Rise And Fall Of The Qi Pao
In their evolution from generous gowns in the Imperial Manchu Court to form-fitting dresses of the 1930s, the Qi Pao is probably China’s most iconic piece of clothing.
The full historic range is currently on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History in “Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qi Pao” (see poster above).
Despite having fallen out of fashion in mainland China for a few decades following the Cultural Revolution, judging from the crowds the Qi Pao apparently retains appeal among Hong Kong Chinese. The jostling on a recent Wednesday afternoon contrasted with the empty rooms in the Hong Kong showing of the Victoria and Albert’s Golden Age of Couture, an exhibition of French and English fashion.
Visitors to the Qi Pao were mainly women “d’un certain age”, perhaps nostalgic about what they once wore. (My friend suggested they were enjoying the air conditioning during Wednesday’s free entry)
The Qi Pao evolved from long gowns women wore in the Manchurian Imperial Palace during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
The original shape was wide and loose, covering most of the woman’s body and revealing just the head, hands, and the tips of the toes. Its looseness was meant to conceal the figure of the wearer regardless of age.
Materials were mainly silk, decorated with elaborate embroideries and laces on the collar, sleeves, front and lower part of the gown.
At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Shanghainese socialites began to modernize the Qi Pao. New forms were close fitting, with a higher cut. Only in the 1920s did the broader Han people, China’s dominant ethnic group, adopt the style.
By the 1930s, two distinct Qi Pao styles emerged, the more restrained Beijing style and Shanghai’s Western-influenced version that used more flexible and fashionable materials imported from the West and popularized by the city’s socialite elite. (See photo below, from two 1950s dresses)
In the end, Shanghai’s fashion beat Beijing’s tradition.
Reaching iconic status in the 1950s – look at Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, or read Eileen Chang novels – the Qi Pao fell from favor in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.
As I reached the 1970s section of the exhibition, I was struck by how much the Qi Pao had lost its original soul. In the photo below, are models with clearly 70s pattern which don’t quite inspire me as much as the original 1940s ones.
As I left the exhibit, I wondered why hardly any women in the streets of Hong Kong wear the Qi Pao, except as work uniforms. We need to bring back the Hong Kong of the 1950s, the same way everyone is bringing back 50s America.
* Why are Qi Pao sometimes called Cheongsam? As Shanghai’s tailors fled the Communist China, they settled in Hong Kong and adopted the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese term for Qi Pao.
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Tags: Qi Pao, qipao