Roaring 1920s of Shanghai: The origin of the qipao

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Similar to how the roaring 1920s in American history were glamorized by flapper dresses and economic prosperities, China also experienced their version of it in Shanghai, according to a Foreign Policy article titled “The Rise and Fall and Rise of New Shanghai.”  

Due to the opening of trade in the 1920s, there were many Western influences in Shanghai. Shanghai was even called the “cosmopolitan Paris of the East.” European-style architecture, jazz and qipaos became popular in the bustling city of Shanghai. Zhou Xuan, a prominent actress and singer at the time even wrote a famous song about the lively Shanghai culture titled, “Nightlife in Shanghai.” The song describes the vibrant city and shows the mixture of influences in Chinese culture at the time.  

Traditionally worn during celebrations like Chinese New Year, the “qipao” (or “cheongsam”), is a tight fitted patterned dress with a collar and frog buttons near the neckline, according to China Highlights in an article titled, “Chinese New Year Clothes.” Nowadays, the tradition has faded, there isn’t a specific type of clothing worn during the holiday. However, since red is a symbol of luck in Chinese culture, red clothing is a common sight during the New Year, according to the article.  

According to an article titled, “What is a Modern Cheongsam – Chinese Qipao Dress,” the Manchu ethnicity in Northeast China created the qipao during the Qing Dynasty (17th century). Hence, the word qipao means robe of the Qing (or Manchu) people.  

It was not until the Qing Dynasty’s demise in the early 20th century when Chinese women started to wear qipao more often, according to an article titled, “A Brief History Of The Cheongsam.” Qipaos were actually derived from men’s clothing called changpaos, a long loose-fitting tunic with pants, according to the site. In the late 19th century women started to demand more equal rights with their male counterparts so they dressed in changpaos. Hence, qipaos had a looser fit, were long in length and long-sleeved but the dress was redesigned over time. 

Qipaos were popularized by Madame Wellington Koo, who was the first lady of the Republic of China after the Qing Dynasty collapsed, according to “Shanghai Glam – The History of The Qipao.” The entertainment industry and Western culture also played roles to the dress’s change in design by bringing openness to feminism and sexuality to Chinese culture, which influenced the more conservative qipao design to become the one we know today, where the patterned dress its shorter, tighter fitting with slits on the side. Qipaos were usually worn by socialites in Shanghai, according to the site.  

To match the dress, many women have short, wavy haircuts. Florals, birds and even geometric patterns were some of the common qipao prints, according to “Shanghai Glam – The History of The Qipao.” The look became a fashion icon of China until the Communist Revolution in the mid-20th century. The Communist government thought qipaos were bourgeoise so people stopped wearing them until the late 1900s, according to Historic Shanghai in an article titled, “The Evolution of Shanghai Fashion.”  

Though Chinese women don’t wear qipaos on Chinese New Year necessarily, they still wear them to large celebrations like weddings or festivals. Today, the qipao remains an important part of traditional Chinese women’s fashion, especially as traditional clothing has become a trend among adolescents in China, according to an article titled, “Shanghai Glam – The History of The Qipao.”  

Thumbnail photo by East Meets Dress on Unsplash.

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