The qipao. From the desire to repeal all dusty imperial customs and reinvent China — Republican-style, from sexual to national symbol… Temper presents a two-fold tale of tradition and the breaches therewith. Part II: The evolution of a cultural revolutionary.
As the old Chinese saying goes, “If one seeks to identify a true beauty, then one must look at her appearance in a qipao”. This is precisely what Temper is here to do today. Backed by a true pro in the field: Chic Xique.
Chic Xique, founded by Yolanda Luo and based in Hong Kong, is the first 21st Century qipao lifestyle-gram, bringing together anything and everything concerning this historical, cultural and revolutionary classic.
Symbolizing the liberated 1920s New China Woman, this beckons the question… Is the qipao ready for another century of rambunctious revolution?
Perhaps it’s a matter of cultural or historical connotations or perhaps it’s a mere matter of superficial flamboyance vs. cautious modesty, but most of the time you will only see Chinese women anno 2020 wear the nation’s ultimate traditional dress on serious occasions, rather than frivolous ones, such as weddings, graduations, international conferences,… Basically any other event than that of daily life.
Luo and Chic Xique since 2017 have been upping the ante and set out to change this attitude of caution and are bringing the sexy, in whatever fashion that may be, back.
Nevertheless, to get to the heart of this story, you have to go back to the beginning. Or at least a little bit back in time.
A Cultural Revolutionary
After the Republic of China was established in 1912, it was widely felt in China that, after an extended period of foreign intrusion — and the subsequent plummet in national pride, accompanied by a steep rise in prejudice — the newly found Republic found itself brimming with enlightened citizens who needed to quench their thirst for new knowledge and exploration in all facets of life.
These men and women consequently felt an untameable desire to rid themselves of the dusty imperial customs, that had been seeping in from outside the Kingdom for nearly one century, in order to compete with the other nations of the modern world. And so began the Republic of China’s quest for a new wardrobe incorporating styles that were both considered modern and Chinese. Women, in particular, set out to bag themselves some new clothes in their newly established liberalist freedom. And a bargain hunt, it was not.
China’s women’s movement set up base camp in 1920s Shanghai, prompting many a missionary and merchant across the Pearl to open up schools for girls and young women of all social layers. Education, as it always has and forever will, proved key to the feline gender to move onwards and upwards.
In fact, more than one fashion historian believes it was these female students daring to wear a Plain Jane yet fashion game dress, aka the modern qipao, who in fact laid the ground patterns for the new clothing style — “designed” by the New China Woman, for the New China Woman. A new intellectual (aesthetic) had entered the scene and was there to thrive.
To sum things up, the dress soon became popular with the celebrities and upperclassies of the times. After a standstill during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) — and most of the Mao Zedong reign for that matter — fashion tiptoed its way back into China by the late 1970s, with the proclamation of the (post-Mao) “Four Modernizations” steps program towards economic reform.
By the early 1980s, the qipao witnessed a revival, both in China and abroad. Worn both as formal wear that signaled a sense of national pride and as a traditional dress for women in the hospitality industry, such as stewardesses and waitresses, the qipao was back in town.
And thus we enter the year 2020.
Chic Xique Tells A Modern Qipao Tale
Enough with the Temper mumblings and on with the Chic Xique talking. Luo, start spreading that love!
Temper: What’s your fashion prerogative?
Luo: Xique is pinyin for 喜鹊 (xǐquè| magpie) in Chinese, my lucky bird. “Chic” is, obviously, a western word. I’m combining East and West with my personal elements. Just like my preferred qipao style. I would call myself a qipao advocate who strives to build a platform that brings together in one place all qipao designers/brands/tailors and becomes the CHICkipedia of Fashion Oriental in an attempt to create a new trend of the most iconic Chinese dress. I do in the end want to spread the essence, history, and culture of the qipao. But if you try to do so in a mediocre way, nobody will pay attention.
