette was still loose, with a straight flared line and hem that sits at the ankle or calf level. There were some binding and piping found in collar, chest and hem. It was no longer as luxurious and exaggerated as it was in the Qing Dynasty. It returned to the plain and basic functionality, and was the “Simple version” of Qing Qipao. It is worth mentioning that this two-in-one dressing method has an important page in the history of Chinese clothing. It was the use of western concept of armholes and sleeve-insert making up method, which were not available in Chinese clothing before. This reduces a lot of excess fullness around the armholes and shoulders which cause better movement and more intimate.

Traditional Qipao in Qing Dynasty

New Look in Early Republic of China」

The appearance of vest cheongsam


As early as the May 4th Movement (1919), the national sentiment was high, and some advocated that women's clothing should return to the traditional gown, but the style should be simple, elegant, and pure. In the "Women's Magazine" in 1921, it was pointed out: "Simple, hygienic, beautiful, and simple are the most important in dressing."

Clothes no longer carried feudal connotations, and there were no longer used to distinguish between noble and humble.

The "May 30th Massacre" in 1925 triggered national strikes, school strikes, market strikes, and boycotts of Japanese goods. Women in intellectual circles began to want to get rid of the influence of Japanese culture so they started their styles as “new look“ to demonstrate their national identity. The gowns worn by women at that time were conservative, with loose waists, sleeves reaching wrists, and body length to ankle level.

With the drastic changes in the social environment and the frequent increase in cultural exchanges with the West, the costumes of the Republic of China had undergone earth-shaking changes. Western clothing prevailed, and Chinese clothing had to accept changes. The new clothing also adopts Western tailoring methods, such as the use of breast darts to reveal the burst shape and waist darts to highlight the waist and hip curves. Fashion magazines, movies, parties, department stores and advertisements influenced the women in the big cities. The increasing westernization liberated women's thinking and formed a new concept of women.

In 1929, the government promulgated the "Regulations on Uniforms", which listed Cheongsam as a women's dress, and at the same time, stipulated it as school uniform for girls. After the announcement, schools across the whole country implemented it. Many private schools in Hong Kong also had Cheongsam as school uniforms. All of a sudden, Chinese cultural costumes flourished, and the self-image of the nationality continued to expand. The rise of the feminist movement liberated traditional Chinese women's concepts.

The status of women had improved and clothing no longer restricted the freedom of women's bodies and action. The old traditional concepts had been broken. Under the atmosphere of women pursuing science, democracy, and freedom, they were no longer willing to be accessories of men and victims of the family. They tailor made Qipao with a slim waist, narrow sleeves, curved brust, tight hips, and high slits to show the petite figure of oriental women, which showed a gentle and elegant side. The style of Qipao is simple and lively, and it highlights the effect of natural body beauty which are both elegant and implicit. It is even more attractive than the gorgeous and brilliant clothing.

Era of Qipao


Qipao allowed women to release a brand-new aesthetic view from the suppression of etiquette and placed it in a brand-new status of clothing art. It has high plasticity and strong adaptability, so the product life cycle is long. If it were made of a piece of ordinary plain fabric, such as "Indanthrene", the mass production fabric by Chinese manufacturers at that time, without adding any decorations on it, it would be unpretentious. On the other hand, if Qipao were made of traditional silk fabric, adding embroidery, sequences, and jewelry, and coming with high heels and fashionable handbag, it could be a very elegant and extravagant costume. In short, Qipao can be plain, lively, and can be grand, and noble, too. It is very suitable on different occasions. It could be a school uniform, a casual wear, a dancing dress, or an evening gown.

Advertisement of "Indanthrene" fabric


Qipao has the technical features handed down from the Qing Dynasty, such as the vertical collar, chest-fastening system, piping, binding, and tapping sewing skills. With the big changes of the times and the influence of Western clothing fashion, Qipao had found its unique way to go. It becomes unstoppable by the traditional charm and is an eclectic Chinese women's clothing.

“Contemporary Qipao”
Actress: Miss Linda LAM
Edge binding (绲邊), piping (嵌線), and tape webbing by inlaying (鑲邊), pinching & patching (宕條)

Major References 

1、《都會雲裳》 吳昊著(2006)

2、《流行背後的秘密:中國現代服裝的文化內涵》 韓冷著(2015)



Mr. Pun Chi Seng

Mr. Pun Chi Seng, Andes, graduated from the course of Fashion and Garment Technology in the Hong Kong Polytechnic, and studied in the Department of Business Administration of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1990s.
Chinese literature, philosophy, culture and history and geography are his favorite fields.
In his spare time, he likes to compose Chinese poetry and lyrics.
Tasting traditional cuisines from all over China is an indispensable part of his business trips. Now engaged clothing trade, specializing in European and American markets. He loves fashion design, tailors it himself, and presents it to his loved ones.

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