Qipao and Cheongsam in Chinese Fashion

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The beautiful Chinese style garment with a mandarin collar, made of silk and intricately decorated with floral designs. It’s such an iconic Chinese image. What do you call the dress though? I’ve more commonly heard it called a cheongsam, but I do know that some people refer to it as a qipao. So which is it?

The difference between the two is merely linguistic origin. “Cheongsam” translates to long shirt, which was used to describe the loose-fitting dress shirts worn in the 1900s by Chinese men, but is not the Cantonese word for the long women’s dress.  “Qipao” is a Mandarin word that literally means “robes worn by the Manchurians.”


So now that we’ve figured out that you can call them by either name, where exactly did it come from? Nobody really knows, but there is one widely accepted theory. It is said that the Manchu robe known as the changpao in the early Qing Dynasty was worn by all Han Chinese men and women. But in the past, they were extremely baggy to conceal the female figure — definitely not the body-skimming dress we have come to know.

In the mid-1910s to early 1920s, the Chinese intellectuals began to revolt against traditional values, which included the emancipation of Chinese women. These women began to shed the androgynous changpao, and adopted an early form of the cheongsam. Shanghai, being an active port and populated with a lot of foreigners, was at the cutting edge of this shift in fashion.

Cheongsams had looser cuts and long, wide sleeves back in the 1920s. It became the outfit of choice of many women in cosmopolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. As qipaos became more and more popular, traditional silks were replaced with cheaper textiles. The traditional embroidered florals remained popular, but geometric prints and art deco patterns were added to the mix.

Evolution of style

In an effort to appeal to Western tastes, the style became more fitted, and the leg slit started to rise in the 1930s and 1940s. Chinese women began to pair the dress with high heels. Experimentations with different fastenings, pipings, and collars, as well as short-capped sleeves, long sleeves with fur-lined cuffs, and sleeveless cheongsams also became a common sight.

Communist China banished the cheongsam as it was considered bourgeois. The women then adopted a tunic consisting of a jacket and trousers similar to men’s. It did maintain its popularity in Hong Kong during this time, and being a British colony, European fashion started to influence its styling. High heels, a leather clutch, and white gloves were the accessories of choice.

By the end of the 1960s, the popularity of the cheongsam declined as Western garments became more common in the market, and more importantly, they were cheaper. By the 1970s, they were no longer everyday wear for the Hong Kong woman, but it remained an important garment in Chinese history.

Since then, the cheongsam was adapted for people’s changing tastes all over the world. Nowadays, the cheongsam is worn for special occasions by people around the globe, paying homage to the Chinese culture by wearing a version of the beautiful traditional garment.

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