I hope to use a chic way to grab people’s attention, show them the most creative presence of the qipao and eventually lead them to think, “Oooh..so a qipao can actually be worn like this or that” or “I had no idea you could create a qipao out of denim”. After you have their attention, you can gradually instill a more subtle message.
Temper: What makes the qipao stand out in China’s fashionable history?
Luo: Well it actually can take up to a week to explain the history part. The qipao‘s origin is rather controversial. The teacher of my Qipao Design and Production class thinks it does not originate from the Qing Dynasty [1644-1912], but instead was an adaption of the western-style dress during the Republican era when people were more open to the cultures seen in the West and were creating a hybrid of traditional Chinese costumes and western costumes — like the waistcoat and the one-piece dress.
As far as the fabrics are concerned, the dress used to mostly be crafted from silk, cotton, wool or twill. Nowadays, however, especially as the qipao is gaining in popularity once again, its production material varies and there’s little difference to be made between the materials used by top-notch brands to those present in ZARA and H&M.
Temper: The qipao in the next century to come. Your take?
Luo: To me, its attraction can be found in many aspects – first it’s the charm of Oriental culture. People always crave the greener grass they see on the other side. [This is by no means intended to come across as “…” versus “…” #TempergetsPC] Chinese people love western styles and vice versa. I think the qipao reminds western people of the exotic charm of Asian women. Many movies that have featured the qipao (“World of Suzie Wong,” etc.) also help amp up attraction levels.
Secondly, the design: It can be about the mandarin collar, which adds a certain elegance and grace to your upper body; it can be about the body-hugging cut, showing off the beautiful female curves or even a looser cut offering up a more carefree feel. The slit, too, is not too overtly sexy but brings just enough appeal to the table to avoid becoming too boring.
The Sex Appeal Of A Rise In Status
Highly feminine and with a hint of subtle sex appeal, the qipao is often, as Luo already mentioned, described as the embodiment of a kind of classic Chinese sex appeal. A wardrobe hit in ultimate China Director Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War,” one of its most memorable frames portraying 13 swaying women wearing qipao dresses; a hotly-debated protagonist worn by the magnificent Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” and a true symbol of seduction in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”…
The qipao was destined for legendary Hollywood Studio Era fame from its very first stitch.
The most famous woman associated with the cheongsam would have to be none other than the Empressive-and-then-some Soong Mei-ling, second wife of Chiang Kai-shek and thus former First Lady of the Republic of China. Soong hailed from a prosperous and well-connected family, spending much of her tweens and teens in the U.S. before heading back to China at the age of 20. When she, along with Chiang, returned to the U.S. during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) to promote the Chinese cause, la Grande Dame cast a charming spell on many an American politician, including President Roosevelt.
Aside from her informed cultural demeanor, her display of appealing aesthetics in the shape of her much-admired qipaos left quite the impression. In the status- and style-stakes, Soong rose straight to the top.
Luo and her Chic Xique consorts aim to expand the number of Chinese people who find joy in wearing the cheongsam in their modern 2017 daily lives, at the work, on vacation; that applies to anyone, at any time, in any place. “Horizontal expansion” — no sexual innuendo intended here — is the name of today’s game.
To this day, the cheongsam remains — and yours truly might catch some flack for going down this road — China’s No.1 fashion export. The dress remains, from the western point of view (yep, here we “versus” go again), arguably the most recognized (if not “one and only”) Chinese garment, viewed as the pinnacle of China’s cultural tradition. Accessorized with the assigned dash of sexual symbolism and stylish nationalism.
The roads that lead to renewal are paved with discovering, exploring, re-thinking and re-inventing, all of which have been key to the art of cheongsam dressing for more than one hundred years. Here’s to the next 100.
One century of sexism, republicanism, liberalism, nationalism, communism, feminism and capitalism during which one garment, collar held high, re-invented itself from a 1920s celeb advertising trademark to one of national tradition and pride. The qipao. Hot-to-trot to this 2020 day.
That’s quite the ®evolution.