The qipao represents so much more than the mere cloth that first meets the eye; it is part of China’s political and historical dress code. Temper presents a two-fold tale of tradition and the breaches therewith. Part I: Sketching the basics, from May Fourth fashions to Shanghai shenanigans.
Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 visually stunning and emotionally melting melancholy masterpiece “In the Mood for Love” not only struck a chord with cinematographic cities everywhere but also saw the fashion crowd flocking to protagonist Maggie Cheung’s wardrobe of “traditional Chinese” dresses.
Worn in all its glorious and colorful variety throughout the movie, a scene set in 1962 Hong Kong, the qipao, aka the urban go-to avant-la-lettre, remains a classic and sui generis piece of art that has survived the throes and woes of China’s past regime changes and the subsequent multiple reorganizing of social order.
Politics dressed in sheep’s wool — or silk.
May The Fourth Be With You
How on Earth did a nation’s revolution and the qipao fashion first hook up, one might ask. Two words: May. Fourth.
China’s May Fourth Movement (1917-1921) created a new arena of liberation for Chinese women. This woman ready to shake off society’s shackles and, as it behooves a true member of her New Youth generation, was the protagonist in her own make-over show. These women were the OG to beauty KOL Melilim Fu‘s upcoming streaming show Beauty Adventure starting spring 2020, but we digress. Moving on.
Like the Phoenix, China’s May Fourth woman rose from the ashes of the oppressive, repressive dynastical days (ending in 1912) during which China’s women were basically kept in the dark — or rather literally “indoors” due to their inability to walk on bound feet. The New Made In China Woman had arrived.
Celebrated author Eileen Zhang writes in her essay “Notes on Changing Clothes” (更衣記), “After several social movements during the 1920s, which saw hundreds of women enroll at Peking University (北大)— amongst other things, the women of Republican China (1912-1949) began to look for gender equality in their daily go-abouts, including their dressing habits.”
The social aspects of May Fourth consisted of attempts to emancipate the Chinese woman, although this manumission was often limited to movements bringing footbinding to a halt. Nonetheless, in the cities’ newly liberated women, modern girls who had received higher education became a loud voice for further changes.
Fashion history monitors often seem to interpret the evolution of the qipao as an adaptation of your standard western dress during China’s Republican era (1912-1949).
The original qipao style of the late 1910s and early 1920s boasted wide sleeves and a very loose fit with lower calf-length, concealing the curves and contours of the wearer. The silhouette and style of this qipao were similar to that of the male long robe (長衫). This particular shape resonated not only with the Chinese dress beliefs at the time, namely that a robe was not meant to be gender-bound or, in other words, was supposed to be androgynous.
The garment symbolized one nation’s newly adopted concepts of gender equality and the pursuit of freedom for women as full-fledged members on all levels of society.
The urban women’s qipao, aka the “In the Mood for Love” style as us mere millenium mortals know it, came up in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai around 1927. Specially made to accentuate a woman’s figure in all the right places and hide or smoothen out any “flaws,” this newborn dress immediately attracted a large following among Shanghai’s upper crust and celebrities.
Occurring changes in the qipao’s signature style over time echo the Middle Kingdom’s evolving trends in cultural and conceptual notions. The garment was intended to be worn in public and was an expression of individuality, femininity and the rising status and assertiveness of women. Across 1930s Shanghai, Chinese women were given their first taste of freedom and individuality.
Only a small number of scholars, yet a few more fashion historians, considered clothing in general part of hardcore politics before the 1990s — ohlala, the controversy — let alone did they take into regard how clothes throughout the years have been used to express political identity. Hey, even China’s current prima inter pares Peng Liyuan has sported the wardrobe staple on more than one overseas state visit.
Aside from becoming a cultural symbol, a fine example of national pride, and the staple national women’s dress in our 2020 present, the qipao has in the past served as an essential expression of ideological ambition. The qipao as an element of historical value. And political dress code.
The qipao, both in its sustained theme and detailed work, is a step in class above many a recent design sent down the runway. Imagination and the flow of creative juices must have been restricted as of late.
As Temper embraces all that is found outside the box and passed out next to the catwalk…
Part II of this two-fold takes us to Chic Xique, the No.1 Hong Kong qipao curator, as we discuss the current qipao climate and connotations, plus the return of tradition in China’s contemporary fashion scenery.